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How Beyoncé Fits Into the Storied Legacy of Black Country

Credit - Illustration by Shyama Golden for TIME

On March 16, 1983, the Country Music Association (CMA) celebrated its 25th anniversary, and I was invited. Buddy Killen, the song publisher who pitched “Heartbreak Hotel” to Elvis Presley, thought “the Black girl from Harvard” might just be the second coming of that hit’s songwriter, Mae Boren Axton. He put me on the guest list and paid for the tickets.

It was a complicated night. The event was held at the DAR Constitution Hall, built by the Daughters of the American Revolution, an infamous venue whose management had refused to allow Black opera star Marian Anderson to perform on its stage in 1939. I took special pleasure in seeing guitarist and singer Charley Pride stride onto that stage—in a building named to honor the U.S. Constitution, but run to exclude Black artists—and stake his claim as part of that “We the People” that document claims to represent.

At one point in the ceremony, singer Roy Acuff announced that “country music is a family.” Then he proclaimed Jimmie Rodgers “the father” of that family. But he did not mention Lil Hardin Armstrong, the pianist who played on Rodgers’ hit “Blue Yodel No. 9.” Acuff nodded to Will Rogers, the comedian, but shamelessly omitted DeFord Bailey, the Grand Ole Opry’s first superstar.

My idea to name and spotlight the First Family of Black Country was conceived in that moment. It was nurtured in the silence of missing names. Quiet as it was being kept, country had Black founders. I knew it; Buddy Killen, who arrived in Nashville playing bass for a blackface comedy act on the Grand Ole Opry, knew it; Roy Acuff, who had played on stages with Bailey, Ray Charles, and Pride, knew it. And more than four decades later, Beyoncé knew it when she broke the internet on Super Bowl Sunday by surprise—releasing two country songs and announcing an album, Cowboy Carter, which has her devoted fans in the Beyhive buzzing about line-dancing into the summer of country.

Read More: Beyoncé Has Always Been Country

That evening back in 1983 was constructed to be country’s coming-out party as a musical genre worthy of exceptional respect because it was a reflection and celebration of America at its best. And that best was being defined as a family having only white founders—and not a single Black woman in sight. It was a fallacy that could only last so long.

The way I see it, modern Black country was born on Dec. 10, 1927, when Bailey, descended from enslaved Tennesseans, lifted his harmonica to play “Pan American Blues” on the Nashville radio show Barn Dance. Fast forward to July 16, 1930, in Los Angeles, where Armstrong made country music history as the first Black woman to play on a hillbilly record that sold a million copies. And Lil didn’t just play on the session—her piano drove the session.

Country is not as many have posited: a genre with Black influence but without Black presence. Black women have been present since the earliest days of country’s existence as a recorded and commercially marketed music form. But a custom of cultural redlining has not only kept Black women out of country writing rooms, off country airwaves, off rodeo stages, off the country charts; it has also worked to keep the few Black women who managed to evade the gatekeepers off the entertainment pages, and out of the history books.

This would change. Nobody sitting in the room that night knew it, but there was a little girl toddling around a two-story house in Houston who would bring the long era of -erasing Black country sounds and stories to an abrupt end. The calculated erasure that began at one large public party with expensive tickets in 1983 ended during another, Super Bowl LVIII, when Beyoncé released “Texas Hold ’Em” and “16 Carriages.”

Along with “Daddy Lessons” off of 2016’s Lemonade, these songs have established Beyoncé as heir to a Black country musical tradition that dates back to the 17th century, when the first banjo was strummed by Black hands on American soil. Like DeFord Bailey’s, Beyoncé’s country songs are grounded in aural rural realities: the screech of the passing train, the sound from the local bar where folk are dancing. Like Lil, she understands the power of a costume and a trumpet. Like Ray Charles she brings a whiff of the Black cosmopolitan. Like Charley Pride she exudes a radiant Old Testament Song of Songs sexuality that is at once hot and holy. Like Herb Jeffries she embodies the cowboy who stays close to nature and guns.

The erasure did not end just because Beyoncé Knowles Carter became the first Black female artist to top the country charts, though she did that, on Feb. 24. And there are many others who have laid the groundwork for this catalytic moment: Linda Martell, the Pointer Sisters, Rissi Palmer, Rhiannon Giddens, Mickey Guyton, Brittney Spencer, Reyna Roberts, and O.N.E the Duo, to name just a few.

The erasure ended when she started a sustained national conversation, getting America to talk about and celebrate neglected Black country legacy. The question of “Who can be in country music?” often masks a deeper query about “Who can be a real American?” Beyoncé’s was a loud announcement of a reality long denied, that she was “We the People.” And so were people who looked like her.

<span class="copyright">Courtesy of Black Privilege Publishing, an imprint of Simon & Schuster, LLC.</span>
Courtesy of Black Privilege Publishing, an imprint of Simon & Schuster, LLC.

I’ve often said that country music is three chords and four truths: life is hard, God is real, whiskey and roads and family provide worthy compensations, and the past is better than the present. That last truth is one of the places where country often experiences a racial split. In much of white country, the past that is better than the present exists in a longed-for and lost mythical Dixie. In Black country, the past that is better than the present exists in a longed-for and lost Africa before colonization.

Country music is commonly defined as American folk music with Celtic, African, and evangelical Christian influences. My ancestors come from Cameroon, Nigeria, and Mali, from Scotland, England, and Ireland. I am country music, embodied. I started songwriting sitting under a Motown cherry tree, about the age of 5, in 1964. I would eat candied cherries, watching a sea of cars flow by on the John C. Lodge Freeway, and let country songs—from my grandmother’s lips, my mother’s radio, my aunt’s -stereo—roll ’round my head. I started off singing other people’s words then one day I started singing my own, the auspicious beginnings of a career that would land me in the top spot on the country charts.

Read More: Black Artists Helped Build Country Music—And Then It Left Them Behind

My daddy hipped me to the fact that it was Lil Hardin on Jimmie Rodgers’ biggest hit, and that there were probably a lot more Black folks passing for white on country records. He would look at some sheet music or hymnal, then ask, “What you bet Traditional was a colored girl?”

I write country music because it is a way to make what is too hard to bear somehow bearable. Beyoncé in “Texas Hold ’Em” does this same work, squaring off against tornadoes, heat waves, and lovers losing courage, as DeFord had squared off against a sense of being relentlessly pursued in “Fox Chase.” Both songs transform hardship into a particular flavor of playful and hopeful joy I recognize as country. 

To close out the CMA anniversary show, Ray Charles sang “America the Beautiful.” Listening to the man behind what has been called the greatest country album, 1962’s Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music, it struck me how entwined he was in the legacy of Black country. This was Armstrong and Bailey’s genius child. Next to him was country-as-corn-bread Pride, a spiritual love child to Bailey. On the other side of the family tree, Herb Jeffries, who wasn’t present in the auditorium but should have been, was Armstrong’s stepchild.

Among a sea of white people, including the President and Vice President of the U.S. and the presidents of every major country-music label, I had an inkling I was the only person in that room worried about singing Black cowboys, worried about Jeffries, wondering why he wasn’t there.

Now Beyoncé has changed that room entirely. Cowboy Carter is poised to be a brilliant new beginning and a culmination. As I see it, Beyoncé is the genius child of Ray Charles. The daughter who eclipses the father. The reflected light of her triumph makes visible both the lineage from which she aesthetically descends and the reality that Black country is a big tent with many entry points: from banjos, harmonicas, and cowboy songs to movies and Motown cherry trees. Beyoncé raises this question: If country owes a significant debt to Black culture, what in America doesn’t?

Adapted from My Black Country: A Journey Through Country Music’s Black Past, Present, and Future. Copyright © 2024 by Alice Randall. Reprinted by permission of Black Privilege Publishing, an imprint of Simon & Schuster, LLC.

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