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On 'Cowboy Carter,' Beyoncé beats country radio's gatekeepers at their own game

On 'Cowboy Carter,' Beyoncé beats country radio's gatekeepers at their own game
  • Beyoncé's new album "Cowboy Carter" is framed as songs playing on a fictional country radio station.

  • Black artists making country music (including Beyoncé) have historically been denied radio play.

  • With KNTRY Radio Texas, she ingeniously beats the gatekeepers at their own game.

Six songs into "Cowboy Carter," Beyoncé disappears.

Grainy burps of music by Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Chuck Berry, and Roy Hamilton emerge from the static, mimicking someone twiddling with the dial of an old AM radio.

Suddenly, the spark of a lighter, a gentle exhale. Willie Nelson's familiar, worn-in voice introduces the album's central conceit: "Welcome to 'The Smoke Hour' on KNTRY Radio Texas. You know my name, no need to know yours."

Beyoncé's new album, which arrived on Friday, is a multifaceted masterpiece: It's a voyage through country music's history and a kaleidoscopic vision for its future, an ode to Beyoncé's Southern roots and matriarchal lineage, and a series of outlaw tales and Western epics in sonic form.

But most explicitly, "Cowboy Carter" is a direct reaction to the treatment Black artists have received in Nashville, including the author herself.

Beyoncé, a native Texan, said as much in the album's prologue. "It was born out of an experience that I had years ago where I did not feel welcomed…and it was very clear that I wasn't," she wrote on Instagram. "The criticisms I faced when I first entered this genre forced me to propel past the limitations that were put on me."

Beyoncé reinforces this point by framing the album as a fictional country radio station, sequenced and tweaked to her own liking.

Nelson is joined on the tracklist by Dolly Parton and Linda Martell, the first Black woman to find commercial success in country music with her 1970 album "Color Me Country." They take turns emerging via spoken-word interludes, offering wisdom and introducing tracks as surrogate radio DJs.

Of course, this isn't a unique concept. Artists like The Who ("The Who Sell Out"), De La Soul ("De La Soul Is Dead"), The Weeknd ("Dawn FM"), and Jon Batiste ("World Music Radio") have all released albums with similar frameworks.

However, the "Cowboy Carter" prologue illuminates the allusive layers at work in KNTRY Radio Texas.

The criticisms and limitations that Beyoncé described are nothing new in Nashville, a notoriously insular establishment that tends to be wary of outsiders — a label that's often erroneously applied, as a blanket, to artists of color.

While anyone can upload music to YouTube or Spotify — and TikTok has helped democratize the power to crown a hit song — certain executives still hold the keys to TV opportunities, award show invites, and, crucially, radio spins. By and large, these keys become tools of marginalization. According to a SongData study published in 2021, roughly 98% of the music on country radio is performed by white artists.

Even a commercial giant like Queen Bey has been met with resistance. When "Texas Hold 'Em" was released as the lead single for "Cowboy Carter," it was rejected by local Southern radio stations; it wasn't until members of the Beyhive swarmed with requests and online call-outs that country DJs acquiesced.

Across several interviews I conducted with Black country musicians this month, there was one dominant throughline: the elusivity of airplay.

"What country radio typically says to artists like myself is, 'This isn't country,'" singer-songwriter and producer Breland explained to BI. "Even when it is undeniably country. That's what they'll say as an easy way of not wanting to play it."

Shaboozey said he feels like an "outlier" in the industry. Tanner Adell said she struggles to feel "palatable." Tiera Kennedy said country fans tend to conflate "traditional" with "white."

By contrast, those three artists are more than welcome on Beyoncé's airwaves.

Shaboozey is featured on "Spaghettii" and "Sweet Honey Buckin," while Adell and Kennedy lend their vocals to "Blackbiird."

By structuring her album in this way — and recruiting country legends like Nelson, Parton, and Martell to cosign the strategy — Beyoncé doesn't simply beat the gatekeepers at their own game. She side-steps the gate entirely.

If "Cowboy Carter" emulates the massive vinyl sales and streaming numbers of "Renaissance," Beyoncé will appear on the charts next week, bringing Shaboozey, Adell, Kennedy, and the rest of her collaborators to a wider audience.

Perhaps twangy bops like "Bodyguard," "Jolene," and "Riiverdance" will also join "Texas Hold 'Em" as fan-demanded radio hits — but frankly, it doesn't matter. We're already tuned into KNTRY, and we're having a blast.

Read the original article on Business Insider