• subscribe
  • Search
  • Saddle Up and Get to Know the Artists Behind 'Cowboy Carter'
    Sign Up For Weekly Dispatch
    Get the best of BGS delivered to your inbox.
    We Respect Your Privacy
Roots Culture Redefined

Header Main

Place Ads

Saddle Up and Get to Know the Artists Behind ‘Cowboy Carter’

Apr 24, 2024

Saddle Up and Get to Know the Artists Behind 'Cowboy Carter'

On March 29, Beyoncé rode sidesaddle onto the world stage and took us all by storm with the release of her eighth studio album, Cowboy Carter.

Cowboy Carter arrived as the second installment of a three-act project that commenced with Renaissance in 2022. Renaissance incorporated house, disco, hyperpop, R&B, and funk while reclaiming the Black queer roots of dance music. On Cowboy Carter, she similarly reclaims the Black roots of country, blending it with folk, rock, R&B, hip-hop, classical, house, and gospel throughout.

Prior to the release of Cowboy Carter, country has been a longstanding muse for Beyoncé. While her affiliation with the genre was popularized by Lemonade’s “Daddy Lessons,” her first country-leaning performance dates back to nearly a decade earlier when she performed “Irreplaceable” with Sugarland at the American Music Awards in 2007.

Potent and impeccably saturated, Cowboy Carter makes clear that country is inarguably a huge part of Beyoncé’s creative and cultural identity. However, her presence in the genre has not always been well-received; in an Instagram caption 10 days before the album’s release, Beyoncé revealed that CC was largely inspired by an experience where she “did not feel welcomed” into the country fold. Many speculate that this refers to her appearance at the 2016 CMA Awards. The network received racist backlash after she performed “Daddy Lessons” with the Chicks, prompting the erasure of the song’s video from the show’s website (though a representative from CMA later denied the correlation between those two events).

Of Cowboy Carter Beyoncé writes, “The criticisms I faced when I first entered this genre forced me to propel past the limitations that were put on me.”

Beyoncé alchemizes a multitude of influences and collaborators across the gargantuan album in order to achieve the monumental musical feats of CC. With a credits list that sprawls for seemingly miles, Beyoncé enlists a number of guest artists, co-writers, producers, and musicians. Between them, they represent the Black roots of country, pay tribute to Black Americans’ impact on the genre, include legendary country artists and well-known side musicians and collaborators that assert the project’s roots in country, and represent the bright and diverse present and future of country by featuring several lesser-known Black country artists, many of which are also genre-bending in their own work.

In a list that is by no means comprehensive, here are just a few of the contributors that brought their musical magic to Cowboy Carter.

Rhiannon Giddens

“Texas Hold ‘Em” made history as the first hit single by a solo Black woman to top the Billboard’s Hot Country Songs Chart and 10 weeks later, as of this writing, it maintains its gilded perch. Fittingly, the song opens with the warmth and drive of the legendary Rhiannon Giddens strumming a standalone fretless, clawhammer gourd banjo. The talented multi-instrumentalist, singer, composer of many mediums, and roots scholar also sprinkles notes of viola throughout the track.

It is no coincidence that Giddens’ banjo playing, like much of her work, pays homage to the lineage of Black influence throughout roots music. Referred to by many as a “performing historian,” Giddens has spent her career shedding light upon the cross-cultural interweavings of the genre. Here, in an interview, she details the West African origins of the banjo, an instrument essential to American country music that was initially brought to the Americas by enslaved Black folks who used gourds and other accessible materials to recreate instruments of their homelands. By showcasing Giddens on the track, Beyoncé introduces a sonic representative of overlooked histories while uplifting one of the most celebrated Black musicians in modern day roots music.

Robert Randolph

Raised in a secluded religious community, Robert Randolph grew up without secular music. The renowned pedal steel guitarist heard only the music played within the House of God Church of Orange, New Jersey, for decades. He learned the instrument through Sacred Steel, a Black gospel tradition developed in the ’30s that highlighted the steel guitar during religious services.

During his early adulthood, Randolph became exposed to the world of music beyond; as he absorbed jazz, blues, funk, rock, and soul, he soon set out layering his gorgeous pedal steel tones upon a fusion of genres, particularly alongside his band, Robert Randolph and the Family Band. Across his musical arc, he epitomizes Beyoncé’s philosophy that music is transcendent; “All music is related,” he says. “Gospel is the same as blues. The only thing that changes is hardcore gospel people are singing about God and Jesus and in the blues people are singing about ‘my baby left me’ and whiskey.”

Justin Schipper

Like Robert Randolph, Justin Schipper is also credited for steel guitar on the track “16 Carriages.” A Nashville-based composer, multi-instrumentalist, songwriter, and producer, Schipper is a prominent figure in the current country landscape. His talents have landed him on tour with Josh Turner and Shania Twain (playing pedal steel and dobro), and he has gigged with the likes of Carrie Underwood, Chris Stapleton, Kris Kristofferson, Florida Georgia Line, and more.

Cam

Cam (given name Camaron Ochs) co-produced and co-wrote five songs on CC. An American country singer and songwriter, Cam began her career songwriting for musical giants in the industry such as Sam Smith and Miley Cyrus. Since then, she’s released three of her own studio albums with songs inspired by the songwriting styles of Patsy Cline, Ray Charles, Bonnie Raitt, Willie Nelson, and Joni Mitchell, amongst others. A prominent figure in the current country landscape, Cam lends crucial insights and layers with each of her contributions.

Sean & Sara Watkins

Renowned in the current bluegrass/newgrass scene, this sibling duo lends guitar (Sean) and fiddle (Sara) to the track “II Most Wanted.” Sean and Sara epitomize the familial quality so integral to bluegrass; their first band, Nickel Creek, was formed in 1989 alongside virtuoso Chris Thile when Sara and Chris were only 8 years old and Sean was 12. The siblings have been playing together ever since; Nickel Creek would go on to release seven albums, the latest of which, Celebrants, was released last year.

In 2002, the pair began The Watkins Family Hour as a monthly musical showcase featuring their friends and other collaborators in Los Angeles. Spanning over 20 years, the WFH has blossomed expansively. In fact, the pair released their third studio album, Vol. II, in 2022, a celebration of the project and the community surrounding it. Similarly to CC, the list of features for Vol. II is extensive, featuring the likes of Madison Cunningham, Willie Watson, Jackson Browne, and Fiona Apple, amongst others.

Stevie Wonder

A child prodigy who became blind shortly after birth, Stevie Wonder is widely regarded as one of the most influential musicians of the 20th century. He makes his contribution to CC by layering tasteful harmonica atop the sonically rich layers of “Jolene,” a reimaginative cover in the shape of Dolly Parton’s 1973 classic. Much like Beyoncé herself, Wonder is a trailblazer who, as Beyoncé stated in her Innovator Award speech at the iHeartRadio Awards, “defied any label placed upon [him].” From jazz to soul to funk to R&B to gospel to pop and beyond, Stevie Wonder has influenced and inspired creators across infinite genres and blendings with his vibrant propensity for experimentation. In the same speech, Beyoncé poured out a fountain of gratitude towards the legend, who presented her award —“Thank you so much Stevie, I love you,” she said. “I love you and I honor you. I want to thank you for making a way for all of us. […] Whenever anyone asks me if there’s anyone I can listen to for the rest of my life, it’s always you. So thank you, God bless you.”

Brittney Spencer, Tanner Adell, Tiera Kennedy, and Reyna Roberts

These four women are responsible for the ethereal background and third verse vocals for “Blackbiird.” Additionally, Spencer, Roberts, and Kennedy also lend background vocals to “Tyrant,” while Adell’s voice is woven into the sweeping harmonies of “Ameriican Requiem.”

Initially released in 1968 on The Beatles’ self-titled album, (colloquially known as “The White Album”), Paul McCartney wrote “Blackbird” in response to witnessing on television the harassment and violence that Black students endured upon attending newly-integrated schools. In 2018, he told GQ that he was particularly influenced by the young women who constituted, in part, the Little Rock Nine in Alabama — a nickname for the first nine Black students to desegregate the formerly all-white Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas.

As McCartney explained to TODAY, “In England, a ‘bird’ is a girl, so I was thinking of a Black girl going through this; now is your time to arise; set yourself free; take these broken wings.”

Within her illustrious arrangement of the classic, Beyoncé pairs the initial guitar track recorded by McCartney with the vocals of herself and these four Black women whose careers are actively altering the historically whitewashed landscape of country. By including them, Beyoncé nods towards McCartney’s intended meaning of the song while actively uplifting these young women so that they may prosper in a genre that undervalues and mistreats the Black artists who continue to give it wings. Brittney Spencer, Tanner Adell, Tiera Kennedy, and Reyna Roberts each have burgeoning careers in the genre that are largely influenced by traditional country sounds and themes.

Willie Nelson & Dolly Parton

In addition to inviting in many Black artists and roots musicians, Beyoncé strategically inserts more commercially successful country greats whose values align with her own. As Willie Nelson tells his faux-radio station listeners in the track “Smoke Hour II,” “Sometimes you don’t know what you like until someone you trust turns you onto some real good shit. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is why I’m here.” This line candidly demonstrates an awareness of the unfortunate truth that a vast array of today’s country fans are white listeners unlikely to take this music seriously without ample accreditation from respected white artists.

Merely four days after the release of CC, likely due in part to the inclusion of Willie and Dolly, the number of first-time listeners of Beyoncé’s music had increased by 85% on Spotify.

Willie Nelson, who celebrates his 91st birthday this year, is renowned for his left-leaning activism (especially advocating for the legalization of marijuana — hence the nomenclature of his feature tracks “Smoke Hour” and “Smoke Hour II”) and his role in pioneering the Outlaw Country movement. Outlaw Country began in the ’60s as a subgenre to rebel against the conservative suppressions, sonic and otherwise, of the country industry at the time. Willie and his like-minded contemporaries strove to achieve creative freedom beyond the political and sonic standards that dominated Nashville.

Similarly, Dolly Parton has used her platform, influence, and capital to enact social change. In addition to being an advocate for LGBTQ+ rights, she donated $1 million to Vanderbilt University in 2020 to go towards vaccine research amidst the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic.

As of 2024, Willie Nelson and Dolly Parton are widely regarded as two of the most successful American country artists of all time. Nelson holds 12 Grammys from 57 nominations, and continues to tour (in fact, he is actively on the road again right now). Dolly has accrued a total of 11 Grammys from 50 nominations over the course of her career and recently gave a dazzling performance at the 2023 NFL Thanksgiving Halftime Show. The amount of esteem and respect each has garnered throughout their careers grants Cowboy Carter a certain amount of credibility within the wider country circuit.

However, it is clear that Beyoncé doesn’t just merely use these two for their name recognition. She is, indubitably, a seasoned scholar in the history of American country music and respects the discography of both artists immensely. While both give narrative voice-overs, Dolly also lends background vocals to “Tyrant” and, of course, shares songwriting credits for the innovative cover of her song “Jolene” that appears on the album.

Willie Jones & Shaboozey

Willie Jones joins Beyoncé on CC to lend his resonant, smoky vocals on the duet track, “Just for Fun,” and to “Jolene.” Having gotten his start as a contestant on the X Factor in 2012, Jones is currently making a name for himself as contemporary Black country artist that Grammy.com refers to as a “country-rap iconoclast.” As proves to be a crucial theme throughout Cowboy Carter, Jones galvanizes cross-genre musings to make a sound that is entirely his own.

Similarly, Shaboozey is a rapping Black country artist who represents the future of the genre. Combining hip-hop, rock, country, and Americana, Shaboozey further embodies the blending spirit behind CC. His contributions to the album include rapping verses on both “Spaghettii” and “Sweet Honey Buckiin.”

Linda Martell

Beyoncé ingeniously laced together Cowboy Carter to demonstrate the past, present, and future of Black musicians who have influenced the American roots music; and Linda Martell stands as a crowned example of the past. Martell, now 82, was the first commercially successful Black woman in country. In 1969, she made history as the first Black woman to play the Grand Ole Opry, and she held the status of highest peaking single by a Black woman on Billboard’s Hot Country Singles Chart for her song “Color Him Father” until Beyoncé’s very own “Texas Hold ‘Em” took its place.

However, Martell’s success was short-lived; she left Nashville and country music altogether in 1974 after receiving racist backlash following the release of her first album. Nearly every live show was corroded by racial slurs from belligerent audiences, and her label eventually shelved her music when her single, “Bad Case of the Blues,” failed to do the numbers they were expecting. As Martell postulates on the CC track “Spaghettii,” “Genres are a funny little concept, aren’t they? In theory, they have a simple definition that’s easy to understand. But in practice, well, some may feel confined.”

While Martell’s career arc fell victim to the confines of hegemonic racism within Nashville (and the country at large), her appearance on Cowboy Carter pays tribute to her historical strides for Black artists nevertheless. The track “The Linda Martell Show” (wherein Martell poses as the host of her own radio show) acts as a foil to Willie Nelson’s “Smoke Hour” — Beyoncé here reimagines the career of Martell, granting her the accreditation to host her own show, something history previously never afforded her.

Miley Cyrus & Post Malone

Beyoncé’s respect for innovation rings loud and clear in her inclusion of Miley Cyrus and Post Malone on CC. Each share a vocal duet with Beyoncé on the album — Miley sings “II Most Wanted” and Post Malone contributes to the track “Levii’s Jeans.”

Though both are primarily known as pop artists, each has a career largely informed by their capacity to genrebend. Miley, daughter of country icon Billy Ray Cyrus and God-daugher of Dolly Parton, adds additional credibility to Beyoncé’s country venture. Throughout her career, Miley has traversed country, rock, pop, and R&B.

Similarly, Post Malone has woven together pop, alternative R&B, hip-hop, and indie throughout his career, and many speculate that he will soon release a country album.

It should be noted that both Miley Cyrus and Post Malone have been able to immerse themselves in genres that are historically Black throughout their respective careers. That both have moved between country and R&B without controversy is telling; their capacity to do so seamlessly and successfully demonstrates how white artists are able to express themselves fluidly without systemic repercussions. It is this very ease that Beyoncé wishes to cultivate for artists of every race; in her Instagram post about the release of the album, she writes, “My hope is that years from now, the mention of an artist’s race, as it relates to releasing genres of music, will be irrelevant.”

Raphael Saddiq

Referred to by music critic Robert Chrisgau as the “preeminent R&B artist of the ’90s,” Raphael Saddiq made mark as an American singer, songwriter, record producer, and multi-instrumentalist. He rose to fame in the ’90s with his R&B/soul group, Tony! Toni! Toné!, and went on to have a successful solo career. Additionally, he has produced songs for musical giants such as Erykah Badu, Stevie Wonder, TLC, D’Angelo, Solange Knowles (Beyoncé’s sister), John Legend, and more.

He is credited 18 times over the course of Cowboy Carter for his producing, writing, and instrumental contributions to the tracklist.


Photo Credit: Mason Poole

Suggested Reads


Sitewide Footer Banner

Saddle Up and Get to Know the Artists Behind 'Cowboy Carter'
Saddle Up and Get to Know the Artists Behind 'Cowboy Carter'