“Part of a beautiful American tradition”: A music theory expert explains the country roots of Beyoncé’s Texas Hold ‘Em, and why it also owes a debt to the blues

I’m the kind of insufferable hipster who doesn’t watch the Super Bowl, so I missed the announcement of Beyoncé’s two new country-flavored singles, which precede Cowboy Carter, a new album to be released March 29th. 

16 Carriages features two different pedal steel players, but the really bold step into country music aesthetics is Texas Hold ‘Em. The song is named after a card game, a version of poker. Beyoncé is famously from Houston. 

Apparently, the song is resonating with its intended audience, because not long after Tracy Chapman became the first Black female songwriter to top the country charts, Beyoncé became the first Black female performer to hold that spot

I’ll talk more about the song as a cultural phenomenon in a minute, but first let’s consider it as a piece of music. Beyoncé made my analysis easier by releasing the instrumental and acapella versions.

She wrote the music with Brian Bates and Nate Ferraro, and the lyrics with Lowell, Bülow and Ferraro. She produced the track with Ferraro and Killah B. The great Rhiannon Giddens plays fretless banjo and viola. Giddens gives a history of the banjo in the video below.

On Texas Hold ‘Em, Giddens is playing clawhammer style, an older technique than the better-known bluegrass style. Bluegrass pickers wear metal fingerpicks and pluck upwards with their index and middle fingers while plucking downwards with their thumbs. Clawhammer players use bare fingers, plucking downward with their index fingers, which requires a finger position that resembles the back of a hammer. You can see Giddens’ banjo technique in action below.

Texas Hold ‘Em also features Khirye Tyler on keyboards (acoustic and electric piano) and Raphael Saadiq on bass and drums. I don’t know who is whistling or playing guitar.

The song is in D major. The intro is four bars of D, a bar and a half of Bm, and a quick concluding half bar of D. Beyoncé enters on the chorus (“This ain’t Texas”), which is structured as a twelve bar blues in D (plus a bar of crickets chirping on the end).

| D | D | D | D |

| G | G | D | D |

| A | G | D | D | (crickets) |

This does not mean that Texas Hold ‘Em is in the blues genre. There are many blues songs that don’t use the twelve-bar form, and many non-blues songs that do. The twelve bar form was omnipresent in rock, pop and country in the middle years of the 20th century, but it has been a while since it was a regular presence on the charts. Jon Batiste’s Freedom (2021) and Duffy’s Mercy (2007) are the only recent examples I can think of. 

Anyway, the verse (“There’s a tornado”) is the same as the first two thirds of the chorus. The prechorus (0:59) is a bit different:

| Bm | G | D | D         |

| Bm | G | D | Asus4 |

The second chorus tags the last four bars of the twelve bar blues form, and then there’s an instrumental break with viola and whistling over the first two thirds of the blues form. This break includes an overtly bluesy G7 chord. 

Finally, the outro takes a strange turn, alternating a pair of ambiguous jazzy chords in a Latin-sounding tresillo rhythm. I hear the chords as Gmaj7/B (G major seventh with B in the bass) and A7sus4/G (A7 with a suspended fourth over G in the bass). The timbres get strange here, too: an old-timey-sounding and out-of-tune piano along with dry scraping guitar.

Beyoncé’s vocals are stacked throughout the track with their customary lushness. An R&B singer friend of mine said that to get that big, rich sound, you need twelve or so layers of vocals: a lead and at least two harmony parts, each of which get doubled or tripled, plus maybe doubled in higher or lower octaves. 

Most of the Texas Hold ‘Em vocal melody is from the D major pentatonic scale, but there are some conspicuous blue notes in there too

You should sprinkle some additional ad libs and interjections around the sides. You want to pan these widely across the stereo spectrum, make sure all the timing is precisely aligned, and apply EQ and compression so that all the layers occupy their own little piece of the frequency spectrum. You want the sound to be full but not cluttered, dense but not muddy. It takes a lot of studio time to get it right.

Most of the Texas Hold ‘Em vocal melody is from the D major pentatonic scale, but there are some conspicuous blue notes in there too. The term “blue notes” causes a lot of confusion. Some people use it to mean any characteristic pitch in the blues, like the flat third or flat seventh over a major chord. 

I prefer to reserve the term for something more specific: notes that lie in between the piano-key pitches. Blues is not really a system of scales or modes, but rather, of flexible pitch zones. Panos Charalampidis explains this idea here:

To identify the blue notes in Texas Hold ‘Em, I put the acapella into Melodyne, which shows you pitch contours exactly. At the beginning of the prechorus at 0:59, Beyoncé sings "hoo-oo-oo-oo-oo" on F-sharp, then on a note halfway between E and F, and finally on D. 

On "di-ive bar", the first part of "dive" is exactly halfway between F-sharp and F, while the second part of "dive" is on E. The same thing happens on "nice." These pitch nuances are not accidents; every syllable of a Beyoncé vocal is shaped and sculpted intentionally. Whatever pitch correction the producers may have done, they were careful to leave the blue notes in there.

Speaking of blue notes, there are a couple of them in Rhiannon Giddens’ banjo part too

Speaking of blue notes, there are a couple of them in Rhiannon Giddens’ banjo part too. Listen to the second chorus in the instrumental, at about 1:16. The underlying chord is D, which includes the major third, F-sharp, but Giddens is playing the minor third, F-natural. At 1:30, when that riff returns, she slides from F most but not all of the way up to F-sharp. 

When it returns the next time, she overshoots F-sharp by a bit, taking advantage of the pitch flexibility afforded by her fretless banjo. A fretted banjo would tend to enforce an exact equal-tempered F-sharp. The whole point of fretted instruments is to make it easier to play your notes in tune. But if you want to play expressively “out of tune”, fretless instruments are better.

Texas Hold ‘Em is not Beyoncé’s only country(-ish) song. She made her first step in that direction in 2016 with Daddy Lessons.

There are several aspects of this track that suggest country: the acoustic guitar, the tightly swinging eighth notes, the lyrical references to “whiskey with his tea.” But the track begins with jazzy brass over clapped backbeats, sounding more like a New Orleans funeral. (Beyoncé has some Creole heritage.) You don’t normally associate horn sections with country, though Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys used them.

In the years between Daddy Lessons and Texas Hold ‘Em, Lil Nas X had a huge hit with Old Town Road. The song made it onto both the Hot Country Songs and Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs charts in March of 2019, a feat previously only attained by such carpet-bombing hits as We Are The World. 

But Billboard removed Old Town Road from the country chart, and when they were questioned about it, they explained that the song “does not embrace enough elements of today’s country music to chart in its current version.” Lil Nas X’s singing has a clear country twang, but the beat sounds like pure hip-hop. The banjo suggests country, but it’s sampled from a not-country-sounding Nine Inch Nails instrumental.

The racial politics of country music have been fraught for the entire hundred years that the genre has existed as a named entity

The racial politics of country music have been fraught for the entire hundred years that the genre has existed as a named entity. We customarily think of country as being “white” music, but that’s the result of a conscious marketing decision, not a musicological description. 

When you listen to the vernacular music of the rural South from the early twentieth century, you discover that what we now call “blues” and “country” were originally just two different names for the same hybrid sound. Listen to Blue Yodel No. 9 by Jimmie Rodgers (1930), featuring trumpet by Louis Armstrong. Is this country, or jazz, or blues, or what? 

The distinction between blues and country was the invention of record company executives, and their racial motivation wasn’t exactly a sneaky subterfuge. During the era when country music was called “hillbilly,” blues and jazz were sold as “race music,” a term coined in 1922 by Okeh Records. After World War II, hillbilly was renamed “country and western,” and race music became “rhythm and blues”, or just “blues”. 

In her essay Another Country, Karen Pittelman explains how the marketing categories of “hillbilly” and “race” took on lives of their own as musical genres. She also points out that African-Americans and European-Americans weren’t the only cultural sources for what we now call country music. Native American, Native Hawaiian, and Mexican musics are cornerstones too, though these roots are largely forgotten unless you’re a musicologist. I always forget that pedal steel originated among Native Hawaiians.

There have been prominent Black country musicians throughout the music’s history. You may be as surprised as I was to learn that the first million-selling country album was by Ray Charles

Chuck Berry would agree. He said that Maybelline was based on a folk song, Ida Red, which he learned from Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys.

Bob Wills’ blues and jazz influence is right on the surface, but bluegrass has that influence too. Earl Scruggs’ hemiola-filled rhythms on the banjo are informed by Count Basie and Duke Ellington as much as anything, and Earl uses tons of blue notes.

In 1970s country, there was a vogue for funky backbeats, for example in Dolly Parton’s Jolene.

The Black rhythm connection also runs through Linda Martell’s 1969 country chart hit, Color Him Father, a cover of an R&B song song by The Winstons. 

The B-side of the Winstons’ recording is Amen Brother, the source of one of the most sampled breakbeats in hip-hop and dance music.

Shuja Haider’s essay, A World That Draws a Line: Interracial Love Songs in American Country Music, explains how the deepest impact that country music has had on America’s racial politics may be judicial, not musical. 

In the 1967 Loving v. Virginia decision, the US Supreme Court finally struck down laws against interracial marriage. The plaintiffs in the case were a white man, Richard Loving, and a Black woman, Mildred Jeter. They met as teenagers when Loving came to hear Jeter’s brothers play country music. Beyoncé’s new direction is part of a beautiful American tradition.

Ethan Hein

Ethan Hein has a PhD in music education from New York University. He teaches music education, technology, theory and songwriting at NYU, The New School, Montclair State University, and Western Illinois University. As a founding member of the NYU Music Experience Design Lab, Ethan has taken a leadership role in the development of online tools for music learning and expression, most notably the Groove Pizza. Together with Will Kuhn, he is the co-author of Electronic Music School: a Contemporary Approach to Teaching Musical Creativity, published in 2021 by Oxford University Press. Read his full CV here.

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