Country/Roots Guitarist Yasmin Williams Criticizes Beyoncé’s “Cowboy Carter”

Yasmin Williams at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival (photo: Yasmin Williams)

Yasmin Williams has already proven herself to have an uncommon level of moxie, and a natural disposition to not conform. The roots guitarist known for fusing a host of disciplines and styles into her own original expressions only performs by herself, except for on the rare occasion of a collaboration. Yet through her spellbinding talent and technique, Yasmin Williams has won acceptance and adulation throughout the roots world. Few instrumentalists are able to weave storytelling into their instrumentation like Williams.

At the 2023 Telluride Bluegrass Festival in Colorado, Williams came out on the massive stage usually populated by towering bluegrass bands full of legendary performers, or electric jamgrass outfits with their improvisational prowess—along with the occasional full-blown country band—and set out to try and win the attention of the 10,000+ audience with just her acoustic guitar.

With her unique picking and playing styles, the Alexandria, Virginia native filled up the stage and the entire valley in Telluride with infectious rhythms and involved melodies that stoked the imagination like psychedelic chemicals. As Saving Country Music reported, this earned Williams “one of the biggest standing ovations all weekend.”

Now Yasmin Williams is bravely tackling the issue of Beyoncé’s new album Cowboy Carter. Concerns heading into the release included how the album could overshadow country and roots music’s native Black women. For some, that concern was satisfied by the appearance of Rhiannon Giddens on the album’s debut single “TEXAS HOLD ‘EM,” as well as Tanner Adell, Brittany Spencer, Tierra Kennedy, and Reyna Roberts on Beyoncé’s remake of The Beatles song “BLACKBIIRD.”

There has also been some preliminary data that some other Black women in the country space have seen a goosing in Spotify streams, Instagram followers, and other metrics through the Cowboy Carter conversation. However, it’s likely going to take months or years to truly evaluate the impact of the album on the Black women of country music, let alone the country genre in general.

But what Yasmin Williams sees beyond the existing collaborations on Cowboy Carter is a missed opportunity to tell a deeper story, along with a commercial exploitation of country music’s current popularity, especially through Beyoncé choosing to bring in other superstar-level performers such as Post Malone and Miley Cyrus into the mix as opposed to more country collaborators, including Black ones.

In a series of tweets posted after Cowboy Carter‘s release, Yasmin Williams said,

Why change the lyrics to Jolene? Why give Miley Cyrus and Post Malone longer, more involved features while the black country artists on their features get only small snippets of singing time? Why cover Blackbird and add literally nothing to it but some random background vocals?

A black country renaissance album with Post Malone and Miley Cyrus on it… and even a Levi’s plug! Whew.

The influx of popular artists releasing country albums this year also speaks to this. She clearly was not trying to showcase the talents of black country artists in a real way, which I’m sure is extremely disappointing to the black country folks busting their asses to make it.

If this is the album that was supposed to reclaim & spread awareness of the black roots of country music, it’s doing a poor job. This seems to be more of an attempt to capitalize on the growing popularity of pop-country than to actually educate anyone on the history of the genre.

But of course, if you have the audacity to criticize Queen Bey, the Stans will come after you, which is exactly what they did.

“You can’t get canceled when you NEVER happened to begin with. A bitter bottom feeder with false claims for fake engagement from people who will NEVER support your music … Get off beys cl*t and try to get it on your own,” one X/Twitter user posted.

Another responded, “Shut ya black bitter ass up SIR.”

But undeterred, Yasmin Williams penned an opinion piece published in The Guardian, which expanded upon her opinions and perspective as a Black woman in the country and roots space.

“The promise of Beyoncé’s country album was exciting to me,” Yasmin says. “However, on hearing ‘Cowboy Carter’ this weekend, I felt as though little work had been done to utilise the breadth of knowledge of Beyoncé’s collaborators or the Black country/traditional music community at large. Beyoncé settled for using Giddens’ banjo and Randolph’s pedal steel as props to back up the overall production on the record, instead of boosting these traditions to the forefront on an album with an artificial sheen. Moreover, it felt in greater conversation with an exclusionary mainstream – and like a capitalist gesture to insert itself into that world.”

This was a similar take to others who were surprised by the lack of country bonafides on the album. Despite the amount of think pieces talking about Cowboy Carter reclaiming country music’s Black roots and history the of the banjo, only one Cowboy Carter track actually features a banjo, and few actually sound country.

Yasmin goes on to say, “Despite Cowboy Carter’s use of funk, psychedelia and even Jersey club, Beyoncé’s flagrant leaning on country aesthetics to establish this album as being markedly different from her previous records suggests an artist conforming to the standards of the latter category in order to cash in on the growing popularity of country music.”

As Yasmin cites, the popularity of country music is dramatically spiking thanks to the widespread popularity of Morgan Wallen, Zach Bryan, Luke Combs, and other major country stars. Meanwhile, when physical copies of Cowboy Carter went to print, five tracks were eliminated. Three of those tracks were the ones that involved pioneering Black country artist Linda Martell, while the interludes involving Willie Nelson and Dolly Parton were untouched, as were the collaborations with Post Malone and Miley Cyrus.

It’s not just the ethnicity of performers that can result in exclusionary practices in popular music. There is also a gulf between the mainstream and independent, the popular like Miley Cyrus and Post Malone, and the critically-acclaimed like Linda Martell and Yasmin Williams.

Yasmin Williams continues in The Guardian, “It’s unfortunate: the album would have benefited from de-centring its superstar and letting the experts she trusted to join her in creating the album to shine brighter. As it stands, it feels as though Beyoncé has put the Carter before the horse.”

Part of these unmet expectations might also be the responsibility of the lofty expectations that the media created for Cowboy Carter in obsequious puff pieces proclaiming that the album would wholesale transform the country genre forevermore, and return it to the domain of Black America. Meanwhile, Beyoncé was clear she didn’t even see it as a country album, but as a “Beyoncé album,” once again making herself the center of attention.

Nonetheless, it’s clear that Beyoncé did put out an effort to include Black women in the country space in collaborative roles on Cowboy Carter. You can’t include everyone in a project of this capacity. But instead of being an album that helped track back and expose the Black roots of country music, the album seemed more aimed at feting Beyoncé. With the amount of public praise for Cowboy Carter, it’s hard to argue it hasn’t accomplished this goal.

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