Wednesday night, Nashville, fittingly known as Music City, held its annual blowout celebration of its most popular export.
As it was the 50th anniversary of the Country Music Awards, it was a special evening for the city. The cast of characters was about the same as always: Brad Paisley, Carrie Underwood, George Strait, Garth Brooks, Martina McBride and others took the stage while Stetson-clad fans watched from the stands of the Bridgestone Arena, which sits on the edge of the city’s neon-sign and honky-tonk-lined Lower Broadway entertainment district.
But one name stood out.
Playing alongside the Dixie Chicks — who are currently headlining their first American tour in 10 years — was the one and only Beyoncé.
She performed “Daddy Lessons,” her most country-leaning song.
It begins with a brass band tooting away, the kind you might find at a New Orleans second-line, before slipping into a more countrypolitan singalong a la Dolly Parton. It even contains a hip-hop element called “chopped-and-screwed,” which refers to cutting a song into discordant parts, popularized by DJ Screw in Beyoncé’s home town of Houston.
All to say, the song seems genre-less, which is arguably a current trend in country. (See: Sturgill Simpson’s pedal-steel-drenched cover of Nirvana’s “In Bloom.”)
It’s a fitting set of influences for Beyoncé, who was born in Houston and owns a house with her husband, Jay Z, in New Orleans.
She might not be a country musician, but the song certainly seemed to fit into the ever-expanding definition of country music.
Not everyone saw it that way, of course, and many sounded off on Twitter that they were expecting a more traditional lineup.
Others, though, went straight to the deep well of racism that Twitter seems to serve up by the bucketful.
In a string of tweets, many claimed Beyoncé’s blackness should have been cause for her to be barred from playing the CMAs (which, a quick glance around will tell you, is overwhelmingly white.)
Many of these tweets followed the incredibly obvious, “Does this mean (insert white country star) can play at (insert mostly black awards show)?”
Others were just straight-up racist, unfit for publication.
The irony of these racist tweets, of course, is that — like most all popular music today — at least part of country music is rooted in black culture.
One particularly astute Twitter user noted as much:
Let us not forget that one of Nashville’s more famous historical spaces was Printer’s Alley, home to Jimmy Hyde’s Carousel Club, where country artists and bookers would come to see, and often play, jazz.
Southern musicians would kick it after hours playing jazz classics in long jam sessions. Among them: the likes of Chet Atkins and Boots Randolph, according to Tony Artimisi’s book, “Rhythm Makers: The Drumming Legends of Nashville in Their Own Words.”
Let us not forget, either, that Willie Nelson once said that Ray Charles “did more for country music than any other living human being” in reference to Charles’s 1962 hit album “Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music.” It was the first country record to sell more than 1 million copies.
Nor should we forget DeFord Bailey, a black man born in 1899 who was a master of the harmonica. He became one of the genre’s most popular musicians and helped inspire the name Grand Ole Opry, for which he often played. (The nickname for his style of fluid music that mimicked dance more than classic scores was “Grand Ole Opry.”)
But more presciently, the banjo — one of the genre’s most vital and enduring instruments — traces its roots back to the akonting, a three-string West African instrument that musicologists believe was a precursor to the banjo, as NPR reported.
And as David Whiteis, the author of “Chicago Blues,” wrote for the Chicago Reader, much of the guitar styles seen in country come from black influences.
The black plantation musician of the 1920s led a dual life. He played blues and contemporary dance numbers for black house parties and juke joints, but was also often called upon to perform at white functions. For these he’d modify his repertoire considerably to include pop songs, vaudeville-style novelty numbers, and the folk-based ballads and dance tunes that eventually gave birth to bluegrass and western swing, important precursors to modern country-and-western music.
As the recording industry developed, what had been a relatively free exchange of musical ideas became more of a one-way street: recorded “influences” were generally passed from black to white musicians, to the latter’s artistic and financial benefit. Bluegrass mandolin pioneer Bill Monroe has openly acknowledged his musical debt to a black Kentucky guitarist and fiddle player named Arnold Shultz, who apparently traveled freely in both black and white musical circles before his death in 1931; the western-swing standard “Steel Guitar Rag,” popularized by Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys, was originally recorded as “Guitar Rag” by another black Kentuckian, guitarist Sylvester Weaver, in 1920.
It should be noted that, of course, many were thrilled with Beyoncé’s performance. GQ hyperbolically but sincerely tweeted, “Beyoncé is now the greatest country artist of all time.”
Perhaps the most important endorsement for the performance came from the Grand Ole Opry’s official Twitter account. It’s difficult to argue with the genre’s most storied institution.
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