‘Texas Hold ‘Em’ and ’16 Carriages’: Beyoncé’s Country Music Cards Song Review

Beyoncé's Country Music Cards Song Review | Image Credit: hollywoodreporter.com
Beyoncé’s Country Music Cards Song Review | Image Credit: hollywoodreporter.com

Beyoncé’s 2016 album “Lemonade” featured the song “Daddy Lessons,” which felt too perfect to be a one-off due to the country influence she added to it. What were the chances that she would ever go back to that particular musical inspiration for an album? Probably not as much as they would have been if someone had ever attempted to determine the likelihood that the Rolling Stones would cover a unique country song like “Faraway Eyes” with a whole project that leaned that way. Of course, they never did. In the immediate aftermath of a fantastic dance/club compilation as deeply entrenched in Black music and queer history as “Renaissance,” the possibilities would have appeared immeasurably lower.

Therefore, even if she had briefly shown interest in discovering a new aspect of her home state of Texas. What more unexpected hand could a celebrity have played than the ones Beyoncé just dealt with with “Texas Hold ‘Em” and “16 Carriages”?

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Perhaps, but not in recent memory. Aside from the shock value, “Renaissance Act II” seems certain to be every bit as exciting and thought-provoking as Act I, assuming this two-part teaser is a true hint of what might be in store for the completely un-soundalike sequel.

It’s actually difficult to predict exactly what could be in store for the remainder of the March 29 album because these two tunes are so different from one another. It will be a long month and a half for fans who embrace this diversion, wondering if the full-length project will fall into the more explicit country tropes of “Texas Hold ‘Em,” or toward the more delicate, exquisite, and difficult-to-define Americana of “16 Carriages,” or reveal other flavors that have not yet been hinted at. From this early release, the only things that appear clear are that the focus will be on Lone Star acousticism in some way and that she will look amazing for the length of the campaign wearing a hat and cowboy costume.

In fact, there is one additional element that appears to run throughout this project: the notion of Black music as “country” music. As if that weren’t already apparent given her proclivities to date, it’s crystal-clear from the addition of Rhiannon Giddens as a guest instrumentalist on “Texas Hold ‘Em” playing banjo and viola. Beyoncé chose Giddens for this project, regardless of whether it is for a single song or a larger portion of the album, because she has been at the forefront of educating the public about the fact that the banjo was originally a Black instrument before it was adopted by White people. She selected Robert Randolph, another renowned Black roots artist, to be one of the two acknowledged steel players on “16 Carriages.”

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From what we can tell from these credits, she has gathered a group of producers and co-writers for “Act II,” but beyond them, they don’t appear to have anything in common. Naturally, Bülow and former Stills vocalist Dave Hamelin (who contributed to the song “Alien Superstar” from the previous album) are Canadian icons. Raphael Saadiq is one of the greatest current soul performers. The talent distribution in the known listings simply indicates that she didn’t drive up to Music Row to check on Dave Cobb’s availability or that of anybody else who may be considered a regular suspect when it comes to pulling off a crossover move. Her objective does not appear to be a spot on the CMT Countdown (though, considering CMT’s desire to embrace genre outsiders, she’ll probably get one anyway).

Both of these songs seem to pick up where “Daddy Lessons” left off, both musically (in the case of the lighter-hearted “Texas Hold ‘Em”) and lyrically (in the case of the contemplative “16 Carriages”), telling an overt story of growing up.

“Texas” has a feel comparable to a four-on-the-floor country stomp; the song’s line-dancing scene is easily envisioned as the banjo beginning gives way to a serious beat: “It’s a real-life boogie and a real-life hoedown / Don’t be a bitch, come take it to the floor now.” At the song’s conclusion, Bey freely acknowledges that there is a fashion component to this (as seen by the more than a dozen photos that have already been added to her website): At the end, she sings, “Spurs, spurs, boots / Photogenic, photogenic, shoot.” Even if the photos turned out beautifully, her ability to effortlessly blend her own vocals with Giddens’ viola in the last section shows that she takes her work too seriously and isn’t content to just indulge in clumsy genre tourism.

“16 Carriages” is even more intriguing in light of its potential future direction for Beyoncé. To put it mildly, it sounds a lot more like a Joni Mitchell song at first than a Shania song. Even when the twin steels do enter the song, they do so in a delicate and low-key manner rather than as simple C&W signifiers. “At 15, the innocence had gone astray / Had to leave my house at an early age / I watched Mama prayin’, I saw Daddy grind” (which later translates to “I saw Mama cryin’, I saw Daddy lyin'”) is one of her many explorations of fatherhood concerns. Any hint of a familial scandal is really incidental in a song that mostly talks about being a workhorse and getting ridden too hard before reaching adolescence. It’s a tale as ancient as the world, or at least as old as show business, and it works well as a country tune.

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“Act II” will unavoidably be viewed, and rightfully so, as a continuation of a modest but powerful tradition in which an R&B artist ventures to stake a claim on the country, as was most notably the case with Ray Charles’ seminal “Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music” in 1962. However, when searching for a different classic songbook to cover, Charles was guided to Nashville. With a collection of original songs that defy genre boundaries, Beyoncé may be attempting something new, but it still seems uncharted territory—at least not in the public and outside of the specialized Americana markets where anything is conceivable but not necessarily readily apparent.

It could even qualify as radical (and it might offend some people, judging by the differing reactions to her duet with the Dixie Chicks during the 2016 CMA Awards presentation). Hopefully, though, nobody will be so stupid as to label it as carpetbagging. Being a native of Houston, Beyoncé has every right to pursue a career in country music, or music related to it, just like the suburban cowboys who mash together trap music with bro-country these days. This year might be historic for post-modern sounds in Western and country music, since Lana Del Rey is working on her own country record. Even while the genre has been doing well financially lately without outside help, it might use a major boost from an extraterrestrial celebrity.


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