Roslyn Hernández

Far more that 16 carriages—of both acclaim and criticism—follow the tails of Beyoncé’s new album, COWBOY CARTER. Much can be said about country music, Beyoncé herself, the album, and its intent. But I’m going personal and liturgical with this one.

I grew up in a Latina Pentecostal church. Our liturgy was informal, but there was still order to our services, worship, sacraments, and everyday interactions. While in seminary, I visited a Greek Orthodox church and later attended an Episcopal church. This is how I experienced and was able to practice a more formal liturgy. Years of corporate worship have primed me to recognize liturgical patterns, both “high” and “low.”

So, why does COWBOY CARTER feel liturgical to me? Apart from explicit references to Christian themes like requiems, baptism, confession, and prayer, as well as the corporate sound of gospel choirs, there is intentionality and ritual to COWBOY CARTER that invites the listener to not just be a spectator, but into embodied responses and participation in its rhythms.

The opening song, “AMERIICAN REQUIEM,” starts us off with the formal and classical sounds of a funerary procession and the collective power of a gospel choir in preparation for Beyoncé’s purification. She sings, “I am the one to cleanse me of my Father’s sins / American Requiem / Them big ideas are buried here / Amen.” The religious themes carry on in the interlude that introduces “SMOKE HOUR ★ WILIE NELSON,” where we hear a baptismal line from Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s “Down by the River Side”: “That’s why I'm going to the river to wash my sins away.” In “DAUGHTER,” we get prayer and confession: “Help me, Lord, from these fantasies in my head / They ain’t never been safe ones / . . . Cleanse me, Holy Trinity . . .”

In the second section of the album, we get country music legends such as Nelson, Dolly Parton, and Linda Martell acting as officiants. They lend their authority, mostly in interludes, to introduce tracks, explain, and usher listeners along. Parton introduces Beyoncé’s version of her song “JOLENE;” Nelson curates and invites us to enjoyment; and Linda Martell prepares listeners for genre shock: “This particular tune stretches across a range of genres / And that's what makes it a unique listening experience.” I could almost hear, “Please stand up. . . .You may be seated. . . . Today’s reading comes from. . . Let’s clap our hands and praise.” We certainly get invited to embodiment on the dance floor in tracks like “TEXAS HOLD ’EM” and “YAYA,” with their eclectic, yet country-adjacent beats. Finally, the album closes with “AMEN”—for as we all know, you open and close a service with prayer.

COWBOY CARTER feels like a liturgy for an artist’s evolution. The buildup to its release seemed like Beyoncé might have been working on reinvention. But she is not baptizing herself into the country genre. Would she need to be inducted, when she was born country? Evolutions aren’t always about leaving the past and becoming something different. They can be a recovery and integration of something deep within us, like our roots or origins.

COWBOY CARTER feels like a liturgy for an artist’s evolution.

Beyoncé’s Southern background has long been present in her lyrics, but it had not taken center stage in her musicality. Although she’s an established R&B, hip-hop, and pop artist, she delved into house and dance music more specifically with her previous album, RENAISSANCE. But in COWBOY CARTER we get classic country ballads like “16 CARRIAGES” and “II MOST WANTED;” country pop in “BODYGUARD” and “LEVII’S JEANS;” and stripped-down percussions, banjos, and even honky-tonk piano in “TEXAS HOLD ’EM.” In the modern, genre-bending zydeco bop “SWEET★HONEY★BUCKIIN’” Beyoncé sings, “Turn a bad night to a good time on the trail ride to the zydeco / I’m coming home . . . sweet country home.” You can take the girl out of Louisiana and Houston, but you can’t take zydeco out of the girl. In COWBOY CARTER, Beyoncé submerged herself in her own history and the history of Black artists in the genre, then retrieved and integrated parts of herself and her ancestry to become herself more fully.

In John 3, Jesus explains to Nicodemus that he has to be born again. Born of water and Spirit. I used to think that baptism meant we become someone entirely different from who we have been. But when I think about Jesus’ own baptism, the narrative does not present us with a changed man emerging from the Jordan. Instead, we get an acknowledgement: “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.” Baptism acts more like a reminder to remember. I remember that humanity was made by God. That in being cleansed we recover and resurface that which is deep within us: our goodness and divinely created nature. In baptism we are reminded that we have been reconciled: not just to God, but to our truest and fullest selves.

As a teenager, I was baptized in a river. When I stepped into the water, in my white robe, the sisters and brothers present sang a hymn. We sang the hymn for everyone getting baptized. That humble liturgy and choir of witnesses praised for me, rejoiced for me, and sang me home.

I often reflect on the liturgy of our lives. The mundanely holy everyday rhythms and rituals we embody. They are pregnant with sacramentality: the physical and the spiritual, the seen and the unseen, the tangible and the intangible. The Holy, always present in and around us waiting to be recognized during school drop-offs, a loved one’s embrace, work commutes, a stranger’s smile, the first sips of morning coffee, or a moment of music.

I think about my cycles of cleansing, retrieval, integration, and evolution. I think of my witnesses and those whom I have the privilege and pleasure of witnessing. What parts of ourselves are we reclaiming, recovering, and bringing to life with us. How am I continually becoming myself more fully? How do I, like Beyoncé, continue to come home?

Topics: Music