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  • Writer's pictureChristopher McHale

REVIEW: 'COWBOY CARTER' album by Beyoncé

Don’t listen once.

'CowboyCarter' is a concept masterpiece. A deep dive into country music history. It is triggered by ugly racism at the Country Music Awards. It’s epic. In the old days, it would have been called a double album. And like many double albums, it gets a little uneven, or just plain long. Twenty-seven songs. Wow. And lots of interludes. Beyonce produced one hundred tracks to distill down to the album’s essential twenty-seven.

The first listen was a bit of a slog. Second, it gained much love deep in the heart of my old music soul. Beyoncé is an artist. She doesn’t just ‘do things.’ Everything from the classic Jo Mora ‘Rodeo Sweetheart’ cover to the appearance of Linda Martel, the first black woman to appear on the Grand Ole Opry aiming to make a deep and resonating statement on country music, and cross-over genre breakers.Beyoncé makes sure we get her message. Glancing at the credits for writers in the opening track I saw Stephen Stills’s name, and then it fell into place. The song references his anthem, ‘For What It’s Worth.’ Memories of Stills in his cowboy hat cross genres, the theme of Beyoncé’s ‘Cowboy Carter.’ Genres. By the time we reach the top of the ‘Cowboy Carter,’ mountain we’re going to be deconstructing and reconstructing genres. We’re going to question them and see them as code for some bare-knuckle ugliness. And we’re going to get to some boot-stomping fun as we do.

Looka here, baby, Beyoncé underlying her theme swooping into Paul McCartney’s ‘Blackbird,’ a tribute to black women in the 60s, the first two tracks on Cowboy Carter serving notice to what trail we’re ridin’. Examining the history of country music, the artist chooses to sketch her theme with classic milestones in the genre to both identify the roots and highlight the crossover of a parade of genre-busting songs.

This brings us to the gorgeous ‘Sixteen Carriages,’ Beyoncé telling us a good ole roots story, the tough road she set on at 16, working Destiny’s Child, the endless tour that she’s still on today, 40 some years later, something I wonder about when I listen to her prodigious output, fully realized music, the power in her voices, the arrangements, performances, the work producing all this music. The fire, desire, sweat, suffering, and pure joy in her wake. It’s astounding.

The joy of creating music is that there are no rules. The more I see the world evolving the more I feel a deeper connection to purity. With artificial intelligence and digital filters and programming, I wanted to go back to real instruments, and I used very old ones. I didn't want some layers of instruments like strings, especially guitars, and organs perfectly in tune. I kept some songs raw and leaned into folk. All the sounds were so organic and human, everyday things like the wind, snaps, and even the sound of birds and chickens, the sounds of nature.— Beyoncé on Cowboy Carter

I’m a vocal fanboy with a long career of working with world-class singers in the studio. The vocals on this album are incredible, tight, close-knit, and hit that sweet spot that melts your soul. Beyoncé is an amazing voice with a multi-octave range and precise control of her sound, and it shows. It makes this epic ‘Cowboy Carter’ journey worth the time. Beyoncê has an almost production-line approach to her production that explains her prodigious output. Her right-hand mix man in the middle is Stuart White, who lives a life of flight cases and improv studio setups as he globe trots around after the hard-working artist. White also delivers tight pop mixes, like the made-for-radio hit ‘Texas Hold ‘Em.’

The underlying story structure of the concept album is radio like you’re listening to an old radio show with Willie Nelson as your DJ, ‘Smoke Hour,’ Willie holding to his core branding. Willie Nelson broke a few genres in his day. So did Linda Martel, Stephen Stills, Stevie Wonder, Gary Clark Jr, Paul McCartney, Jon Baptiste, Miley Cyrus, Post Malone, Shaboozy, Dolly Parton, Brian Wilson, Chuck Berry, Nancy Sinatra, all artists either featured or reflected in the complex, gorgeous arranging on this album. Beyoncé is probably music’s greatest collaborator. I don’t envy her team keeping track of it all.

Pitchfork notes, ‘In addition to the artists above and covers, the credits also reveal that Beyoncé collaborated with Pharrell Williams, Nile Rodgers, Jon Batiste, Jay-Z, Raphael Saadiq, Hit-Boy, The-Dream, 070 Shake, Swizz Beatz, and Ryan Tedder on a handful of tracks. Check out the full credit list here,

In 2014, Beyoncé was invited to perform "Daddy Lessons" with the (Dixie) Chicks at the Country Music Awards. “I didn’t feel welcome,’ she noted a pungent sniff of racism in the air. This led her to explore the roots of country music, and more precisely, to explore her country roots, which go back to a girl being raised in Texas with a family attending rodeos. Beyoncé stood barefoot in the Texas dirt and she didn’t understand why she was being penned into a specific genre corrall. She was country, and dammit, she wanted to sing country, so she did. You have to love her fire.

Music is religion. Fans of one artist can get very defensive. It’s never a matter of ‘Oh, I don’t like Pearl Jam.’ It becomes an attack on Eddie Vedder on a personal level. Swifties can tune into wounded beasts at anything they perceive as threatening to Taylor. On this record, I read disparaging comments on ‘Blackbird,’ a sacred icon to Beatle fans.

But an artist of Beyoncé’s level of talent is impossible to tie into a genre. Her talent is too encompassing, too demanding, her artistic bent too curious. She can ‘do it,’ her voice can sing it, her imagination can hear it, so why shouldn’t she? It’s our loss if we allow her to be pegged as this or that. ‘Cowboy Carter’ makes the case that its the genre outlaws who lead us, just follow along and enjoy the ride.

Even though the underlying story here is radio coming to us from some lonely patch of Texas in the middle of the night (radio is magic, isn’t it?) this album is a little darker, a little less bright pop than old-time radio, and let’s face it, we are not living on a happy-go-lucky planet. Of course, we never have, but back in the ‘good ole days’ we did a great job of pretending we did, and we loved music that was light and fun. We don’t pretend like that anymore, and an artist of Beyoncé’s character is going to show us who we really are, or maybe more accurately, who we’ve become.

Thus the lyrics of Dolly Parton’s ‘Jolene’ get rewritten from “Jolene, Jolene, Jolene, Jolene. I’m beggin’ of you, please don’t take my man. Jolene, Jolene, Jolene, Jolene. Please don’t take him just because you can.” to “Jolene, Jolene, Jolene, Jolene. I’m warnin’ you, don’t come for my man. Jolene, Jolene, Jolene, Jolene. Don’t take the chance because you think you can.” Nancy Sinatra’s boots are walking straight into a hard look at revisionist and racist American patriotism. The California girl sweetness of Brian Wilson’s ‘Good Vibration’ morphs into a fuck it vibration of shakin’, twerkin’ women.

Look, America, let’s take care of this Grammy ‘Album of the Year’ (AOTY) mess. This album is AOTY. While we’re on the subject so was ‘Lemonade.’ imho. How can there be an AOTY in April? You listen and you tell me. The fact that Beyoncé has never won is ridiculous. She is one of two or three artists producing at this level. It makes one wonder exactly what is behind an oversight like that. It doesn’t pass the sniff test.‘Cowboy Carter’ is an artist at their full power. It’s an affirmation of the power of real music produced and performed by real musicians. I’m putting on my headphones and going for a ride through America.

Don’t listen once.



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