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Beyoncé's 'Texas Hold 'Em' adds to a long legacy of Black women in country music

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Well, Beyonce has made history again.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TEXAS HOLD 'EM")

BEYONCE: (Singing) This ain't Texas, ain't no hold 'em...

CHANG: The artist dropped "Texas Hold 'Em" in a surprise announcement during the Super Bowl, and that song has already rocketed to the top of Billboard's Hot Country Songs chart. She is now the first Black woman to ever hold that spot. But, you know, Black women have been influential throughout the history of this genre. To put this moment into context, we called Francesca Royster. She's a professor at DePaul University and the author of the book "Black Country Music: Listening For Revolutions." Welcome.

FRANCESCA ROYSTER: Thank you, Ailsa. I'm so excited to be here.

CHANG: Oh, I'm so excited to talk to you. OK. I mean, we need to talk about the moments in country music history that got us to this moment for Beyonce - right? - because you can't understand what's going on now without starting with Linda Martell. She was the first Black woman to find commercial success in country with her 1970s hit "Bad Case Of The Blues." Let's take a listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BAD CASE OF THE BLUES")

LINDA MARTELL: (Singing) Living and a-working in the city, I thought I was a big girl. Oh, I felt so smart, and my own life, I could choose...

CHANG: Oh, I am swaying in my chair. Tell us about Linda Martell's impact on country music. I love this song.

ROYSTER: She's great. She's such a wonderful storyteller, and her humor is just so right in that song. But she's had such a great impact because her album, "Color Me Country" was, you know, the first album by a Black woman to chart singles. She also, you know, was the first Black woman to be on the Grand Old (ph) Opry stage...

CHANG: Wow.

ROYSTER: ...To perform there. And, you know, she also performed on "Hee Haw" and some other, like, very mainstream super country music...

CHANG: Right.

ROYSTER: ...Spaces where Black women aren't usually allowed to go. But she also musically influenced a whole generation of country music singers after her, from Rissi Palmer to Mickey Guyton and Brittney Spencer and others.

CHANG: Yeah. Can we talk about Rissi Palmer? - because I know you are very excited to talk about her. Another important country artist, she exploded onto the scene in 2007 with her song "Country Girl."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "COUNTRY GIRL")

RISSI PALMER: (Singing) Oh, you don't have to be a Georgia peach from Savannah Beach to say...

CHANG: And she's had continued success since then, right? She even has a podcast spotlighting minority voices in country.

ROYSTER: Yes, Rissi Palmer is amazing, you know, in her own right as a performer. She's made beautiful music from "Still Here" that she did with Miko Marks to her song "Country Girl," but she also has this amazing podcast, "Color Me Country." She's getting artists to tell their own stories, to connect the artists with producers and other music-makers in the industry. She also has created the Color Me Country Fund, which helps, you know, fund emerging artists and gives them a way to record their music. So I just think she's really, like, a one-woman force in terms of really changing and creating routes of access for country music artists of color.

CHANG: Well, I do want to get to Beyonce, of course. And with respect to Beyonce herself, I mean, this moment of being at the top of Billboard's Hot Country Songs, it didn't just come out of the blue for her because she did lay down some of the groundwork. Like, her 2016 album "Lemonade" had this one country song on it called "Daddy Lessons," which I know was also released as a single with The Chicks or formerly Dixie Chicks. Let's take a listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DADDY LESSONS")

BEYONCE: (Singing) With his gun, with his head held high, he told me not to cry. Oh, my daddy said shoot. Oh, my daddy said shoot.

CHANG: Whoo-hoo (ph). All right, well the big moment for this song was when Beyonce and The Chicks performed it together at the Country Music Awards, right?

ROYSTER: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, that was an amazing performance. It was right on the, cusp of the presidential election. It was an important moment in terms of kind of racial connections and also racial tensions. But the song is so amazing because it is a song that kind of demonstrates the organicness of country music to Black music. And I think it fits in so well with "Lemonade," where Beyonce is, like, using all kinds of musical sounds.

CHANG: Yeah.

ROYSTER: And it includes just, like, very, very casually, "Daddy Lessons" in it. So it's an important kind of claim to country that, you know, is - totally makes sense for someone from Houston, you know, who rode horses as a kid.

CHANG: Exactly. Well, let me ask you, I mean, what do you think Beyonce's success right now with "Texas Hold 'Em" and the other song she just released, "16 Carriages," which is also charting - what do you think that says about her future in country music specifically?

ROYSTER: Well, it definitely shows that she has an audience. And, you know, listening to the commentary about the song online, you know, on social media - I keep hearing it again and again - Beyonce fans who say, I never liked country music, but now I really - I can hear myself in this music. I can hear my story.

CHANG: Yeah. But what about country music fans who weren't originally Beyonce fans? Are they hearing something in these two songs that they didn't otherwise hear in Beyonce music and now they're converted? What do you think?

ROYSTER: I think that there are those who are country fans who are excited for this and excited for the quality of the music as well and the musicianship. I mean, "Texas Hold 'Em" has Rhiannon Giddens playing banjo and viola, you know...

CHANG: Another Black artist, yep.

ROYSTER: Another Black artist who's an amazing pathbreaker in her own right. And so there's a kind of authenticity and attention to the instruments that, you know, a lot of country fans really want to pay attention to, like, the banjo, to strings and then, you know, amazing storytelling. So there are lots of ways that country fans who might like their country more traditional might find themselves drawn into "Texas Hold 'Em" and "16 Carriages."

CHANG: Francesca Royster, author of the book "Black Country Music: Listening For Revolutions." Thank you so much, Francesca.

ROYSTER: Thank you, Ailsa.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "16 CARRIAGES")

BEYONCE: (Singing) Sixteen carriages driving away while I watch them ride with my fears away to the summer sunset on a holy night on a long back road. All the tears I fight... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Kai McNamee
Sarah Handel
Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.
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