In Beyoncé’s Country, All Are Welcome

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— Pamela Hanson/W Magazine

Beyoncé is the ultimate American cowboy.

Now, before anyone starts airin’ their lungs, the proof is right there in her blazing displays of bravura, burn-the-breeze grit, and unprecedented levels of Southern swag. This is, after all, the woman who turned keeping a bottle of hot sauce in her purse into a political battle cry.

Like any true cowboy, she is always on the search for new frontiers. At this point, it’s clear she drinks upstream from the pop herd. Despite having never released a music video for “TEXAS HOLD ’EM” or performed it live, the song is currently topping Billboard’s Hot Country Songs, making her the first Black female artist to reach the No. 1 spot.

She performs with the reckless abandon of the best rodeo roughstock twisters onstage, capturing audiences as if they were something that’s got to be roped in a hurry before they get away. Two thirds into her three-part RENAISSANCE opus, we’ve already witnessed her ride a silver horse named Reneigh while suspended in the air above tens of thousands of fans to close out a world tour for Act I, and grab the Super Bowl by the horns to drop “TEXAS HOLD ’EM” and “16 CARRIAGES,” the first two singles of Act II.

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Those few times we’ve witnessed her get bucked off her bronc, she always saddles right back up. On Instagram last week, she explained that COWBOY CARTER was “born out of an experience that I had years ago where I did not feel welcomed…and it was very clear that I wasn’t.” But even to those not fully onboard for the ride, she appears larger than life. Sure, the Nashville power brokers continue to waffle over whether a Black woman, even one of the most influential performers of the 21st century—who also happens to be an out-and-proud Texan, no less—fits the cookie-cutter mold of country, a genre where white male crooners have historically called the shots. But the innumerable cowboy hat–wearing line dancers on TikTok who continue to heed her whiskey-soaked call to “take it to the floor now” are proof that country conformity has never been a membership prerequisite for the cowboy way. Besides, Beyoncé told us that “this is a Beyoncé album.”

COWBOY CARTER is a reminder: Beyoncé wasn’t born a cowboy. She became one. Growing up in Houston, she was a regular at the famed Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo and quickly became transfixed by riders wrestling bulls beneath bright lights. When Destiny’s Child hit the MTV TRL scene, in the late ’90s, the group blended R&B realness with an authentic Texan twang. (A cover of “Sail On,” a country-flavored ballad written by Lionel Richie for the Commodores, appeared on the group’s 1998 self-titled debut.) She returned to her hometown rodeo four times as a member of Destiny’s Child and a budding solo performer. To promote “Dangerously in Love” in 2004, she rode into the stadium on horseback.

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Long before yee-haw aesthetics entered the mainstream, Beyoncé was rocking Western getups in the music video for “Bug a Boo,” thanks to her mother, Tina Knowles, a seamstress with Louisiana Creole roots. As Beyoncé put it in a 2016 Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA) Fashion Awards speech, designers hardly jumped at the opportunity to dress “Black country curvy girls,” so Ms. Tina took control and dressed the group as rhinestone cowgirls in matching chaps in a rainbow of colors, glitter-trimmed rancher hats, and asymmetrical rawhide crop tops.

In the years that followed, Beyoncé dueted with the country duo Sugarland for a performance of “Irreplaceable” at the 2007 American Music Awards, wore cowboy couture alongside Lady Gaga for the “Telephone” music video in 2010, taught the world “Daddy Lessons” in 2016, and set off a small-business boom on Etsy for silver 10-gallon hats during last year’s Renaissance World Tour. The long, winding path from chewing fashion gravel to being one of the most revered pop stars of our time no doubt informs the trajectory of her current full-circle cowboy moment.

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Shot by the Texas-born photographer Blair Caldwell, the cover of COWBOY CARTER depicts the singer perched sidesaddle atop a galloping horse. Clad in red, white, and blue rodeo gear, she holds an American flag in one hand and the horse’s reins in the other. Her white cowboy hat seems to barely contain a river of platinum hair, as though she were stuck in perpetual forward motion. Observers were quick to note that the imagery seems to pay homage to an assortment of Black Western iconoclasts—everyone from the legendary Prairie View Trail Riders of Texas to contemporary Black rodeo queens like Khalilah Smith. Beyoncé, it appeared, was once again here to save the day and, this time, nudge country music in new directions.

But if anything, this current chapter of RENAISSANCE rhymes off the words of the cowboy poet Paul Zarzyski, another country outlaw whose work exists outside the Nashville machine: “Rodeo, like poetry, can get into your hemoglobin, into the deep helices of DNA, and once there it becomes your metaphorical makeup for life.”

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Senior Style Editor: Allia Alliata di Montereale. Hair by Neal Farinah for Cécred; makeup by Francesca Tolot at Cloutier Remix; nails by Miho Okawara at MiHONAiLS. Set design by Gille Mills at 11th House Agency.

Produced by AP Studio, Inc.; Executive Producer: Alexis Piqueras; Producer: Anneliese Kristedja; Production Managers: Hayley Stephon, Ben Gutierrez; Production Coordinator: Miranda Dos Santos; Photo Assistants: Lee Morgan, Cornell Agee Jr., Kristi Neilson; Digital Technician: Miguel De Leon; Wardrobe Supervisor: Ryan Dodson; Senior Fashion Assistant: Tara Greville; Fashion Assistants: Antonio "Tony" Soto, Raea Palmieri, Lauren Marron, Branden Ruiz, Bota Abdul, John Celaya; Production Assistants: Tiziano D’Affuso, Gigi Rosenfield, Richard Monteiro, Sammi Kugler, Jeung Bok Holmquist, Drew Carter, Anderson Renno, Alan Krohn, Alex Coopersmith; 1st AD: Ev Salomon; Location Managers: Brenda Ferrell, Sheri Salinas, Carolyn Perry; Hair Assistant: Ziff Anthony; Manicure Assistant: Emi Kutsuna; Set Assistants: Dirk Knibbe, Corey Granet; Tailors: Tim White; Alvard Bazikyan and Hasmik Kournian at Susie’s Custom Designs, Inc. Thank you to Parkwood Entertainment and Blond Productions.

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