Ken Burns Talks Beyoncé’s ‘Cowboy Carter,’ Compares New Album to Beatles’ ‘White Album’: ‘She’s Got Guts!’

From Vice President Kamala Harris to Michelle Obama, everyone has something to say about Cowboy Carter. Since its March 29 release, Beyoncé’s eighth solo studio album has dominated conversations around the world – with its masterful mélange of genres as disparate as Americana and Brazilian funk and its sly connections to its Billboard 200-topping predecessor, 2022’s Renaissance

Cowboy Carter arrives amid a mainstream country boom, with acts like Morgan Wallen, Lainey Wilson and Luke Combs scoring some of the genre’s biggest crossover hits in over a decade. While country legends like Willie Nelson and Dolly Parton appear on the album, Beyoncé also ropes in some of the genre’s ascendant contemporary stars, including Tanner Adell, Brittney Spencer, Reyna Roberts, Tiera Kennedy, Willie Jones and Shaboozey. Her decision to predicate the album on the genre’s oft-disregarded Black roots and her own family legacy has provided an intriguing juxtaposition to an era of mainstream country music that’s as rap-influenced as some of Beyoncé’s own pre-Cowboy Carter hits. 

The current lay of the land for country music is one of the most fascinating in mainstream music – particularly for Ken Burns, who directed 2019’s Country Music, an eight-part documentary series chronicling the history and evolution of country in American culture. In the documentary, which spawned a Billboard chart-topping soundtrack titled Country Music: A Film by Ken Burns, there is an extensive exploration of the African roots of the banjo and how pivotal the instrument was, in addition to Black and Mexican musicians, in cultivating the genre. Country Music also features contributions from Grammy-winning musician and scholar Rhiannon Giddens, who plays the banjo on Cowboy Carter’s historic Billboard Hot 100 No. 1 single “Texas Hold ‘Em.” In celebration of Cowboy Carter, Burns also curated a “Black Icons of Country Music” video playlist on his digital platform, UNUM. 

In a lively conversation, with Billboard, Emmy-winning documentarian Ken Burns discusses Cowboy Carter, how the new record recalls the BeatlesWhite Album, Beyoncé’s covers of “Blackbird” and “Jolene,” and the important role Queen Bey plays in the archival of Black music.

When did you first hear that Beyoncé was “going country?” What came to mind for you? 

I don’t remember when I heard it, but it’s now ubiquitous. You can’t unhear it. We have silos out of commerce and convenience. Commerce wants to have a separate R&B from a separate rock’n’roll from a separate gospel from a separate classical from a separate jazz from a separate country from a separate Americana, etc. 

I suppose [these are] easy descriptions for those of us [who] write about it, but they don’t exist. People listen to everything, and that’s what’s great. All of the original major country stars had a Black mentor of some kind. Take The Carter Family: A.P. Carter would travel around with the song collector, a Black man named Leslie Riddle. Jimmie Rogers — who, with The Carter Family, is the Saturday night and Sunday morning of country music’s genesis — learned everything from the Black railroad gangs that he worked with in Mississippi as a kid. Hank Williams, who is called the “Hillbilly Shakespeare,” learned everything he knew about music, he said, from a man named Rufus “Tee Tot” Payne.

Bill Monroe, the father of bluegrass music, had Arnold Schultz as his mentor, another black man. Johnny Cash could barely play two chords on the guitar before he met Gus Cannon on a stoop in Memphis in the early 50s, he had been a blues singer since the ’20s. It’s always been there. These silos are actually nonexistent. 

You’re hitting on a thread that Beyoncé alluded to in her Instagram message detailing some of the inspiration behind Cowboy Carter. One significant event along the five-year journey to the new album was her 2016 CMAs performance with The Chicks. Were you aware of the controversy around that? 

Very, but the thing is: Who cares? This is what we focus on. We focus on the crucifixion, and we forget about the teaching. You have the Dixie Chicks – which automatically means it’s going to be controversial – and you have a Black woman, is that going to bring out a cr-cker who’s going to say something stupid? Of course it is! We’re in a polarized America. But at what point do we stop writing about the fact that people divide up completely superficially along lines of race and gender and politics? The important thing is she played, it’s a really good song, she played it really well and her new album is filled with great wonders. And let us also remember that the number one country single of all time is by a Black gay rapper. 

I’ve centered race and the story of race in a lot of my films, and it bothered a lot of people — in the same way your question is talking about people who were bothered by her presence [at the CMAs]. They’re just repeating knucklehead ideas that have been around as long as people have been around — that you can other somebody and justify this separation. The other side of it is understanding the universal appeal of the country music, which is three chords and the truth, these little stories that are respective of who we are as human beings.

Art is way ahead of us as journalists and as people and culture who can’t get our act together. Artists are always reminding us that these barriers are nonexistent. You do not need a passport as a Black person or any kind of person to come into country music and find a home. 

In your 2019 documentary, you spoke extensively about the African history of the banjo and the pivotal role that Black and Mexican musicians played in crafting what we now understand to be country music. On her album, Beyoncé loops in Black country pioneer Linda Martell and newcomers like Tanner Adell. Why do you think it was important for her to bring these artists along with her on this specific journey? 

She knows that [with] just her mere presence. she’s making a huge statement. She knows that she’s not the first person here, and she’s trying to remind us that all of us stand on the shoulders of giants. Those shoulders were both black and white shoulders. There’s an incredible irony to me, that somehow white country is so mainstream that it feels compelled to say to a Black woman, “You can’t come in this door.” She’s in. She’s in anywhere. It doesn’t matter. Lil Nas X is in. Rhiannon Giddens is in. Linda Martell is in, her album in 1970 was fantastic. I remember I worked in a record store in 1970 and we sold it! 

Have you listened to Cowboy Carter yet? 

Yeah, I love it. “Texas Hold ’Em” is so fabulous. It’s really great and very bossy. And she’s not even conforming to the tiniest role that women often assume in country. She’s recognizing its pioneers, that’s why she’s lauding Dolly [Parton], who is, far and away, one of the greatest composers of all time in any genre. [Dolly] was accused of leaving country music, and she said, “I’m not leaving country music, I’m taking it with me.” When Grace Slick and other female rock ‘n’ rollers in ‘60s were hypersexualized, Loretta Lynn was writing “Don’t Come Home a Drinkin’” and “The Pill,” [songs] you could say are proto-feminist. She’d never say “I’m a feminist,” but it was proto-feminist long before anybody like Joan Baez was saying stuff like this. 

We’ve just got to understand, particularly in “Texas Hold ‘Em,” [Beyoncé] just walks in the door. It’s like a saloon in a Western. She uses the word “b–ch,” she’s unafraid to [reject] the assumption that a woman will be a certain way. That has never been her way, and we’re lucky for it because she becomes a pioneer. 

Rhiannon Giddens, who lent her knowledge to Country Music, plays the banjo on “Texas Hold ‘Em.” What do you think is the importance of her specific presence on the track? 

First of all, she’s one of the greatest human beings I’ve ever met. She has combined exquisite musicianship and an understanding that there are no borders with this incredible interest in history. In fact, I’m working on a history of the American Revolution, and there’s Rhiannon Giddens doing a percussive, vocal, unbelievable version of — you wouldn’t recognize it unless I’m telling you — “Amazing Grace.” I’m nowhere near as smart as Beyoncé, and if I know to go to Rhiannon, then she already knew!

Outside of “Texas,” were there any other moments on the album jumped out at you in terms of what they could have been referencing ? 

I felt like it was kind of like a Sgt. Pepper’s [Lonely Hearts Club Band.] It was sort of experimental in parts. There’s small takes. there’s long takes. It’s just a laboratory. I guess Taylor Swift and Beyoncé, to my mind, rule the world, and I’m perfectly okay with it! [Laughs]. [Cowboy Carter feels] like you were just asked to grow up a little bit. Put on some big boy pants and come along where [she’s] at. 

From The Beatles to Brazilian funk, Beyoncé is pulling from a ridiculous range of influences on this album. It’s almost like an epic in itself. 

Isn’t she saying that there are no borders? All of this stuff is her gam! So, maybe you don’t say Sgt. Peppers, you say the White Album, in which you have the greatest heavy metal song. In a couple of places, you have the most beautiful love ballad. There’s some great country pieces in several places. Is there great experimental stuff? Yes. Is there a Beach Boys song? Yes. Is there a Bob Dylan song? Yes. Is there a folk song? Yes. And she’s just one person! It took four [people] to make that album, plus George Martin. You’ve got “Helter Skelter,” “Birthday,” one of the greatest songs of all time in “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” and it’s non Lennon-McCartney, you’ve got “Blackbird”! It’s still revelatory to me when I listen to it. So, Beyoncé said, “I’m going into country, but, by the way, I’m bringing every other musical form with me.” 

Obviously, Beyoncé covers both “Blackbird” and Dolly Parton’s “Jolene” on Cowboy Carter. How did those reimaginings land for you? 

“Blackbird” has gravitated into McCartney saying, in recent years, that it’s about Black women in the struggle for civil rights. Whether that’s true or not — maybe that’s one of the meanings of it — doesn’t really matter. I trust Sir Paul, but Lady Beyoncé, or Queen, I should say, has given us this as a way of saying, “What are you all actually talking about whenever you say ‘no’?” That’s all we do in our dialectic, is say ‘no.’ And she’s a resounding yes

“Jolene” is wonderful. It’s such a great, great vibe. We have this music given to us by the gods that’s coursing through us, and each generation has to rediscover and reexamine what we’re saying and how we’re saying it. She’s got guts. It’s not just this album, it’s just the last three or four — you just go, “Whoa, where did she come from? How lucky are we?” And when you stop and think about how defining Black music has been for all of American culture over the generations, the fact that there’s still [such ignorant white people] left in this country just makes you go, “I really feel sorry for them.” [Laughs.]

In terms of categorizing the album, whether that’s via Billboard’s own charts or by separate awards institutions, do you consider this a country album? What do you anticipate those conversations looking like in the coming months and what do you think the impact would be should she get slotted into “pop” or “urban contemporary” instead of “country?” 

She’s not gonna be barred from country. She can be picked off the white male, drum kit, electrified, programmed radio stuff, I suppose. I don’t know what it will become. I think she’s a force in music and I don’t think we have to make too much about it. Look at Willie Nelson and Dolly Parton, [who both appear on Cowboy Carter]. They bridge gaps between people. They have kept factions within country and pop music together, talking to each other for generations. He, she, and now Beyoncé and others are reminders of our possibilities of being together — of not othering people.  

Outside of “Texas Hold ‘Em,” what are your three favorite tracks from the album? 

I can’t hide behind “Texas?” [Laughs.] “Texas” is one of them! Two of them would be cover covers and that would be “Blackbird” and “Jolene.” I don’t think there’s a better song on Earth than “Jolene” and Beyoncé knows that. And I think, “Smoke Hour,” it’s just a small little thing, a riff. It’s like when you’d hear these alternative takes of stuff on Beatles anthologies and you realize they had to go through there to arrive at what they did. 

How do you think we can best structure conversations around this album so that we’re not bottlenecking the larger conversation around Black country music and its contemporary artists? 

If you focus on the crucifixion and not on the teaching, you’ve missed it. So, if we’re always saying, “Oh, 2016 Dixie Chicks controversy, Black Woman, people protest, whatever,” we’ve missed the opportunity to just say, “Well, this is a whole bunch of really great new songs?” I’m now required by the nature of our conversation to say, “by a woman who happens to be Black.” Which means bupkis, right? And of course, in America, it means everything. We’re never going to get away from it, but that’s what we want to do. And when you have artists like Beyoncé, she’s just saying, “Don’t buy the con. Don’t invest in this. Invest in something else.” She’s trying to stretch herself and she’s an artist who makes music and is inviting us along. 

In terms of this album’s dedication to archiving the expanse of America music — and highlighting the Black foundation of virtually all of that music — what would you liken that to in popular media? 

There’s a big project at the Smithsonian in the ‘30s that collected the sounds of America. They recorded slaves that were still alive, people who remembered slavery, old men and women, folk tunes and things like that. It was part of the New Deal’s attempt to rebuild the country. We took stock of ourselves, and I feel [Beyoncé’s] appeal to archive is remembering that as much as all of this stuff is brand new, it owes its existence to what came before. 

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