In honor of the 50th anniversary of the CMA Awards, show producers worked a truly impressive number of performers into the Nov. 2 telecast, utilizing everything from moving medleys to photo montages and mentions of legends seated in the audience.
But no other appearance received half the attention of Beyoncé's "Daddy Lessons" collaboration with the Dixie Chicks. As with just about anything Bey-related, the announcement that she would take the stage at Nashville's Bridgestone Arena during what's billed as "Country's Biggest Night" generated a flurry of social media responses voicing a wide array of opinions. At opposing extremes were those exultant about the superstar extending her dominance into an additional corner of the musical landscape and those who declared themselves country fans — but likely represented only a small but vocal minority of the genre's listenership — and insisted that she didn't belong there.
The day after the show, a number of blogs joined Beyhive diehards in accusing the Country Music Association of bowing to the more vitriolic, racially charged commenters by erasing all online promotion of the Bey/Chicks segment, a conversation which ultimately amplified the perception that such viewpoints represented the country audience en masse. (The plausible explanation offered by the CMA was that Beyoncé's representatives were simply selective about what photos and video clips they would approve.) Some of the complaints plucked from Twitter feeds and comment threads on the CMA's Facebook page had a territorial tone that echoed the "Is it or isn't it country?" debate that sprang up in some corners after "Daddy Lessons" was released on Lemonade in April.
Even so, the feeling in the room when Beyoncé took the stage was that we were watching a precision entertainer consciously recalibrate her delivery for the setting. It was one of the few segments in the show through which the entire arena remained on its feet. The song kicked off with harmonica, rather than the album version's New Orleans-style horn intro, a down-home touch that hearkened back to country music's early, and incidentally African-American, harmonica hero Deford Bailey. Beyoncé struck up a "Texas" chant, then passed it off to Natalie Maines, Emily Robison and Martie Maguire, in acknowledgement of their shared geographical origins in a state rich in countrified storytelling. Between the tweaking of Beyoncé's usual live instrumentation — less low-end thump, more strumming and light-footed percussion — and the Chicks' bluegrass underpinnings, they leaned into a string band sound, even briefly veering into a stuttering, second line-ish adaptation of the Chicks' fiddle romp "Long Time Gone," a No. 2 country hit in 2002. And it was no small gesture for an artist whose performances of physicality have become iconic in R&B and pop realms — from her leotards to her magnetic dance choreography — to don a sheer, floor-length gown whose puffy sleeves Loretta Lynn might appreciate and, in a visual display of solidarity, stand next to the Chicks, who were anchored to instruments and mic stands. Beyoncé certainly didn't squander her official country slot.