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Does Country Radio’s Treehouse Have Room for Beyoncé?

Does Country Radio’s Treehouse Have Room for Beyoncé?

When Beyoncé dropped two songs during the Super Bowl in February, it was almost pointless to ask whether they would become pop-culture phenomena. She’s Beyoncé; of course they would scale the charts and inspire a thousand memes.

But another, trickier question soon took shape, highlighting music’s complex genre and racial fault lines: Would country radio stations support Beyoncé’s new direction, with its plucked banjos, foot stomps and lyrics rhyming Texas and Lexus? Or would one of the world’s most influential stars languish in the margins of a format so inhospitable to female artists that, as one radio consultant advised in 2015, songs by women should be minimized on country playlists to ensure that “the tomatoes of our salad are the females”? (Even now, Nashville progressives seethe in remembrance of “Tomato-gate.”)

In the wider pop music world, radio has largely ceded its former star-making mojo to streaming and social media. But country stations still retain a significant gatekeeping power, elevating favored performers and mediating the genre’s metes and bounds for audiences and the industry at large.

With her latest album, “Cowboy Carter” — its cover depicts the star on a horse’s saddle, holding an American flag and decked out in a cowboy hat and red-white-and-blue rodeo gear — Beyoncé could be a litmus test for the format’s openness and adaptability. As many commentators see it, that goes for Beyoncé’s own music as well as for Black female country performers like Mickey Guyton and Rissi Palmer, who have found solid fan bases but barely cracked radio playlists.

“This could be a major turning point,” said Leslie Fram, the senior vice president of music and talent for Country Music Television and a former radio programmer and D.J.

Yet a month and a half after the debut of those two first singles, “Texas Hold ’Em” and “16 Carriages,” and on the eve of the release of “Cowboy Carter” on Friday, the results of that test are still murky.

When “Texas Hold ’Em” went to No. 1 on Billboard’s flagship country singles chart, Beyoncé noted the historic achievement. “I feel honored,” she wrote in an Instagram post in March, “to be the first Black woman with the number one single on the Hot Country Songs chart.”

It wasn’t radio, however, that made “Texas Hold ’Em” a country hit. Positions on Billboard’s chart are computed from a combination of streaming, sales and airplay data, and while the track’s streams and downloads were strong, its radio spins were modest. On Billboard’s Country Airplay chart — a more focused barometer of radio programming decisions — “Texas Hold ’Em” has so far climbed only as high as No. 33. (In a sign of the song’s wide appeal — and, perhaps, of Beyoncé’s imperviousness to country radio’s decisions, whatever they may be — it also spent two weeks at No. 1 on Billboard’s all-genre Hot 100 singles chart.)

Still, songs can take months to bubble through country playlists, and there is a full album to come. Beyoncé has teased collaborations “with some brilliant artists who I deeply respect,” and Dolly Parton has been quoted suggesting that the album may include a version of her ultra-classic “Jolene.” (A representative of Beyoncé declined to comment for this article.)

As difficult as country radio has been for women to break into, it has been doubly so for Black artists. In an interview this month in Nylon, Guyton laid out the stakes of Beyoncé’s country move for musicians like her: “I hope when she’s here for this album, it not only continues the conversation, but continues giving artists, people of color, to have a career in country music, and that it’s not a fad.”

Many top programmers have, at least publicly, flashed a thumbs-up for Beyoncé. Travis Moon of 93Q in Houston, Beyoncé’s hometown, said he was the first to officially put “Texas Hold ’Em” in rotation. “My gut was that the song sounded great in the mix,” he said in an interview. Tim Roberts, country format captain for the Audacy chain, which includes 21 country stations among its 220-plus roster, said he welcomed Beyoncé and the attention she brought to the format.

But country radio can be punishing to those perceived as outsiders or dilettantes, and programmers may be scanning for signals from their audience before pushing further. “I think part of it depends on how committed the artist is to the format,” Roberts added. “Is this a one-time wonder, or is there going to be more?”

Beyoncé herself may have stoked this question when she declared on social media: “This ain’t a Country album. This is a ‘Beyoncé’ album.”

All that raises questions about the longstanding tribalism of the country market and the business that shapes it. Soon after Beyoncé released “Texas Hold ’Em” and “16 Carriages,” industry executives gathered in Nashville for the annual Country Radio Seminar, where Beyoncé was a hot topic. According to attendees, there was excitement but also hints of territorial conflicts. Jada Watson, a Canadian academic who studies country radio, said that at least one attendee expressed concern about Beyoncé “clogging up their charts.”

Merely by announcing her project, Beyoncé has sparked a debate about the tangled racial history of country music, and of the genre’s rarely acknowledged, but intensely defended, boundaries. On Instagram, she said “Cowboy Carter” was “born out of an experience that I had years ago where I did not feel welcomed … and it was very clear that I wasn’t.”

Interpreting that statement, fans zeroed in on Beyoncé’s performance with the Chicks (then known as the Dixie Chicks) at the Country Music Association Awards in 2016, which led to an online backlash. But there have been other perceived slights, like the singer’s brass-and-guitars track “Daddy Lessons” not being nominated for a country Grammy that same year.

For those paying attention, Beyoncé has been revealing her country bona fides for years, frequently calling out her Texas roots — plus “My daddy Alabama, mama Louisiana” in the song “Formation” — and sporting cowboy hats with jeans as far back as her Destiny’s Child days.

Some in the business are skeptical of Beyoncé’s chances of success on country stations. Nate Deaton of KRTY.com, an online-only station south of San Francisco, described “Texas Hold ’Em” as “extraordinarily average,” and said, “If that was any other female artist, it wouldn’t see the light of day.”

Joel Raab, a longtime consultant, said that early audience research on “Texas Hold ’Em” yielded enough “dislike” reactions to suggest that listeners were “somewhat polarized” on the track. Despite supportive statements made by top programmers about the song, Raab said, “In reality they’re not playing it very much. They want to be politically correct, but maybe they don’t want to get the BeyHive after them,” referring to the star’s vociferously loyal fandom.

Historically, country crossover attempts can be unpredictable. Darius Rucker of Hootie & the Blowfish had no obvious advantage when he released his country solo album “Learn to Live” in 2008, yet it was a smash. But when Sheryl Crow tried with “Feels Like Home” in 2013, she found only limited success at country stations.

“If it’s a great enough song, it will supersede any objections,” Roberts of Audacy said. “If country radio gets better ratings, they will play the living daylights out of it.”

And the tomato factor may still be real, particularly for Black women. Watson, an assistant professor of information studies at the University of Ottawa, said that while playlists briefly became more diverse after the furor of 2015, they have lately gotten worse. According to Watson’s study of industry data, just 9.87 percent of airplay on country stations in the United States in 2023 was for songs by women — and 9.81 percent were for songs by white women.

“Quite unfortunately,” Watson said, “it hasn’t changed.”

But no one is counting Beyoncé out yet. Tom Poleman, the chief programming officer at iHeartMedia, the largest radio chain in the United States with more than 850 stations, noted Beyoncé’s success across a variety of formats, saying that in addition to being played on every one of iHeart’s 125 country stations, “Texas Hold ’Em” has been heard on its Top 40, R&B, rhythmic, urban and hot adult contemporary stations.

“The bottom line is, Beyoncé is doing what very few artists have ever done,” Poleman said. “She’s achieving airplay on six formats simultaneously and breaking down barriers, showing that a great artist is bigger than any genre definition.”

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