Home Music Music Features

Beyoncé Always Said You’ll Never Take the Country Out Her

As she begins to raise the curtain on ‘Act II’, the star is building on the country foundation she’s spent years fortifying in sound, style, and spirit


Kevin Mazur/Getty Images

Back in 1997, Beyoncé stepped into the recording booth to croon the lyrics to “Sail On,” the Commodores single that Destiny’s Child covered on their eponymous debut album. Her thick Southern twang still coated her singing voice — she was only 15 — as she lamented the end of a relationship in a song penned by Lionel Richie nearly two decades prior. The song was an outlier on Destiny’s Child, buried deep on the tracklist, and applied the group’s R&B methodology to the Commodores’ country-influenced original.

It was also was the first indicator that Beyoncé’s greater, genre-spanning potential was bubbling beneath the surface. The reimagined tune about throwing away the blues and growing tired of being used wasn’t a reflection of her lived experiences, but she stepped into the story as if it were her own. “It was a neo-soul record and we were 15 years old,” she told The Guardian in 2006 about recording that first album. “It was way too mature for us.” At the time, the most country thing about Beyoncé was her Houston upbringing. But she has spent years preparing for her rustic renaissance — when not primarily in sound or style, then in spirit — with a simple reminder: you’ll never take the country out of her.

As Beyoncé begins to raise the curtain on her forthcoming album Act II, out March 29, she’s tightening her grip on country music and setting her own stories against the backdrop of steel guitars, banjos, and western swing. She wasted no time joining the line dance on “Texas Hold ‘Em,”  just serviced to country radio for airplay consideration, and settled into more serious reflections on “16 Carriages.” The swelling ballad excavates the past to examine all of those early career moments — like when she was cutting vocals in that booth — that eclipsed her adolescence and whisked her away from Texas in pursuit of global stardom. “At fifteen, the innocence was gone astray/Had to leave my home at an early age,” Beyoncé sings in “16 Carriages.” “I saw Mama prayin’, I saw Daddy grind/All my tender problems, had to leave behind.”

Beyoncé returned to Houston in 2001 to perform “Sail On” with Destiny’s Child in front of 60,000 fans at the Houston Rodeo, an event she grew up attending. When she returned to the show as a solo artist three years later, she rode into NRG Stadium on the back of a palomino horse. For her first-ever stadium tour in 2016, in support of Lemonade, she headlined the stadium again and left the dirt and stallions behind. But her Southern roots were all over the album, released only weeks earlier, with its proud mentions of being a “Texas Bama.” In front of an audience adorned with cowboy hats, Beyoncé strolled out wearing her own and took them to church and school with Lemonade’s country cut “Daddy Lessons.”

“Came into this world, daddy’s little girl/And Daddy made a soldier out of me,” she sings in the opening verse, Southern drawl still completely intact. Among an album tracklist that further showed off her proficiency as a rapper and unleashed a bit of rock rage, “Daddy Lessons” was an audacious declaration that country was her turf, too. When co-writer Diana Gordon brought it to Beyoncé, it was a simple guitar-based record fortified with some stomping and clapping. The songwriter laid down the groundwork during a session with Kevin Cossom and Alex Delicata in Miami two years before it would see the light of day.

“That morning, I started working on this guitar lick that felt country in some ways and worked with this concept about strength that was a little dark,” Delicata tells Rolling Stone about the decade-old session that helped shape Beyoncé’s proper country debut. In less than an hour, the foundation of the record was established. Once Beyoncé got her hands on it, she molded it into her own. “All the stylistic production choices — the horns and things like that — were from Beyoncé,” the co-producer says.

The musician wove her personal narrative into “Daddy Lessons,” polishing it up in a way that made it more powerful and, according to Delicata, so “super genius.” He recalls thinking, “This is country, but it felt more Beyoncé than anything else. There’s just a feeling to the way she does this music that is different than you could get having anybody else make that kind of music. I think that’s true in every genre she’s ever been a part of.”

If only “Beyoncé” was its own valid genre classification. “Daddy Lessons,” despite having its hooks deep in roots music, was notably deemed ineligible for the country categories at the Grammy Awards and it kicked up a storm in Nashville when Beyoncé performed it live with the Chicks at the 2016 CMA Awards. Some viewers who tuned into the awards, and others who likely just wanted to pile on, questioned whether she belonged at the country awards at all — then inched to the edge of saying the quiet part out loud when they wondered whether white male country artists should be booked for predominantly Black awards shows.

Beyoncé shared the spotlight with a tried-and-true country act — just as Lionel Richie did when he re-recorded “Sail On” with Tim McGraw in 2012, or when Lil Nas X recruited Billy Ray Cyrus for “Old Town Road” in 2019 — and was still positioned as an outsider. Even Tina Turner, who Beyoncé has studied and emulated since childhood, left behind the lingering question of what could have been when her 1974 debut solo album Tina Turns the Country On!, didn’t give way to a full-blown country era. The Tennessee native had no shortage of stories to share through the genre, but lacked the agency to tell them: Husband Ike Turner steered her toward covers that didn’t prioritize her own narrative. Even “Proud Mary,” a song that Tina made unmistakably hers, was originally a roots-rock record written by John Fogerty for the country-leaning Creedence Clearwater Revival.

Beyoncé took a page from the Queen of Rock & Roll’s book on “Don’t Hurt Yourself,” Lemonade’s thrashing rock opus about feminine rage and infidelity that she crafted with Jack White. The White Stripes guitarist was close to having a hand in “Daddy Lessons,” too, but the result would have been a more bluesy rendition. In 2018, White’s camp revealed that Beyoncé requested he make an alternate arrangement of the record in the vein of blues artist Seasick Steve. Singer-songwriter Lillie Mae originally cut the demo but tells Rolling Stone that she hasn’t heard it since. It was never released, but Beyoncé’s decision to go full country with “Daddy Lessons” was a foundational step toward the moment we’re now watching unfold.

For “Texas Hold ’Em” and “16 Carriages,” Beyoncé sought out folk musician Rhiannon Giddens and steel guitarist Robert Randolph to perform on the respective records, her country vision crystal clear.  “It’s crazy that the whole world doesn’t understand the history of country music and fiddles, dobros and banjos,” Randolph recently told Rolling Stone. “Where do you think that stuff came from? Who was living in the barn? Who were the people living in the back houses?”

Any Black artist fighting for a place in country or rock, two genres their predecessors have been pushed out of, is antithetical to the core of both traditions, which were built upon the rich history of blues and folk music. But just as history can be rewritten, it can also be reclaimed and revived: That is the power of a renaissance.

With that in mind, Beyoncé launched Ivy Park Rodeo in 2021. The clothing collection complete with denim chaps was inspired by Black cowboys and cowgirls. “Many of them were originally called cowhands, who experienced great discrimination and were often forced to work with the worst, most temperamental horses,” she explained in a Harper’s Bazaar interview. “They took their talents and formed the Soul Circuit. Through time, these Black rodeos showcased incredible performers and helped us reclaim our place in western history and culture.”

Years before the collection dropped — and disco cowboy hats became the must-have Renaissance tour accessory — Beyoncé was incorporating country couture into her performance wardrobe. She donned a fiery, rhinestone-studded hat as Destiny’s Child dodged overzealous men in the “Bug a Boo” music video in 1999 and arrived at MTV’s TRL Hip Hop Week in 2001 dripped out in blue fringe with silver cowboy boots and a matching hat. When she made an unexpected appearance at the 2024 Grammy Awards in a studded Louis Vuitton set paired with a nearly five-inch-tall white Stetson cowboy hat, it was the signal of both a new era and a return to form.

It’s been a long time since Beyoncé has permanently resided in Houston, but her roots transcend the Texas state line. Her entertainment company, Parkwood Entertainment, borrows its name from her childhood address. In 2017, after Hurricane Harvey devastated the community, Beyoncé visited St. John’s United Methodist Church. “I just want to say that I’m home. This church is my home,” she told the congregation. “I was maybe nine or 10 years old the first time I sat where my daughter’s sitting. I sang my first solo here.”

Later on in “16 Carriages,” she reflects on trading a normal upbringing for her pursuit of excellence.

“The legacy, if it’s the last thing I do,” she sings, “You’ll remember me ’cause we got somethin’ to prove/In your memory, on a highway to truth.”

For Beyoncé, all highways — even the long remote roads in “16 Carriages” that she recalls fighting back tears on — lead to her country home.

From Rolling Stone US