Note from Alyssa: I am so excited to have my friend Betsy Phillips joining us today on Act Four. Betsy blogs on the Nashville Scene’s political blog, Pith in the Wind, where she offers her opinions on politics and Nashville history. She also writes ghost stories. Please give her a warm welcome.
When the Grammy nominations were announced last week, the Associated Press reported that Beyoncé’s “Daddy Lessons” had been rejected by the Recording Academy’s country music committee and thus would not be considered in the country music category.
This isn’t the first — or second — time “Daddy Lessons” has been rejected by the country music establishment. When the song first came out and a DJ on Orlando’s K92.3 played it, the station’s fans mutinied, claiming that the song wasn’t country and that Beyoncé should “stay in her lane.” When Beyoncé played the song with the Dixie Chicks at the Country Music Association Awards, country star Travis Tritt complained, “as a country artist I’m insulted that the CMA thinks we have to have a pop artist on our award show to appeal to big crowds.”
But leaving aside the question of whether Beyoncé should be singing country music, is “Daddy Lessons” a country music song?
There are certain instrumentations we might expect to hear in a country song — a steel guitar, a banjo, a fiddle or two — that are absent from “Daddy Lessons.” But how different is that from Maren Morris’s fantastic “My Church,” which is up for both Best Country Song and Best Country Solo Performance? Is the inclusion of some “yeehaws,” a couple of mentions of Texas and a “oo-ih-hoo” yodeled in the background enough to make it a country song? If not, do we have to toss Jimmie “The Father of Country Music” Rodgers out of the genre as well, since it’s those three elements that make his music recognizable as country music to modern fans?
Country music has certain recognizable tropes — drinking, mamma and violence among them. “Daddy Lessons’” lyrics share the same imagery — “Daddy drinks his whiskey with his tea;” “take care of your mother;” “My daddy said shoot.” Those tropes aren’t limited to country music, of course. Southern black women have been singing about these very things since before Geeshie Wiley recorded “Last Kind Words” in 1930. But why isn’t “Last Kind Words” a country song? It’s sung by a rural Southern woman, contains the tropes we recognize as country tropes and sounds like an ancient country song.
Or consider “Sitting on Top of the World.” Both the Mississippi Sheiks and Bob Wills performed the song with very similar arrangements — bluesy male voices over fiddle — playing and singing at a very similar tempo, in very similar styles. If you didn’t know the race of the performers, very few people would think those two takes on the same song were in different genres. But the Mississippi Sheiks are considered an early blues band and Bob Wills, of course, is a country star.
Country music is not as much a sound or a style as it is a marketing term, a label that tells an audience that has already self-identified as a country audience that this is a song for them. Country music is ultimately what country music fans will accept hearing on country music radio (or what programmers think they’ll accept), and there is a large racial component to that. As much as black people have always been country music fans and have always made music that sounds country, with rare exceptions (Charley Pride being the most notable), they have not been welcome into the country music fold. Since almost the beginning, country music has been marketed to white people as music made for them by white people.
“Daddy Lessons” isn’t a country song because, by and large, country radio programmers and country fans didn’t accept it as one. And I think we can take Tritt and the fans on Facebook at their word — they wouldn’t accept it as a country song because they won’t accept Beyoncé as a country artist. There are unfortunate, long-standing historical reasons for that, but if the Grammy committee is using country music’s willingness to recognize a song as a country song, then you can see why “Daddy Lessons” wasn’t allowed to compete for a country Grammy.
Still, it doesn’t seem fair. If it sounds like a country song, if it fits in a long country tradition and if the artist sees it as a country song, why can’t it be one?
Country music has a long history of making boneheaded decisions about who is not country music. After Johnny Cash won his Grammy for Best Country Album in 1998, he and his producer, Rick Rubin, ran an ad in Billboard that featured Cash flipping the bird to the camera. The text read, “American Recordings and Johnny Cash would like to acknowledge the Nashville music establishment and country radio for your support.” That would be the utter lack of support they gave a man they ignored for years, whom they’ve now retconned into a country music legend whom they always loved.
Earlier this year, Sturgill Simpson, who is nominated for Album of the Year and Best Country Album, made a similar point about Nashville’s treatment of Merle Haggard: “In the last chapter of his career and his life, Nashville wouldn’t call, play, or touch him. He felt forgotten and tossed aside.” Now the Academy of Country Music has the Merle Haggard Spirit Award.
So, who can say whether “Daddy Lessons” won’t someday be a country song and Beyoncé seen as one of our biggest country artists? At the moment, she can take comfort in being in the same boat Cash and Haggard found themselves in. That’s not bad company to keep.