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Country’s Most-Loved Living Legends Dolly Parton and Willie Nelson Cameo in Beyoncé’s Cowboy Carter

Country’s Most-Loved Living Legends Dolly Parton and Willie Nelson Cameo in Beyoncé’s Cowboy Carter

On March 29, Beyoncé dropped act ii: Cowboy Carter, her eighth studio album and the highly anticipated follow-up to Renaissance. And jumping on board her 27-track opus were living country legends and arguably the two most-loved in the genre, Dolly Parton and Willie Nelson, and the unsung Black icon of country music, Linda Martell. Their participation, given their stature in the country music scene (and the music scene, in general), was essentially a seal of approval that this album would go down in history. 

Judging by the reception since its release, it will definitely do.

First Foray Into Country Music 

Beyoncé first dipped her toes into country music in 2016 with “Daddy Lessons” off her album, Lemonade, which talked about her childhood and touched on popular genre tropes like learning how to shoot, protecting your family and your land, and most importantly, doing everything in your power to give your loved ones a better life. 

But the song received backlash after she performed it on stage at the 50th annual Country Music Association Awards with The Chicks

Alan Jackson, a prominent figure in the genre, reportedly walked out. Travis Tritt aired his grievances on Twitter, now called X, writing, “As I see it, country music has appealed to millions for many years. We can stand on our own and don’t need pop artists on our awards shows.” 

And fans questioned whether their performance belonged on that stage. One online comment in particular gained so much traction at that time that news outlets reported it, and it read, “That’s right, folks. Beyoncé performed at the CMAs last night & is on a mission to take country music away from us, hardworking white people!”

Cowboy Carter: Five Years In The Making

Ten days before she released act ii of her three-part project, Beyoncé opened up and said that this second installment was born out of her feeling of being unwelcome in the country music space. But instead of letting that stop her, she took it as motivation. “I did a deeper dive into the history of country music and studied our rich musical archive,” she wrote on Instagram. 

And now, we have the privilege of listening to the fruit of her hard work: Cowboy Carter. 

But as the Queen said so herself, this isn’t a country album. It’s a Beyoncé album. Sure, the aesthetics and visual markers of the album rollout were very country-looking, and it did have country influences, with the prime example being her hit single “Texas Hold ‘Em,” acknowledged by the Queen of Country herself, Dolly Parton. But that wasn’t everything. She also used other different musical strands like “hip hop, bluegrass and Chicano rock, pop rock, Jersey club music, and operatic runs” in the rest of the tracks. If anything, it was an odyssey through the history of American music. It transcended categorization. 

Country Music’s Exclusivity

Over the decades, country music has gone through many changes and expanded in different directions, and all of these shifts have become controversial. In particular, the blending of country and pop has caused quite some tension. That is, as Hunter Hartlage of Manual Red Eye noted, some of these cross-genre songs sound more pop than country. 

“By losing its distinct sounds, country music is becoming more like a variation of pop, rather than its own genre. This decreases the diversity and uniqueness of the music that Americans listen to. If the sounds that defined a genre are removed from that music, then it has no definition. It’s simply pop music with a Southern accent.”

And, of course, many country purists also didn’t take it nicely when pop singers shifted over to country or even just dipped a bit into their pond – which was what Beyoncé did. And this wasn’t simply a genre issue. It was also a race one and, at some point, a sex one: Beyoncé is a  female Black pop singer, so there was the “problem.” 

But if anyone knows country music’s history, they’d know she’s simply occupying a space she deserves. As Time explained, country music’s sound – from its instrumentation to repertoire to vocal and instrumental techniques – is owed to African and African-American traditions. “But commercial decisions by white industry executives led to their exclusion from the genre for decades.” This wasn’t solely from the musician’s perspective; it was also seen from the standpoint of listeners. 

In an interview with Teen Vogue, Stephanie Jacques from The 19th shared that while she had a certain level of ease in White spaces in the genre as a biracial woman, she understood how a Black person can feel unwelcome. There were shows where Confederate flags were proudly waved, and she was even called the N-word one time. All-in-all, there wasn’t really a safe space for Black people to celebrate country music. 

Marren Morris also pointed out in her conversation with Ellen DeGeneres in 2021, “I’m a white woman in country music. I already sort of have this leg up.” There was a huge disparity between men and women, and there was even more between white women and black women. 

Country Features: Dolly Parton, Willie Nelson, and Linda Martell

The 27-track album, as a press release described it, is “a cornucopia of sounds that Beyoncé loves and grew up listening to between visits and eventually performances at the Houston Rodeo.” And she invited big names for the hoedown, namely country legends Dolly Parton, Willie Nelson, and Linda Martell.

With Dolly Parton: The Moment of Queens

Prior to the release of the album, Parton had been hinting at some sort of collaboration between them. But she was careful not to make any confirmations. All she said was, “I think she’s recorded ‘Jolene’ and I think it’s probably gonna be on her country album, which I’m very excited about that.” And that everyone got hyped up, too. 

Well, who wouldn’t be? It’s the queen-meets-queen moment. Parton is the Queen of Country and one of the best-selling music artists of all time, with 100 million records sold worldwide, and Beyoncé is dubbed Queen Bey by her fans. Parton also noted that they’ve been corresponding, and Beyoncé and her mom were both fans of hers – and vice versa. So, it wasn’t too much of a stretch that it’d happen. 

And now, it’s finally here, and it’s honest to God so good. 

Queen Bey didn’t just simply cover the classic hit. She did a feisty reimagination of it, with a new bridge and a lyric overhaul –  including a “Becky with the good hair” reference in the intro, singing, “I’m warning you, don’t come for my man.” Parton gave her seal of approval through an Instagram post that read, “Wow, I just heard Jolene. Beyoncé is giving that girl some trouble and she deserves it!”

Parton also lent her voice and signature wit in the interlude “Dolly P,” which played right before the cover. She opened with, “Hey Miss Honey B, it’s Dolly P,” and then she continued, “You know that hussy with the good hair you sang about? Reminded me of someone I knew back when, except she has flaming locks of auburn hair, bless her heart. Just a hair of a different color, but it hurts just the same.” Yes, that hussy was Becky. 

She also did a cameo, playing the role of a DJ at the KNTRY Radio Texas as she introduced track number 25, “Tyrant.”

With Willie Nelson: The Innovators

While everyone was surprised to see Willie Nelson’s name in the album, it wasn’t too surprising. The two have a lot in common. They are both Texans who have a reputation for their activism and social commentary that influence their innovative songwriting. And as The Tennessean wrote about their collaboration, “The artist [Nelson], whose career spans over 150 albums, has the type of peerless, genre-resistant influence that Queen Bey likely aims to have herself.” 

Like Parton, Willie Nelson played the role of a DJ on the fictional KNTRY Radio – and he was no stranger to this as he used to be one. 

“If there’s one thing you can take away from my set today, let it be this: Sometimes, you don’t know what you like until someone you trust turns you on to some real good shit. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is why I’m here,” country legend and a prominent figure in outlaw country, Willie Nelson, said in his track “Smoke Hour II.” The note served as the intro to Beyoncé’s collaboration song with Willie Jones, “Just for Fun.”

And aside from “Smoke Hour II,” he also did another intro titled “Smoke Hour,” which was the prelude for her chart-topping song, “Texas Hold ‘Em.”

With Linda Martell: The Black Women Of Country

Beyoncé shone a light on the unsung pioneer of country music, Linda Martell. In 1969, her song “Color Him Father” reached the top 25 of the Billboard Country Songs. A year later, she made history with her album Color Me Country as the first Black woman to perform on the Grand Ole Opry. Unfortunately, she retired after enduring the racist aggression shifting from pop to country. So, her name didn’t ring as much as the others, and she soon faded into the background of country’s history. 

She spoke the intro to “Spaghettii.” And she also had her very own self-titled track like Parton called “The Linda Martell Show,” which was the intro to “Ya Ya.” After the album’s release, Martell took to Instagram to share how proud she was of the singer. She penned, “What she is doing is beautiful, and I’m honored to be a part of it. It’s Beyoncé, after all!” 

The Album Reception

While there were a few who weren’t happy with Cowboy Carter, just like Chris Richards of The Washington Post, who called the album corny and cosmetic, there were far more positive reactions from critics, fellow artists, and celebrities. (Though “Jolene” had generated a lot of opinions, with many saying that the feisty arrangement stripped the song’s key element: vulnerability.)

Helen Brown of The Independent gave it a five-star review, describing the record as a lasso hurling around the neck of country music and riding it out into the desert for good airing. The Telegraph’s Neil McCormick gave it another five stars, writing, “Country purists will be forced to swallow their bile upon hearing Beyoncé’s astonishing album that gives the genre new life.”

As for fellow artists, aside from the country legends who all gave their proud approval, Nancy Sinatra was “delighted” that Queen Bey sampled “These Boots Are Made for Walkin” on “Ya Ya.” She wrote on X, “To have a little piece of one of my records in a @Beyonce song is very meaningful to me because I love her. She represents what is great about today’s music and I’m delighted to be a tiny part of it.”

Lastly, the BeyHive is more than thrilled with the album’s arrival. As one fan wrote, “Cowboy Carter makes me want to walk around in my disco ball cowboy hat leisurely.”

Cowboy Carter is definitely a game-changer, and it wouldn’t be surprising if we see more genre-bending albums by different artists in the future!

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