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Beyoncé bucks the country industry establishment with sprawling 'Cowboy Carter'

DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. Every Beyoncé album is a pop culture event, and her new album is no exception. But it came as a surprise when she first let on that this recording would be her take on country music. That album, "Cowboy Carter," features guest appearances by Willie Nelson and Dolly Parton, as well as Miley Cyrus and Post Malone. Rock critic Ken Tucker says that while the album suggests the problematic history of Black artists in the country music industry, the collection as a whole is as much a celebration as it is a critique.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TEXAS HOLD 'EM")

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BEYONCÉ: (Singing) This ain't Texas, ain't no hold'em. So lay your cards down, down, down, down. So park your Lexus and throw your keys up. Stick around, 'round, 'round, 'round, 'round. And I'll be damned if I can't slow dance with you.

KEN TUCKER, BYLINE: Almost as soon as Beyoncé announced the country music concept behind her new album, she hedged by also saying, this ain't a country album. This is a Beyoncé album. The hedge was also the truth. The 27 cuts on "Cowboy Carter" vary widely enough to include hip-hop beats, a musical quotation from the Beach Boys, and a cover of the Beatles' "Blackbird." But curious listeners are going to head first for the country material, where they'll be struck by the way its novelty plays with notions of authenticity.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "JOLENE")

BEYONCÉ: (Singing) Jolene, Jolene, Jolene, Jolene, I'm warning you, don't come for my man. Jolene, Jolene, Jolene, Jolene, don't take the chance because you think you can. You're beautiful beyond compare. Takes more than beauty and seductive stares to come between a family and a happy man. Jolene, I'm a woman, too. The games you play are nothing new, so you don't want no heat with me, Jolene.

TUCKER: That's Beyoncé's take on Dolly Parton's "Jolene." With its acoustic guitar and simple arrangement, this "Jolene" has almost nothing to do with the sound that's pumped out by the current country music industry. At a time when contemporary country has thoroughly incorporated hip-hop rhythms and phrasing into many of its biggest hits, Beyoncé casts her gaze back to a pre-hip-hop pop music, classic country from the '60s and '70s. Those are the chronological reference points for her use of Dolly Parton and of Willie Nelson, who pops up as a country DJ in a couple of places here. Listen to the way the Houston-born Beyoncé applies a high, lonesome croon to the country blues of a song called "PROTECTOR."

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(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PROTECTOR")

BEYONCÉ: (Singing) And there I was, tangled up in marigold. We were listening to the reverent children singing. Yeah. Humming low as the garden river flows, while the August light becomes a golden evening. Yeah. And I will lead you down that road if you lose your way. Born to be a protector, even though I know, someday, you're going to shine on your own, I will be your projector.

TUCKER: As part of this project, Beyoncé is bringing attention to a forgotten Black country artist, Linda Martell. Martell released only one album in 1970 called "Color Me Country". A half-century later, it holds up as first-rate pop country, but at the time, the country industry's racist treatment of Martell buried it. Now in her 80s, Martell introduces a couple of songs on "Cowboy Carter," but let's really hear Martell, her singing voice, and her yodel on the 1970 song "Bad Case Of The Blues".

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BAD CASE OF THE BLUES")

LINDA MARTELL: (Singing) Living and a-working in the city, I thought I was a big girl. Oh, I felt so smart, and my own life I could choose. So Miss Smarty found herself a city guy who one night said he loves her, and the next night he leaves her sitting with a bad case of the blues. (Yodeling). If I really was a smart girl, I could turn him loose.

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TUCKER: With such a cornucopia of material, "Cowboy Carter" is almost inevitably an uneven album. A few songs go on too long, and its best stuff is quicker. One of the high points is a deceptively simple tune called "LEVII'S JEANS," with vocal backing by Post Malone. It sounds like a great, lost, hit single from the '60s.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LEVII'S JEANS")

BEYONCÉ: (Singing) You call me pretty little thing, and I love to turn him on. Boy, I'll let you be my Levi's jeans, so you can hug that thing all day long. Come here, you sexy little thing. Snap a picture, bring it on. Know you wish you were my Levi's jeans, way it's popping out your phone. Love you down to the bone.

TUCKER: There are also a few seconds at the start of a tune called "SWEET HONEY BUCKIIN'," when Beyoncé murmurs the opening lines of the 1961 Patsy Cline hit "I Fall To Pieces". That far-too-brief moment is when you hear what a whole album of classic country covers, the Beyoncé version of Ray Charles' modern sounds in country and western music, might have sounded like.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SWEET HONEY BUCKIIN'")

BEYONCÉ: (Singing) I fall to pieces each time I see you there. And I miss all our secrets, so tell me how you've been.

TUCKER: It's obvious Beyoncé isn't settling into the country category for a prolonged stay. She's too omnivorous an artist. "Cowboy Carter" arrives already placed in a context as Act Two of what she's termed a three-part project, after the dance music explosion of her 2022 album "Renaissance". That provides her with an escape route in advance. I'm pretty sure that in her mind, she's already on to her next experiment in genre critique, while the rest of us are still back here squabbling about what's country and what's not. Less a cowboy than a gunslinger, Beyoncé is, as she puts it, saddling up, moseying on to the next town, looking for the next showdown.

DAVIES: Ken Tucker reviewed Beyoncé's new album "Cowboy Carter". On tomorrow's show, we discuss fetal personhood, a concept that's arisen in recent battles over abortion access and reproductive rights. We'll talk with the Guardian's reproductive health reporter, Carter Sherman, about efforts underway to regard fetuses and embryos as people and the potential impact of new proposed laws. I hope you can join us. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Ann Marie Baldonado, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Therese Madden, Thea Chaloner, Susan Nyakundi and Joel Wolfram. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. For Terry Gross and Tonya Mosley, I'm Dave Davies.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "JUST FOR FUN")

BEYONCÉ: (Singing) And I just need to get through this. Born in the darkness, who brings the light? And I just, I need to get through this, or just get used to it. 'Cause time heals everything, I don't need anything. Hallelujah. I pray to her.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Ken Tucker
Ken Tucker reviews rock, country, hip-hop and pop music for Fresh Air. He is a cultural critic who has been the editor-at-large at Entertainment Weekly, and a film critic for New York Magazine. His work has won two National Magazine Awards and two ASCAP-Deems Taylor Awards. He has written book reviews for The New York Times Book Review and other publications.