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Who Gets To Make Country Music?

Exploring the history of country and the people who make them

Cowboy boots with a guitar placed on top of a cowboy hat set on the floor against a grey background
Credits: SchubPhoto / Shutterstock

Beyoncé’s two new releases, “Texas Hold ‘Em” and “16 Carriages,” have sparked a debate about their authenticity as country songs, with people questioning the legitimacy of Beyoncé transitioning into a different genre for the second act of her trilogy album series, which was recently revealed to be named Cowboy Carter.

Some country fans have denied both songs to belong to the country genre, finding the switch up from Beyoncé being a pop star to suddenly creating a country album odd – so much so that even a country radio station in Oklahoma has refused to play her tracks in their playlist. 

When a fan of Beyoncé requested for them to play her new singles through email, they responded by saying “we do not play Beyoncé on KYKC as we are a country music station.” Beyhives rightfully defended both singles as country, while affirming that Beyoncé, being born in Texas and previously even releasing a country song named “Daddy Lessons” from her album Lemonade, is justified to make a country album.

Tina Knowles, Beyoncé’s mother, also commented on the backlash she recieved. She said that her family has grown up with the Western aesthetic and notes that they have been surrounded by Texan cowboy culture ever since she was a child.

Representation of Country Music

Conversations about who gets to make country music have always been a topic of discussion amongst country fans. There has always been dissonance in how country music can be defined and if a person’s background is a necessary factor for them to create music in the country genre.

Some fans of the genre do it to a fault, often gatekeeping it to the standards of the country music that it has mostly represented and the artists who make them. However, this perceived notion of what country music is can often fall into prejudice since the genre has been whitewashed over the past few years.

The representation of country has now become predominantly conservative, white, and male in contrast to what it was like before. And the people who are usually strict with their classification of country music embody the same aforementioned qualities of who it has mainly represented. 

The Banjo

History becomes lost in these discussions, ladened with a semblance that essentially discredits black people who helped invent the sound of country music. It’s a reductionist way for white people to take ownership of the genre since country has been attached to so many different identities and political views that people forget its roots. 

For instance, (according to Smithsonian) the banjo, a prominent instrument that can be classified as a staple for country music, “was created by enslaved Africans and their descendants in the Caribbean and colonial North America. Here, they maintained and perpetuated the tradition within a complex system of slave-labor camps, plantations, and in a variety of rural and urban settings. From the earliest references in the 17th century, and through the 1830s, the banjo was exclusively known as an African-American tradition with a West African heritage.” 

Credits: The Met / YoutTube

Black people have a deep-rooted history with country but because the genre mostly involves white artists and a white audience, they have seen the most ostracization from it.

Moreover, the historical explanation and popularity for the banjo’s association with country music is fraught with racism. According to Nick Shoulders, “…the banjo gained national exposure when racially demeaning black-face minstrel shows toured the country, singing and playing music from the southern cannon by way of parody, inadvertently creating a national craze for the instrument.” 

When the trend eventually died down, folklorists only accounted for banjo-playing white Americans in the rural South. This resulted in false connotations that banjos have of rural whiteness, bereft of the influences from West African instruments. 

Political views that became attached to country music also created a divide on who gets to make it. People who live in rural America usually align themselves on the republican and conservative side of the political spectrum. And since country music typically has a lot of the elements that they are familiar with, like religious beliefs and the twangy-accents of the singers, they adhere themselves to the genre.

Patriotism and Nationalism in Country

However, much of the conservatism that is associated with country can be connected to the events that occurred after 9/11. After the terrorist attack happened, America decided to temporarily censor music that criticized its country even in the slightest bit. It revealed the attitudes that were rampant during the time. 

For instance, all of Rage Against the Machine’s discography was banned from being played. Most of what they write about are anti-capitalist and antigovernmental sentiments that mostly criticized America. They wanted to suppress their views to devoid America of any criticism during the time.

American stations also banned songs that supported positive international relations and the unnecessary actions of war like Bruce Springsteen’s “War.”

Credits: Bruce Springsteen / YouTube

The former reasoning could be argued to be justified since America had just gone through a traumatic event. Playing any of Rage Against the Machines catalog could be seen as insensitive. However, the latter revealed a much malicious intent that America was seeking. They wanted revenge, and revenge they got.

They initiated a war against Iraq that cost a lot of civilian lives that many critics said would happen. Aggression was something that Americans wanted to flagrantly boast about with the destruction that they can cause amongst other countries. They wanted to send a message that they are the most powerful, albeit to a degree that can be seen as extreme. 

Post 9/11 Country Songs

Because of this, they instilled patriotism and nationalism in Americans. They saw it as an integral part of their nationality, and country music provided this attitude. Post-9/11 country music was riddled with lyrics about patriotic and nationalistic views. 

For instance, Alan Jackson’s “Where Were You (When The World Stopped Turning),” a direct response to the 9/11 tragedy. The lyrics contain overt religious themes that talks about having pride in the red, white, and blue. He questions how people reacted when the event was transpiring right before their eyes and what occurred after.

The song would later spend at the number 1 spot in January 2002 for five weeks. It also earned Jackson his first Grammy for best country song. 

Credits: Alana Jackson / YouTube

Artists Who Recontextualize the Genre

The white people who took over country music and its political connotations have set a very specific standard on who gets to make country music. Anyone who isn’t in the same category will often be dismissed and be met with much disapproval. However, a lot of different artists, including Beyoncé, make country songs that re-contextualize the standard.

Orville Peck, a gay country singer born in South Africa, creates campy country music while unapologetically embracing his queer identity. His song “Queen of the Rodeo” from his album Pony, is about a drag queen friend of his named Jem, and (as Sarah Jae Leiber delineates) “allowing yourself to get out of your own way, beat your demons and crown yourself queen of the rodeo.”

Credits: Orville Peck / YouTube

Another queer artist, Angel Olsen, also creates country-inspired music. Her album Big Time embraces the country aesthetic as she talks about queer love and the loss of her parents. In the title track “Big Time,” Olsen describes a magical date she and her partner had in a lake.

Credits: Angel Olsen / YouTube

Yola, a black British country singer is another artist that challenges the standard. In her recent album Stand For Myself, she writes from the perspective of black immigrant women. For instance, in the song “Be My Friend” she explains how it “…is the catalyst to that softening of yourself. You don’t need to be in this trope of strong Black women anymore.” 

Credits: Yola / YoutTube

Who Gets to Make Country Music?

Anyone of any background should be able to make country music. People who are not stereotypically country should also be able to contribute to the genre. The overcomplication of country music becomes tedious and unnecessary. As long as they stay authentic in its sound and remember the people that helped define the sound of the genre today, they should not be dismissed from making country songs.

Gatekeeping the genre will just turn people away from the beauty that country music has to offer. It will also discourage artists to delve into the genre that has wonderful storytelling. 

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