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What Beyoncé’s ‘Cowboy Carter’ Means for the Black Opry

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IIn the final moments of a Black Opry Revue show, where a traveling rotation of singer-songwriters take turns playing their individual songs and sharing the stories behind them, the singers enjoy coming together for a performance of group. At their Washington-area concert on Friday, the choice of final song was obvious.

“Well, happy Beyoncé Day,” Roberta Lea said to the cheers of a sold-out crowd at Barns at Wolf Trap in Vienna, Virginia – coincidentally the same day Beyoncé released her new country-themed album , “Cowboy Carter.” » Lea noted that she and members of the Black Opry – a collective of Black country artists, fans and industry professionals – had spoken about the importance of the moment when “a superstar like Beyoncé enters the country music space and what that means to the people watching.” like her, who are people like us.

“And so,” Lea continued, “we thought it was only fitting to do a little something in honor of the Queen.” Grace Givertz launched into the playful banjo introduction, Rachel Maxann stepped in on the piano, and along with Sug Daniels and Tylar Bryant, they all sang the track that recently became the first song by a black woman to become n #1 on Billboard’s Hot Country Songs. graphic: “It’s not Texas, it’s not hold’em – so lay your cards down, down, down, down. …”

From the moment Beyoncé surprise-debuted “Texas Hold ‘Em” and “16 Carriages” at the Super Bowl in February, the online discourse about her plans to “go country” accelerated: music experts Music have offered history lessons on the black roots of the genre, which has historically excluded many black singers. Fans analyzed the performance at the 2016 Country Music Association Awards in Nashville when Beyoncé sang “Daddy Lessons” with the Chicks, an incident that Beyoncé said inspired the album because she “didn’t feel welcome” in this environment. And of course, the endless, exhausting debates over what constitutes “authentic” country music.

Through it all, a common theme has also surfaced, particularly among black singer-songwriters who are already present in the country music world: No matter what you think of “Cowboy Carter,” it’s a historic moment. Not only is Beyoncé using her massive platform to deliver an artistic statement and raise the profile of other black country artists, but the high-profile album could help reframe how audiences perceive the genre in general.

“There are so many black people who say, ‘I can’t talk about the fact that I really root for Willie Nelson.’ … There are so many people, because of racism, who say, “Country music? I would never do it,'” Givertz said in a backstage conversation with the five Black Opry members who traveled to Virginia for the concert. But now, she said, given that Beyoncé sparked a conversation about the world of country music – and featured legends like Nelson on the album – it could open the format to more listeners.

“We make this music because we love it,” Daniels added. “But it’s exciting to see the rest of the world turn their heads and say, ‘Ooh, what else is going on here right now?'”

LListening to “Cowboy Carter” on Friday was an exciting experience for the Black Opry singers before the Wolf Trap show: Givertz said she pressed “play” at 6:30 a.m. and started crying about 45 seconds later the start of recording. Maxann had a happy run at Malcolm X/Meridian Hill Park and described herself as “smiling and happy, saying ‘Happy Birthday Beyoncé’ to every black person I see.” Backstage, the singers gasped and applauded when Lea revealed she had been given the opportunity to write for the album. (Although she didn’t get a song, she was thrilled to be asked to contribute.)

When Bryant said he felt immediately drawn to “Sweet Honey Buckiin” — Beyoncé’s collaboration with country/hip-hop artist Shaboozey — Givertz noted that when she heard the track, she immediately thought of Bryant’s last song, “Cowgirl Up.”

“I said, ‘It’s like the sister song to Tylar’s ​​new song,’” Givertz said. “There was already room for it when you released it and wrote it. But now there will be a lot more people looking for this. »

Prior to the album’s release, several Black country artists said they saw an increase in streams and engagement on social media leading up to “Cowboy Carter,” and questioned whether the record would include Black country singers who live and have been working in Nashville for years. Indeed, the second song was a cover of “Blackbird” by The Beatles with singers Reyna Roberts, Tanner Adell, Tiera Kennedy and Brittney Spencer. Daniels added that the choice of song — which Paul McCartney said he wrote about black women during the civil rights movement — was particularly poignant.

“It’s the Beatles talking about black people in America. You know, someone from out of the country with a very relevant point of view,” Daniels said. “So for it to be the second song on the album, it was iconic.”

Other group favorites include “Spaghettii” (another country-rap track with Shaboozey, plus a spoken-word introduction from country music pioneer Linda Martell) and the ballad “II Most Wanted,” a duet with Miley Cyrus . Several singers were also inspired by the fact that the record encompassed so many genres.

“It’s so American. It’s so black American music,” Lea said. “Because it’s country and there’s hip-hop and there’s R&B and there’s pop –”

“The soul, everything,” Daniels added.

“Everything,” Lea agreed, checking the names of other songs. “So you have “Riiverdance” with Irish (music)? Then you have the opera on “Daughter”? I’m like, “Girl, you’re killing it.” »

The Black Opry began in the spring of 2021 when Holly G, a writer and flight attendant from Virginia, felt increasingly alienated as a Black woman in her love of country music, where she found that the majority of musicians, fans and managers were not watching. like her.

She created a website where artists of color could promote themselves and meet other fans, and it blew up so quickly that she had to hire a booking agent when she was inundated with requests to add a tour item. The organization launched a label late last year and works with more than 200 artists who perform country, folk, Americana, blues and roots music.

“It’s very relieving to be in a space where we can be ourselves without having to face judgment,” Lea said, adding that the community has given so many singers “the ability to be ourselves unapologetically and being country at the same time.”

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During the 90-minute concert, before a raucous audience that quickly developed inside jokes with the singers (as the only man on stage, Bryant was the good-natured target of several digs), the songs touched on classic country themes : Hometowns, new love, difficulties, friends, family, getting drunk, exes, getting drunk and thinking about exes. Not to mention the country pun that Maxann sang: “He only wants me when he’s drinking; at least he drinks all the time” and one of Bryant’s songs urged to “Paint this town a different shade of red tonight; I think outside the box of wine.

At the end of the show, the singers came together for a rendition of “Texas Hold ‘Em” and the audience applauded. Outside the room, phone screens around the world lit up as listeners discussed, debated and posted about “Cowboy Carter,” what they thought, what it meant and what it belonged to . But inside the room, only the music mattered.

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