SlateWhy Is This Song No. 1?

Beyoncé Has Embraced Country. That Doesn’t Mean Country Has Embraced Beyoncé.

The singer has the No. 1 song on Billboard’s country chart. That’s not the same as being No. 1 on country radio.

In the summer of 1984, Lionel Richie, in the middle of an epic run of pop and R&B hits from his blockbuster album Can’t Slow Down, chose a fourth single from the LP that was very different from its predecessors. Richie had already stretched himself sonically on the calypso-adjacent “All Night Long (All Night)” (No. 1, 1983), the rocking “Running With the Night” (No. 7, 1984), and the quiet-storm torch song “Hello” (No. 1, 1984). For the follow-up, Richie went with “Stuck on You,” a twangy ballad that for all the world sounded like a country song.

This was not the first time the Alabama-born Richie had dabbled in country disguised as R&B, or R&B fronting like country. When he was with ’70s funk-pop troupe the Commodores, their 1979 hit “Sail On” found Richie crooning in a notably twangy accent. And in 1980, Richie penned “Lady” for Kenny Rogers, a dramatic, unclassifiable ballad that thanks to Kenny’s “Gambler” image topped both the Hot 100 pop chart and Hot Country Singles. But “Stuck on You” was the most overtly country Richie had ever dared try on a chart-bound single under his own name; it echoed the sound of then-leading country band Alabama, and the cover art for the vinyl single even depicted Lionel in a cowboy hat. Because he was on a roll on the pop and R&B charts, “Stuck on You” predictably reached No. 3 on the former and No. 8 on the latter. But its most remarkable achievement was getting Richie on the country chart for the first time—as a front-line artist, not a songwriter for Kenny Rogers. In September 1984, Richie’s “Stuck on You” peaked at a very respectable No. 24, sandwiched between singles by Mickey Gilley and Willie Nelson.

This week, 40 years later, the Texas-born Beyoncé Knowles-Carter places considerably higher on the country chart than Richie did in his 1984 genre debut. In her first try on Hot Country Songs, she enters the chart at No. 1.

“Texas Hold ’Em,” which also enters the all-genre Hot 100 this week at No. 2, is the leadoff single to a forthcoming Beyoncé album—an Act II sequel to 2022’s Renaissance that will purportedly be all country. And on Billboard’s flagship country chart, the song receives a warm welcome. As a visiting pop superstar, like Lionel Richie in 1984—and unlike a certain genre-bending internet savant whose debut single was infamously yanked from Hot Country Songs in 2019 (more on him in a moment)—Queen Bey was instantly cleared for entry on this list. That was not a guarantee.

On balance, I’m happy for Beyoncé because “Texas Hold ’Em” is a strong single with a two-step-worthy rhythm, because it absolutely sounds like a country song thanks in part to banjo playing by the superlative Rhiannon Giddens, and, most important, because crossover by Black performers—especially Black women—on the country chart needs to happen much more often than it does. But at the risk of poking the Beyhive, I’m not sure Beyoncé entering atop this chart proves anything (yet) about her acceptance within the country genre. I daresay Lionel’s No. 24 Hot Country chart peak back in the day was more credible than Bey’s No. 1 debut this week. To understand why I have mixed feelings, I need to (as I often do for Slate) explain how these charts work.

Team Beyoncé gave no notice to the country community, most especially radio programmers, before dropping “Texas Hold ’Em” and its companion single “16 Carriages” (think of it as a de facto B side) during last week’s Super Bowl. The songs were introduced at the end of a Beyoncé-starring, high-concept Verizon commercial, in which the queen tried various stunts to “break the internet.” In the Super Bowl ad’s final stunt, Bey wound up on a rocket ship, quipping, “OK, they ready … drop the new music”—and moments later, in real life, the songs materialized online. They didn’t break the internet, but they did proceed to blow up all over it, drawing millions of YouTube and Spotify plays and instantly starting a guessing game of whether country radio stations would play them. It took less than two days for an Oklahoma country station to stumble into a kerfuffle after a Beyoncé fan emailed to request “Texas Hold ’Em” and was told by a literally clueless program director, who didn’t know that the new Beyoncé country songs existed, that the station didn’t play Beyoncé. The Beyhive came spoiling for a fight, and the exchange prompted several days of predictable social froth.

You can understand why Beyoncé’s fans preemptively had their backs up. For all of its centurylong history—since “hillbilly music” was coined in the 1920s, morphing into “Folk/Country & Western” in Billboard by the 1940s—country music has been marketed with racial essentialism baked in. In her book Black Country Music, Francesca Royster writes: “Despite shifts in critical and artistic conversations on country music and Blackness, there is still the ‘common-sense’ idea operating that country music is consummately white in its consumption, production, and sound, and that’s reflected in the programming of commercial country radio and the gatekeeping of recognition and labeling by organizations like the Country Music Association and the Grammys.” This perhaps explains why, as late as 2016, when Beyoncé visited the CMA Awards to perform her clearly country-leaning Lemonade track “Daddy Lessons” backed by the (then-Dixie) Chicks, several country veterans like Alan Jackson and Travis Tritt either complained or walked out.

Eight years later, Beyoncé is trying the genre again—and this time, her foray into country seems either divinely inspired or commercially canny. She dropped her tracks just a week after Tracy Chapman and Luke Combs dazzled the Grammys, and seemed to temporarily unite America, with their note-perfect duet on Chapman’s 1988 acoustic-folk classic “Fast Car.”* A No. 1 country, No. 2 pop hit last summer, Combs’ cover of Chapman’s “Fast Car” not only gave a Black woman sole songwriting credit on a country chart-topper for the first time ever. It also softened the ground for Beyoncé by serving as the 21st century’s Exhibit A in the seemingly endlessly litigated debate “Resolved: Country music is Black-derived music and always has been.”

Or should I say Exhibit B? Because the actual Exhibit A—the song whose shadow Beyoncé’s single was looking to escape, at least as a chart phenomenon—is Lil Nas X’s country-trap megasmash “Old Town Road.” Still the record holder for the longest No. 1 run in Hot 100 history, “Road” was not so fortunate on the country chart. Nearly five years ago, in March 2019, the song fell victim to Nashville gatekeeping when Billboard yanked it from Hot Country Songs after just one week—an insult that sparked controversy, rallied fans, and actually made the song a bigger pop hit. These events were so momentous in chart history that I wrote a whole book about them. (On sale now! Critically acclaimed! Endorsed by Jesse Eisenberg!) One of the deepest rabbit holes I went down in my book was explaining the history of Billboard’s genre-charts methodology. Let me recount some of this in brief, because it sheds light on Beyoncé’s achievement.

For most of its history, Billboard polled different audiences for its R&B and country charts than it did for the Hot 100 pop chart. The R&B charts included sales data from Black-owned and Black-catering record stores and R&B radio stations; the country charts focused mostly on country radio, with rural and big-box country record sales factored in (largely on the album side, as fewer country acts released singles). This system began to fall apart in the 2000s, when the internet shuttered most music retail—Black-owned, country-centered, or otherwise—and as listeners across the spectrum all migrated to the iTunes download store, YouTube, and, eventually, Spotify to consume their music. In the absence of a “Black iTunes” or a “country Spotify,” it became especially hard for Billboard to pinpoint the consumption of genre-specific audiences. For example, if R&B listeners were selectively consuming music by white soul singers like Robin Thicke or Justin Timberlake, which of their songs found favor with that specific audience? The old system would reveal that, although Timberlake’s 2006 hits “SexyBack” and “My Love” were both No. 1 pop hits, the soulful, percolating “My Love” was more popular with Black listeners (No. 11 for the former; No. 3 for the latter). Or, on the country side, Carrie Underwood’s gooey 2005 American Idol coronation song “Inside Your Heaven” was her No. 1 pop hit, but on Hot Country Songs it reached only No. 52; meanwhile, her prayerful follow-up single “Jesus, Take the Wheel” was only a No. 20 pop hit but a No. 1 smash on Hot Country Songs. You need to measure niche audiences to make these kinds of chart distinctions.

However, in October 2012, Billboard bowed to digital-era reality and streamlined—I would argue, oversimplified—its genre-charts methodology. The Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs and Hot Country Songs charts now use the same data set as the all-genre Hot 100. Essentially, each chart is the same set of Hot 100 songs, in the same order, minus the songs Billboard has decided don’t qualify for that genre. So, for example, let’s say in a given week on the Hot 100 there are country songs at Nos. 6, 8, and 15; those three songs automatically become Nos. 1, 2, and 3 on Hot Country Songs—even if the songs getting played on country radio that week look very different.

You can see how this modern system rewards pop crossover records. Once Billboard decides that a song qualifies for a genre chart, all of its streams, sales, and airplay—by everybody, whether they are a fan of that genre or not—fuel its position on the genre chart. Datawise, it’s an all-or-nothing prospect. If this system had been in place in 2005–06, all of those Justin Timberlake songs I mentioned would have been No. 1 R&B/hip-hop hits, and all of the Carrie Underwood songs would have been No. 1 country hits. Heck, if this system had been in place in 1984, Lionel Richie would have had a No. 1 country hit with “Stuck on You,” thanks to his massive pop-radio airplay and sales to pop and R&B fans, rather than the No. 24 country hit he actually did have—a better gauge of the (warm but modest) embrace he received in that format.

This system directly led to the tough decision Billboard had to make in 2019 about “Old Town Road” and the Hot Country chart. When the song debuted on that chart at No. 19—unusually high for an artist new to country music—Lil Nas X’s initial chart position was based on Hot 100 data, fueled largely by TikTokking Zoomers who might have rarely if ever listened to country music. That already overstated the embrace of the song by the country audience. If that was bad, the following week was worse, when Billboard pulled “Road” from Hot Country Songs and was forced to defend that choice based on the sound of the record, claiming that the race of the artist had not been a factor. (Um … if you say so, guys …) If Billboard had left “Old Town Road” on Hot Country Songs, it would have rocketed to No. 3, then No. 1 a week later, and stayed there for nearly six months, fueled by its record run atop the Hot 100. That would have been a victory for racial inclusion on the charts—and the fact that “Old Town Road” really is a legit country song—but an overstatement of the song’s popularity with regular country fans. On the Country Airplay chart, which has none of the Hot 100 data baked in, “Road” peaked at No. 50, fueled mostly by curiosity spins on syndicated country radio shows like The Bobby Bones Show. Even after Lil Nas X released the now-legendary remix of “Road” featuring Billy Ray Cyrus, the song never found its footing on country radio, and it was never allowed back onto Hot Country Songs.

Which at last brings us back to Beyoncé’s “Texas Hold ’Em.” Five years after the “Old Town Road” debacle, there was probably no way Billboard was going to be fool enough to exclude Beyoncé from the Hot Country Songs chart. If kicking off Lil Nas X, a then-new artist, from the chart led to blowback, not letting Mrs. Carter past Nashville’s velvet rope would have provoked a firestorm. On the other hand, the genre-charts system is what it is: Once “Texas Hold ’Em” was cleared to appear on Hot Country, all of her pop star–level data informs her chart position. Billboard reports that in Week 1, “Texas” racked up 19.2 million streams, 4.8 million in airplay audience, and 39,000 downloads sold. That’s more listenership than any other single tagged as country generated this week, so Beyoncé went from zero country chart history to an instant Hot Country Songs No. 1. As a Beyoncé fan, I am totally delighted she is on this chart. As a chart historian, I have misgivings about her topping it out of the gate, when I know country listeners are still listening to more Kane Brown, Nate Smith, Jelly Roll, and Lainey Wilson.

On the other other hand, Beyoncé has already made remarkable inroads with country listeners. Last week, Columbia Records announced that it was actively promoting “Texas Hold ’Em” to country radio, and several dozen stations put it into regular rotation—not at Morgan Wallen levels, but enough to matter. On this week’s Country Airplay chart, “Texas Hold ’Em” launches at No. 54. OK, that’s lower than Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road” peaked at country radio back in 2019, but radio moves slower than the internet, and this is only the Beyoncé song’s first week. By radio standards, “Texas” adoption is moving swiftly—Billboard reports that the song has already racked up 1.1 million in country radio audience, and country broadcast-industry journalist Brian Mansfield says the song in its first week got spins at 75 of the 157 country stations reporting to the charts. In short, “Texas” has traction: “This song is sounding great [on our station] and doesn’t sound like anything else,” a country program director in Norfolk, Virginia, told Billboard. “Plus, the feedback from listeners has been very positive.” There is no question Billboard made the right call including Beyoncé on all of its country charts. It’s just that her No. 1 ranking on the flagship chart means more, and less, than it appears. You have to dissect the underlying data to get a real sense of how she is being received by this new-to-her audience.

Or maybe not so new? As Rolling Stone pointed out last week, for more than a decade, Beyoncé’s songs have been covered by numerous country stars, ranging from country-era Taylor Swift to Sam Hunt, Lady A to Maddie & Tae, Maren Morris to … even Nashville royalty Reba McEntire, who took on Bey’s belter “If I Were a Boy” way back in 2010. Not only did Reba score a top 25 country hit with her take on the slow-burning gender-bender, but she even performed it live on the CMAs, six years before Bey performed “Daddy Lessons” on the same awards show to a more mixed response.

This, in the end, may be the best and most important thing about Beyoncé topping the country chart: It reminds the country audience they already love this artist’s music, and it signals to those leery of genre trespassers that she belongs. It vindicates other Black country performers like Giddens, Rissi Palmer, and Tanner Adell and perhaps clears a path for them on the charts. And the chart is ultimately serving as a productive feedback loop, compelling the Nashville establishment to take this song, this artist, and the very idea of a Black female country star seriously. Even if Bey’s imperial position on the Hot Country chart raises some well-founded skepticism, I am grateful the queen is on that throne.

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