As a genre, country music has existed for hundreds, if not thousands, of years, with roots in West Africa. Its current permutation traces its roots back to the early 1900s in Appalachian America, the songs of African-American slaves, European immigrants and Irish and Celtic instrumentation blending together to form a genre of popular music made for and by working people.
Country music’s identity has always been that intersection of sounds and cultures, even if today’s homogenized radio market prioritizes the songs of white dudes whose biggest problem is how to spell the word “move.”
But those roots are part of what led many cultural critics to label Beyoncé’s “Daddy Lessons” a country song, despite it being released by Beyoncé, and despite it not being released on any country formats. Plus, come on, it just sounds like a country song.
The song is at once a tribute to and a reckoning with old country tropes, full of whiskey, sweet tea, Second Amendment rights, mentions of Texas and lots of whooping. It’s also an examination of how the culture(s) that birthed country music fosters a habitual cycle of abuse at the hands of men, whether that be fathers, husbands or anyone else. And it’s also the latest examination of black feminism through music in a long line of such examinations. In a piece for Time Magazine, The University of Texas’ own Omise’eke Natasha Tinsley puts it this way:
“As Angela Davis argues in Blues Legacies and Black Feminism, blues artists like Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey performed songs about lovers’ broken promises as metaphors for the unfulfilled promises of freedom.”
Taken out of context, it’s a revenge anthem. Taken in context of Beyoncé’s visual album “Lemonade,” it’s the turning point where a story of pain, anger and martial strife moves toward a story of peace and acceptance.
I mention all this because Beyoncé’s performance with The Dixie Chicks at the 50th Annual Country Music Awards Wednesday night (the “biggest night in country music,” ABC would have you reminded, ad nauseum) came loaded with baggage.
On one hand, it seems she was added onto the ticket at the last minute as a ratings ploy. How else was ABC going to compete with the most historic Game 7 of the World Series in recent memory? But, minus a news release from “Good Morning America,” the CMAs and hosts Brad Paisley and Carrie Underwood barely mentioned Queen Bey (Probably because the hosts only learned about the performance less than 24 hours before air time.)
The CMA social media channels never even announced the performance. In fact, it appears they deleted posts referencing her altogether. And many of the genre’s more conservative fans were not happy she was there at all.
On the other hand, on the same night where the CMAs were paying tribute to its roots and legends of the genre, Beyoncé’s performance with The Dixie Chicks paid tribute to the old guard but was also very of-the-moment. In addition to “Daddy Lessons” sounding more country than 90 percent of what’s on country radio currently, this was also a sort of homecoming for The Chicks, on their own terms.
The Chicks have been performing “Daddy Lessons” on their most recent tour, and this was their first major awards performance in quite some time. The song has some relevance to their struggle as well; everyone knows about their Iraq War comments and the fallout that occurred afterward. Their performance of this song, for them, seemed like a rebuttal of the sexism that’s been foisted upon them since 2003.
The fact that they performed to a mostly-white audience alongside a black pop star, while also inserting some pointed lines from “Long Time Gone” about the state of country music, was just the shot in the arm the genre needs.
Beyoncé’s performance last night highlighted country music’s black roots in a space severely lacking in diversity. Everyone talks about how country music needs to evolve, but in the right way. This is a step in that direction. I’d rather see Beyoncé sing something culturally accurate and relevant at an awards show than sit through another Luke Bryan “M-O-V-E” phonics exercise.
After all, this is Beyoncé’s world. We just live in it.