With Beyoncé breaking out the banjos for a hoedown performance of ‘Daddy Lessons’ at this week’s Country Music Association awards, Alex Macpherson charts this year’s intermingling of R&B and country and argues that the two genres have more in common than you might think.
The idea of black female solidarity has permeated Beyoncé’s work in 2016. From her Black Panthers homage at the Super Bowl to the graceful multitude of black women depicted on her visual album, Lemonade, her explorations and dissections of what “black girl magic” can mean beyond the hashtag have been multi-layered and wide-ranging.
The latest twist to this theme was her appearance at the Country Music Association awards on Wednesday, joining forces with anti-George W. Bush rebels the Dixie Chicks for a full-on banjos-and-fiddles version of Lemonade highlight ‘Daddy Lessons’. It wasn’t just the music: even Beyoncé’s dress, a sheer fabric adorned with thousands of sequins and enormous puffed sleeves, looked like the exact midpoint of her usual camera-ready stagewear and a traditional country diva’s OTT fashion. It might have seemed counter-intuitive, but the intertwining of R&B and country makes sense on many levels – and Beyoncé is not the only artist exploring this crossover lately.
Indeed, she isn’t even the only contemporary black megastar to have graced a country awards show: five years ago, Rihanna performed a duet of her ‘California King Bed’ single with Jennifer Nettles at the Academy of Country Music awards to much quieter fanfare. Neither is ‘Daddy Lessons’ Beyoncé’s first foray into the genre: 2008’s ‘If I Were A Boy’ may not have been full country, but its acoustic arrangement and belting, scorned-woman narrative wouldn’t have sounded out of place on, say, a Carrie Underwood album – and three years later, country legend Reba McEntire’s cover of it firmed up the link.
Country and R&B are divided by geography, demographic and, more artificially, the US music industry’s firm insistence on genre segregation when it comes to radio airplay. Aside from the obvious stylistic differences, this division conceals a commonality of spirit that derives from both genres being, at heart, folk musics made by and for marginalised communities, with a strong sense of economic and gender struggles and the necessity of celebration in the face of these obstacles.
Bolstered by their own slang and aesthetic and stylistic tropes, both genres are populated by parallel archetypes and narratives, whether that’s Miranda Lambert and Kelis pulling the trigger on no-good men for their breakthrough hits (2007’s ‘Gunpowder & Lead’ and 1999’s ‘Caught Out There’, respectively) or The-Dream unintentionally writing the perfect sequel to Bobbie Gentry’s 1970 classic ‘Fancy’ 39 years later. Moreover, the perception of country as a bastion of whiteness doesn’t tell the full story of black musicians’ contributions in the genre’s history.
So 2016’s mini-trend of R&B artists going country may be a welcome surprise, but it’s a logical one. Along with Beyoncé, there’s K. Michelle, the Tennessee firebrand who has long professed her love of the genre. Her early hints that third album More Issues Than Vogue (originally titled, provocatively, I Ain’t White But I Hope You Like) would be full country didn’t quite pan out. But, as on 2014’s Anybody Wanna Buy A Heart?, which gave us wry, pedal steel driven self-loathing on ‘God I Get It’, her nod to the sound of her Southern upbringing on hometown paean ‘Memphis’ was a highlight.
Meanwhile, Fantasia deftly paired country’s storytelling tradition with R&B’s catharsis on the magnificent ‘Ugly’. The song narrates the life of a girl damaged by poverty, an absent father and beauty ideals who marries into money – which, with the tragic inevitability of any authentic country tale, leads to a gilded cage and alcoholism. (There’s an added poignancy to her delivery of one particular line – “Her baby thinks her mom’s a live-in maid” – that a white singer would not have conveyed, too.) The plot actually mirrors that of one of this year’s best country hits, Carrie Underwood’s ‘Church Bells’ – though while Underwood’s protagonist escapes her abuse through undetected murderous revenge, Fantasia opts to give thanks for what she’s got: “Give me a rusty old grain silo / Give me good food that sticks to my bones,” she growls with gusto, echoing the defiance with which so many country artists have celebrated lives without material wealth.
Most on-trend was Miguel’s collaboration with Kacey Musgraves on a remix of ‘Waves’, from his 2015 album Wildheart. Musgraves, as a leading light of country’s current wave of gifted, mordantly honest female artists (who also frequently covers TLC’s ‘No Scrubs’ in concert), has enjoyed more crossover acceptance with hipster audiences than any other country artist in recent memory, but this duet is still a rather special curveball. Who could have predicted that the two would have such chemistry, first of all? And who would have thought that paring ‘Waves’ down and countrifying it would end up sounding so much like The xx on beach?
A narrative of mutual suspicion between R&B and country fans is often assumed, particularly at moments of collision such as happened at the CMAs this week. It’s undeniable that it’s rooted in truths – yes, there was an inevitable and depressing surfeit of racist tweets about Beyoncé “gatecrashing” the awards. But as with any story purporting to reveal a particular demographic’s feelings based on cherrypicked social media posts, it felt rather simplistic in its erasure of all those country artists and fans welcoming Beyoncé – including black country fans.
The underlying spirit of this year’s crossovers is neither a power play nor a clumsy attempt to mimic a genre: what Beyoncé, K. Michelle, Fantasia, Miguel and Musgraves have done is reach back to a common history: a culturally bold move that’s paid off artistically.