Call Me Country review: The story stretches beyond Beyoncé

Call Me Country: Beyoncé and Nashville's Renaissance | Trailer
Call Me Country: Beyoncé and Nashville's Renaissance | Trailer / CNN Creative Marketing

Call Me Country: Beyoncé & Nashville's Renaissance is about much more than the artist herself. She’s the launch point for an expansive conversation–or at least as expansive as you can get in a 42 minute documentary–about country music as a genre and an industry. Yes, the CNN FlashDoc takes the time to talk about her brilliant new release Cowboy Carter and how the “revenge album,” as cultural critic Tourè refers to it, has started a reckoning within and outside of country music but the point the doc is making and the questions it’s asking stretch beyond her.

Cowboy Carter is the catalyst for this conversation but the documentary delves into the roots of country music that precede even its name, dating back to the inception of the banjo which was brought to North America by Black Caribbean slaves who were forced to come to this land and these shores. The genre is an amalgamation of the music produced by the Black, Native American, Scottish, and Irish people of the South and, has therefore, always been a style of storytelling and artistry that has mixed ancestry. 

Fast forward to the present day and the knowledge of that history, in the face of a recording industry that’s purposefully buried it, is virtually unknown unless one makes a point of learning it. Call Me Country makes sure its audience has at least a cursory understanding of the fact that Black people have been a part of the genre since the beginning and that Beyoncé has entered a longstanding tradition, not created a brand new lane.

The documentary does this not only by discussing Lesley Riddle, the musician whose style of picking influenced Ma Carter’s, Deford Bailey the “Harmonica Wizard,” country legend Charley Pride, and Linda Martell, the first commercially successful Black female country artist, but also by prominently featuring current performers in the genre like Rissi Palmer, Rhiannon Giddens, Aaron Vance, and Denitia.

These are artists in the space, who unlike Beyoncé, live in it. She is a genre-mixing phenom whose latest album is as political as it is vocally excellent, infectious, and poignant. But while she is embracing and reveling in her heritage and playing with a sound that belongs to her as much as it does anyone else from the South with roots steeped in Texas, Louisiana, and Alabama, it’s not her home. It’s not where she sonically resides, and she’s going to move on from it once she is ready to drop her third album in her reclamation project.

Call Me Country doesn’t shy away from this reality, in fact, the doc does make an attempt to address it. Here is where I wish it had gone further. I appreciate that there is some conversation, no matter how uncomfortable, around what it means for an artist of Beyoncé’s magnitude to enter this lane. There’s a bittersweetness to it for Black performers who have been working for years, some for decades, to make a name for themselves in a genre that the icon herself experienced as being unwelcoming. 

Her 2016 performance at the CMAs with The Chicks is infamous for the backlash she received for simply existing as a Black woman, even briefly, in a space that’s dominated by straight, white men. She turned the pain of that experience into art and made a point of learning more about country music and its history for a project meant to honor, spotlight, and support the work of artists that came before her and bring attention to those making incredible music but who are being overlooked such as Tanner Adell, Reyna Roberts, Tiera Kennedy, Brittney Spencer, Willie Jones, and Shaboozey. That’s the beauty of Cowboy Carter but there is a flipside to it.

Rissi Palmer hits the nail on the head in Call Me Country when she says that when Beyoncé enters the conversation, it automatically takes all the air out of the room. She refers to her as the unicorn that everyone’s attention goes to, and she’s not wrong. That’s why Rhiannon Giddens is on record problematizing the media’s hyperfocus on the backlash surrounding Beyoncé’s CMA performance which overshadowed her own with Eric Church that night and Charley Pride’s.

Two things can be true at once. Beyoncé being in the country music lane for this album has opened people’s minds to a genre that they’d written off or previously didn’t engage with because the mainstream offerings were not diverse enough for them. Now, because she was their gateway into this style of music, they’re venturing out to discover more country artists, particularly those featured on Cowboy Carter and might follow that road deeper into the tradition.

And, by being in this lane, there is an inaccurate assumption that the success of Black artists in this genre will be due to her efforts alone. I’ve seen comments like these all across social media and it’s not only hurtful, as Palmer points out, it completely erases the very history Beyoncé’s project is introducing a large swathe of the population to in order to uplift her in a way that she did not ask for and does not want. These artists have been here, they will be here after she leaves this space.

So the real meat and potatoes, the actual question Call Me Country is interested in but doesn’t quite delve far enough into because not enough time has passed since Cowboy Carter’s release, is if country music is three chords and the truth, will the attention Beyoncé has brought to the genre for an untapped audience be enough to expand who gets to tell that truth?

The documentary includes the perspective of Keith Hill, a radio programming consultant who infamously said that female country artists are like the tomatoes of the salad, they should never be played back-to-back and should only make up 20% of the mix. As he put it, “Greed is driving the train,” and Palmer knows that personally as a Black female country artist who is highly aware that the industry knows how to market a white man and has very little interest, or financial incentive, to figure out how to launch the career of someone who doesn’t fit that descriptor.

Beyoncé's success is changing that conversation, but we’re in for a wait when it comes to how long that will last. Right now, the increased popularity of Black country artists means more visibility which also means more opportunities and the powers that be having to pay attention. Call Me Country is a part of this movement, giving the performers featured the opportunity to share their songs, their stories, their knowledge of the genre, and what this moment means for them.

If there’s one major drawback to the documentary it's the lack of room to fully discuss and unpack the contributions of queer artists to the country music genre. It’s touched on with the inclusion of Brothers Osbourne as T.J. Osbourne discusses coming out as a gay man and what that meant for him as an established performer. As well as with Denitia who’d left country music initially because there wasn’t enough space for her as a queer Black woman within the genre but who has returned to the style of music which was her first love and speaks to her the most.

While Denitia fit into the documentary organically because she was speaking to the full facet of how she walks through the world as a Black artist, Brothers Osbourne felt shoe-horned in. I believe this was because for as much as Call Me Country was looking to have a conversation about country music’s diverse history and the push toward progress to champion more voices than white, straight men, it was doing so from a point of view that was specifically about race and particularly Black.

But for the 42 minutes that the doc has with us, it covers a lot of ground. Think of it as the beginning to your potential fall down the rabbit hole of country music history that’s not widely known but don’t expect it to be a comprehensive guide.

Call Me Country: Beyoncé and Nashville's Renaissance premieres Friday, Apr. 26 on Max.

Read more on AudioPhix