Videos by American Songwriter
With “Daddy Lessons” Queen Bey schools the bro-country boys in how to write a 21st-century, hard country anthem that is relevant, revelatory, and rooted. Don’t be distracted by those jazzy, bluesy, Louisiana horns that open the piece — “Daddy Lessons” is a country song.
What makes a song country? Once we get beyond Harlan Howard’s “three chords and the truth,” there’s not a lot of agreement, but I’ve got a checklist. Evangelical Christianity and African musical influences? Check. Concerns with family legacy? Check. Love of whiskey and guns? Check. Offering advice? Check. Feeling sentimental about Bible-thumping and open roads? Check. Putting child-rearing and sibling relations over sexual adventures with lovers or bonds with friends? Check. Honoring the patriarchy? Check. Concerns with good and evil and a determination to be good? Check. Shouting out to Texas? Check. Horse-opera riffs that remind us cowboy movies helped make country country? Check. Doing right by Mama and listening to Daddy? Check, check, check, that’s country.
The most obvious country song to compare “Daddy Lessons” to is the Miranda Lambert and Heather Little co-write, “Gunpowder And Lead.” Like “Daddy Lessons” (which Beyoncé wrote with Wynter Gordon, Kevin Cossom, and Alex Delicata), “Gunpowder And Lead” mixes images of girlhood (ragdolls and nursery rimes) with shotguns, puts a weapon in a good girl’s arms, then points it straight at a bad boy’s heart.
The second most obvious comparison is “Cleaning This Gun,” written by Casey Beathhard and Marla Cannon-Goodman, recorded by Rodney Atkins. In this tune, a young suitor threatened with a gun by his girlfriend’s father grows up to be a father who threatens his daughter’s suitor with his own gun.
The fathers in “Cleaning This Gun” and “Daddy Lessons” are equally aware that young men will show up at their daughter’s door with many of the same sexual, unsavory motives they once had. The father in “Cleaning This Gun” steps to the boy and waves his gun in the boy’s face; the father in “Daddy Lessons” steps to the daughter with the advice that if she sees someone on her doorstep like him, she better “shoot.”
The daughter in “Daddy Lessons” is no one’s victim. Let’s return to “Gunpowder And Lead” for a moment. That heroine is injured. She’s seeking revenge. She’s fighting back. Beyoncé gets the first lick in.
She’s a thriver, thanks in no small part to her imperfect father. Appreciating imperfect fathers is a country thing. No one covers that territory better than Bob McDill in his 1980 masterpiece “Good Ole Boys Like Me,” sung by Don Williams. The daddy in “Good Ole Boys” is an imperfect man who tucks his son into bed “with gin on his breath and a Bible in his hand.” This is territory not far from the whiskey in the tea of the Bible-clutching Pa in “Daddy Lessons.” McDill gives us references to Tennessee Williams and Hank Williams; Beyoncé nods to the poetry of Warsan Shire and the field recordings of Alan Lomax. And the over-arching question posed by the title, “What do you do with good ole boys like me?” is a question we need to ask country radio about Bey when we offer that “Daddy Lessons” programs perfectly before or after “Fancy.”
“Fancy,” penned and originally performed by Bobbie Gentry, is one of the greatest country advice songs of all time; here, a mother advises her daughter to take up whoring. It would seem impossibly horrible bad advice if the Pa hadn’t “run off,” the Ma wasn’t “real sick,” the baby wasn’t about to “starve to death,” and a “roach” hadn’t just “crawled across the tip” of the girl’s “high-heeled shoe.” In “Fancy” as in “Daddy Lessons,” the seemingly inappropriate but ultimately necessary advice given by the parent to the child serves to create a visceral understanding of the difficulty of the child’s world for listeners.
Everything’s always alright in bro-country land. Never anything wrong a pretty girl and a drink can’t fix. Like Haggard, Cash, and Jennings, Miranda and Bey know better.
“Daddy Lessons” is a very complex song. It seems simple. It’s not. That’s a lot like Johnny Cash’s “Don’t Take Your Guns to Town.” “Daddy Lessons” takes on the country themes of legacy and inheritance, so often braided to the country theme of unbroken circles, throws in a Gene Autry “Guns And Guitars”-evoking riff, then weaves in Beyoncé’s very own take on the subject of feminine adventuring by reclaiming as her own not the territory of the body — as she does so brilliantly her non-country songs — but here, in her country song, the territory of the open road, the gun, the constitution, the motorcycle, the patriarchy, the love of Mama, the Bible.
The brilliance of Beyoncé is she inhabits this country without invitation and creates, once she is there, something even more complex and powerful than the complex and powerful songs already on the country airwaves — something that reveals how it is parents who can empower their children both to take what they are given and to do something altogether new with their inheritance.
In “Daddy Lessons,” the daughter receives wisdom from her father and a rifle. When it comes time to “put the fear of God to some boy at the door,” she’s going to handle it her own damn self. And that’s country. Ask Miranda Lambert.
In 1970 Clarence Carter had a huge hit with “Patches,” a General Johnson and Ron Dunbar penned song, set “way back in the woods” in Alabama. It is the sung story of a child who puts his whole family on his back, then stands, elevating his family, emboldened by his Daddy’s “strictest rule.” George Jones loved this song, considered it country, and covered it in a duet with B.B. King. For decades I have declared “Patches” to be the great country family advice song of all time. Now I give that title to “Daddy Lessons.”
Alice Randall is currently Writer-in-Residence at Vanderbilt University, where she teaches the course “Country Lyric in American Culture.” Her song “XXX’s and OOO’s (An American Girl)” was a number one hit for Trisha Yearwood.