Award Show Controversy and Beyonce’s Country Roots
Earlier this month, The Associated Press reported that Beyoncé submitted Lemonade track “Daddy Lessons” for Grammy consideration, but that the Recording Academy’s country music committee rejected the song. This announcement comes just weeks after Beyoncé and the Dixie Chicks performed the song on the CMA Awards, sparking controversy among viewers and commenters regarding whether or not the song should be considered country.
It’s a debate that’s been smoldering since Lemonade‘s release in April, sparked, in some part, by a CMT story that argues, “this song is no more country than [Beyoncé’s] ‘Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It).'” While that story generated a lot of online backlash for its writer, those who would agree with her assessment that “It doesn’t sound like a country song” seem to have come out of the woodwork in recent weeks.
In late summer, Alice Randall, an author, songwriter, and professor at Nashville’s Vanderbilt University, wrote a piece for American Songwriter in response to the CMT story, with a title that gets right to the point: “Beyoncé’s ‘Daddy Lessons’ Is Classic Country.” [Full disclosure: I helped edit that piece for American Songwriter‘s November/December issue.] In her piece, Randall, whose work at Vanderbilt explores the deep influence of black culture on country music, cites historical context and genre hallmarks to prove that “Daddy Lessons” is as much a country song as “Gunpowder and Lead.”
“When Lemonade first came out last spring … I listened to it, because I was intrigued in general and interested in the relationship, initially, of the work to poetry,” Randall says. “It immediately struck me that ‘Daddy Lessons,’ the very first time I heard it, was a country song. I was really surprised that there was a country song. I wasn’t thinking of it in terms of any controversy, I was just thinking, ‘Oh my goodness, right in the middle of this is a country advice song in the voice of a black woman.’ So I was intrigued by that.”
Randall didn’t consider the song further until she came across the CMT story, which thinly argues, “It doesn’t sound like a country song to me, she didn’t cut it at a studio in Tennessee, and it certainly wasn’t written by a group of Nashville songwriters.”
“As it continued, I noticed there became a rising controversy as to whether or not this was a country song,” Randall explains. “I found it so thoughtless that I felt that I needed to write back to it, in the same [way that] my first novel The Wind Done Gone writes back to Gone with the Wind, to provide another perspective and to provide new information.”
Randall’s short piece offers a wealth of information, including her own checklist for what determines a country song: “Evangelical Christianity… African musical influences… Family legacy… Whiskey and guns… Advice… Bible-thumping and open roads… Child-rearing… Honoring the patriarchy… Good and evil… Shouting out to Texas… Doing right by Mama.” “Daddy Lessons” has all those things and them some.
Randall’s checklist is one that encourages inclusivity while recognizing that country music has its own history, characteristics, and identity. “Country is and always has been a very large tent,” she says. “And that is its strength. It is not always an acknowledged strength, but it is a strength.”
Though she’d written it months earlier, Randall’s American Songwriter piece happened to publish the same week that Beyoncé performed “Daddy Lessons” with the Dixie Chicks on the CMA Awards, causing the “Is it country?” debate to reach a boiling point. Comments on Randall’s piece were heated and showed a deep difference in opinion among fans.
“I did follow the action [after the performance] and some of it seems mythological, some of it seems actual,” she says. “To me, I would say that, one, it was a stunning performance, and two, country has gotten very pop and here was a stunning pop country performance. I understand that for people who were in the room that most people were up and singing and enjoying it. I think it was a strong addition to the show. I think it was also this acknowledgment of this abiding presence of African-American influences in country music, and actually making it quite visible. It’s the horns that people keep talking about that they find so offensive, but do they remember that Louis Armstrong played on Jimmie Rodgers records in 1931?”
Like Randall, many critics pointed to the racial implications of the controversy, but she also sees the debate as part of a more complicated conversation about how and when the genre is allowed to evolve, and who is allowed to define its parameters.
“I don’t think this is just a racial divide,” she says. “I think this is a constantly contested space in country. In the ’70s, when Olivia Newton-John won Top Female Vocalist, people complained. This year when she returned, people embraced her. The same with John Denver in ’75. I think, in certain camps, there was controversy when Charley Pride took the stage as Entertainer of the Year. There also was great embrace of Charley Pride. We’ve always had people who were interested in traditionalism and we’ve always had people who were interested in pushing the edge of country.”
It’s similar to the aesthetic debate that has played out around the rise of “bro country,” with critics of acts like Florida Georgia Line and Luke Bryan arguing that drum loops and Autotune have no place next to steel guitars and banjos. What is of primary importance to Randall isn’t so much who is making or consuming the music so much as it is that listeners are educated about the genre’s history, acknowledging its legacy of black influence and its pedigree of taking cues from other cultures.
“There have always been Tejano and Mexican influences on country, and polka and Eastern European influences, but there’s also, from the very beginning with Jimmie Rodgers, there have been black influences in country,” she says. “Country is a big tent and so I find that this song is a great place to stop and remind folks of that.”
To that end, Randall noted that Beyoncé and the Dixie Chicks, unlikely as it may seem, were a perfect complement to one another, and she thinks that connecting the historical dots between the two artists could have alleviated some of the performance’s controversy. “To me, ‘Goodbye Earl’ is a song that is completely connected to ‘Daddy Lessons.’ It’s almost a prequel to ‘Daddy Lessons.’ That’s why I see the continuity in a narrative context. There’s a connection to ‘Goodbye Earl,’ which was itself extremely controversial. Some radio stations refused to play it because these two women actually kill a man. ‘Those black-eyed peas, they tasted alright to me.’ Black-eyed peas are associated with African-American culture. It’s so interesting to me. That is a song that shows that black women had influence even on white women’s kitchens. This is the kind of analysis that I would like to see.”
In some ways, the controversy over Beyoncé’s performance mirrored the divide that would be seen among voters in the presidential election the following week. For Randall, though, the continuity between the two events comes from her desire to see people understand current events through a critical, historical lens.
“To me, what’s important about the current political moment is that it’s important for people to be informed,” Randall says. “It’s important for people to actually be knowledgeable of fact. It’s important for people to be knowledgeable of actual history. So if you know about the Olivia Newton-John controversy, and you know about the John Denver controversy, then you see that the resistance is potentially rooted in something else. When you know about the abiding influence of black people in country music, then you see this song in a context, you see it in conversation with earlier songs. Lemonade is not a country album. This is a country song.”