Beyoncé: “This Ain’t a Country Album.” Billboard: “Yes It Is.”

Advertisement projection on the side of the Guggenheim Museum in New York for ‘Cowboy Carter’

Beyoncé’s Cowboy Carter is officially the #1 album on the Billboard Country Albums chart. This is despite Beyoncé explicitly stating in a March 19th statement, “This ain’t a Country album,” and later underscoring this statement by projecting it on the side of New York City landmarks in a publicity campaign.

Nonetheless, Billboard has decided that country is where Cowboy Carter deserves to be. And with 27 tracks and the massive cross-genre popularity of Beyoncé worldwide, the album is likely to be ensconced at that #1 spot on the country albums chart for the foreseeable future.

Perhaps just as significant or even more, Billboard has also decided to place Beyoncé and Cowboy Carter on the Folk/Americana chart, which is usually reserved for much less commercial projects, and populated more by independent and sometimes unsigned artists. This means that Cowboy Carter will supersede all folk, Americana, and many traditional country titles that also populate on this chart, likely for the coming years.

According to Billboard, Cowboy Carter moved 407,000 units in sales and streaming equivalents in its first week, making it the largest debut in 2024 so far. This also gives Beyoncé her biggest sales week since 2016’s Lemonade debuted with 653,000 units sold. This also constitutes Beyoncé’s biggest week of streaming activity ever.

All of these numbers put Beyoncé at #1 on the all-genre Billboard 200 chart. But most notably, it’s a historic moment since Beyoncé is the first time a Black woman to go #1 on the Billboard Country Albums chart as well.

The decision to place Beyoncé on the Billboard Country Albums chart will come with controversy. Though multiple songs on the 27-track set would constitute country songs by even a loose interpretation of the genre—songs like the cover of Dolly Parton’s “Jolene” and the cover of The Beatles’ “Blackbiird”—it is difficult to impossible to argue that the majority of the songs from Cowboy Carter would not better fit in pop, R&B, or hip-hop categories instead of country.

However, a prevailing canard that Beyoncé intended to release a country album has persisted in popular media and public narratives, despite proclamations by Beyoncé herself, as well as strong critical analysis from a host of outlets and experts, along with substantial evidence that Beyoncé’s intention was not to release a country album.

When the first two songs from the Cowboy Carter album were released on February 11th (“Texas Hold ‘Em” and “16 Carriages”), they were not labeled as country songs, and were not sent to country radio. Instead, they were labeled as pop songs, and were serviced to pop radio. On March 19th, Beyoncé herself said in a detailed statement, “This ain’t a Country album. This is a ‘Beyoncé’ album,” and said the album was an effort to, “bend and blend genres together.”

Shortly thereafter, on March 20th, Beyoncé’s promotional team went on what was characterized as a guerilla publicity campaign in New York City, projecting advertisements for the album on city landmarks, including the Guggenheim Museum, where “This ain’t a Country album. This is a ‘Beyoncé’ albumwas displayed on the side of the building.

On the Cowboy Carter album itself, pioneering Black country performer Linda Martell appears in multiple spoken word segments, also proclaiming the genre fluid nature of Cowboy Carter.

“Genres are a funny little concept, aren’t they? Yes they are,” Martell says at the start of the decidedly non-country track “Spaghetti.” Martell goes on to say, “In theory, they have a simple definition that’s easy to understand. But in practice, well, some may feel confined.”

Linda Martell saying “some may feel confined” by genres was yet again a signal from Beyoncé that she didn’t want this album to be confined by country. Then later in the album during the track, “The Linda Martell Show,” Martell says, “Ladies and gentlemen, this particular tune stretches across a range of genres, and that’s what makes it a unique listening experience.”

Calling Beyoncé’s Cowboy Carter a country album works to confine and compartmentalize her creativity as opposed to honoring her stated objective to make a genre-defying work. It inadvertently denigrates the effort Beyoncé put forth through the album. As a genre fluid album that does not meet the requisite percentage of material to qualify for country, Cowboy Carter should have been placed in pop.

As Saving Country Music has explained, Cowboy Carter was wishcasted into a country album through the media, as well as Stan activity that started before the Super Bowl and suspicions that Beyoncé’s next album would be country. As many have pointed out, physical copies of the album do not come with the title “Cowboy Carter” on them, or the tracks contributed by Linda Martell. This is likely due to last minute changes on the album to realign it with expectations that it was country.

Saving Country Music is not the only outlet to point out these discrepancies, or to assert that Cowboy Carter is not country.

As NPR journalist Santi Elijah Holley said in an April 3rd feature,

“We wanted a country album from her. Badly. Black and Brown country music fans (myself included) have been shouting ourselves hoarse, trying to enlighten people about the history, influence and ongoing presence of Black folks in country music, but our words had largely fallen on deaf ears. Just by putting on a Stetson and mentioning the word ‘country,’ Beyoncé accomplished what we lowly music writers had been trying to do for years. We wanted a Beyoncé country album, so we invented it.

Pop writer Chris Richards writing for The Washington Post also concluded the album was not country, stating, “Rumored to be her big pivot into country music, Beyoncé has headfaked us all, opting instead for an omni-genre grandeur that still only manages to feel cosmetic at best.”

Writing for The Ringer in an article titled “‘Cowboy Carter’ Isn’t a Country Album. It’s a Beyoncé Album,” Meecham Whitson Meriweather states, “Bey has adamantly stated that the newly released Cowboy Carter is not a country album, despite its imagery, Western aesthetic, and country music homages. It is, instead, a ‘Beyoncé album,’ a declaration that she exists outside the box society has tried to place her in. In fact, she is the box, unpacking and creating something new each time.”

These are just a few of the many examples of established music journalists and critics concluding what Beyoncé did herself, but Billboard fails to recognize: Cowboy Carter is not a country album. Instead, fear of accusations of “gatekeeping” and “racism” has prevailed, and Billboard has made a decision that will affect the viability and credibility of the country charts for years to come.

Certainly, Cowboy Carter does have some country inflections in certain songs. Beyoncé’s lead single “Texas Hold ‘Em” also currently sits atop Billboard’s Hot Country Songs chart. Though some may criticize this decision by Billboard as well, comparable tracks can be found in the country format. However, it would be difficult to impossible to find an album with comparably similar overall pop, hip-hop, and R&B content that has been placed on the Billboard Country Albums chart previously, even titles from artists such as Florida Georgia Line and Sam Hunt.

Billboard’s decision is perhaps even more permissive and dangerous when considering that Cowboy Carter also now sits atop the Billboard Americana/Folk Albums chart. This chart is often reserved for even more rootsy, and less commercially applicable projects that get sifted off the country charts.

On Friday, April 5th, Americana/Folk artist John Moreland surprise released a new album called Visitor, and Nashville-based LGBT songwriter Katie Pruitt released her new album Mantras. These are examples of albums that would normally chart in Americana/Folk. Since they are now competing with Beyoncé and Cowboy Carter, it will push them one step down, affecting visibility of the releases.

It is not uncommon for Billboard to decide that a title deserves to be on multiple charts. For example, Zach Bryan’s albums have appeared on the Americana/Folk charts, along with country and rock. Highly commercial artists such as Zach Bryan and Noah Kahan have been dominating the top of the Americana/Folk chart for a while now, though it’s also hard to argue that these artists and their titles don’t belong there.

However, it seems strange that Billboard would choose to double up Cowboy Carter‘s presence in roots categories and not place it in pop or R&B/Hip-Hip, especially since nobody is proclaiming Cowboy Carter as folk.

Until either Zach Bryan or Morgan Wallen release a new album, it is likely Cowboy Carter will remain at #1 on both the Billboard Country Albums and Americana/Folk Albums charts for the foreseeable future, and be a fixture on the top of the charts for years to come, pushing all artists native to these genres down a notch, and refusing them the opportunity to place a #1.

Billboard is just the latest institution to not serve the constituents it’s been charged to, while not even the artist in question considers their work a country album.

© 2024 Saving Country Music