‘Old Town Road’ revisited

Tuesday, October 15, 2019 - 12:17pm

Lil Nas X

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Rolling Stone

When Billboard removed “Old Town Road” from the Hot Country chart in early April, media and listeners alike were quick to shout racism. And with good reason. Lil Nas X is Black and country music is known for its whiteness and conservatism. Then, when Blake Shelton released his single “Hell Right” near the end of the record-breaking “hip-haw” hit’s reign, the lyrics “Then the girl from the small town took off the ‘Old Town’/ put on a little Hank Jr.,” reignited the argument that country music is racist, after Hank Jr. compared Obama to Hitler and was removed from EPSN. As a white, life-long country music fan, I followed the saga closely and was disappointed in Billboard and Blake. In the midst of country music’s identity crisis, why else would only the Black country rapper be excluded? While there’s no excuse for Lil Nas X’s unequal treatment, I’ve found the full story to be a bit more complicated than it looks at first glance. 

Today’s country music stars include Hootie and the Blowfish frontman Darius Rucker, R&B influenced Kane Brown and traditional-leaning up-and-comer Jimmie Allen. All Black men, all successful under the country label. Additionally, I’d be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge the powerful Black men in country that came before them, including Charley Pride and Ray Charles. Pride recorded 30 number one hits spanning 1966 to 1987 and Charles’s 1962 release Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music sold extremely well. (All this said, it should be noted there aren’t any Black women in mainstream country music today, likely because of the compounded difficulties they face from being part of both a gender and race that the genre marginalizes.)

But country music isn’t just whiteness with a few token Black male artists. Country music is fundamentally both Black and white. Hear me out. In the early stages of country music, black artists were often left out, which painted the entire genre as one just for white individuals. Additionally, the banjo has African roots. There’s plenty more to the story of country music’s origins, but regardless, it’s clear that at its birth the genre was never the ultra-white Anglo-Saxon Protestant music it’s been made out to be today. 

So what is country music then? Country artists and fans have been arguing about this over radio waves and in YouTube comments for years. What “real” country music is always seems to be what was happening 20 years ago, no matter the decade. Still, instruments like the banjo, fiddle and acoustic guitar are generally understood as “country.” Working-class themes and rural imagery are also accepted as well as lyrical storytelling. These loose requirements also tend to push that country music reflects “real life” and has a deeper meaning. But again, all of these “rules” have exceptions and conditions like having “meaning” are up for interpretation.

“Old Town Road” doesn’t tell a story. It doesn’t feature a fiddle or a banjo and I’m not sure what its “deeper meaning” is. But this doesn’t let the Nashville executives who kicked it off the chart off the hook. In other ways, “Old Town Road” is absolutely country music. Another piece of its history, the reason that “country” was recorded in the first place was to make money. Lil Nas X’s commercial success is the stuff Nashville dreams about. Also, the artist himself has a “country”-esque origin story as he is both from the South and self-made. Finally, in a genre where what’s authentic is constantly up for debate, the artist’s self-identification as “country” holds a lot of weight. If Lil Nas X says his song is country music we should believe him like we believe Sam Hunt.

Ultimately, Lil Nas X’s juggernaut defies genre. That’s part of what made it so popular. However, if the success of “The Git Up” by Blanco Brown, a Black country rapper, is any indication, the genre was already making room for “Old Town Road” predecessors. The hip-haw “Cupid Shuffle” spent five weeks atop the Hot Country chart and was generally made welcome by the country music community. Although both songs can be dismissed as fun, Tik Tok-ready genre-blending earworms, refuting the idea of country music as white music is not only empowering but historically accurate. 

So, what were the intentions behind Billboard’s removal of “Old Town Road” from the country chart? Likely a mixture of racism and genuine anxiety over the preservation of “authentic” country music. But, as noted before, attempts at either are futile. The genre has never been fully white and is characteristically ever-changing. Even songs supposedly poised against the rise of artists like Lil Nas X actually lean in to what he’s doing. Remember “Hell Right,” the Blake Shelton song that takes a jab at “Old Town Road” from the beginning? It uses autotune in its pre-chorus. That’s why I’m expecting to hear a lot more about “the horses in the back” against hip-hop instrumentals in the future.

Considering these restrictions, in some ways Billboard is right. “Old Town Road” doesn’t tell a story. It doesn’t feature a fiddle or a banjo and I’m not sure what its “deeper meaning” is. But this doesn’t let the Nashville executives who kicked it off the chart off the hook. In other ways, “Old Town Road” is absolutely country music. Another piece of its history, the reason that “country” was recorded in the first place was to make money. Lil Nas X’s commercial success is the stuff Nashville dreams about. Also, the artist himself has a “country”-esque origin story as he is both from the South and self-made. Finally, in a genre where what’s authentic is constantly up for debate, the artist’s self-identification as “country” holds a lot of weight. If Lil Nas X says his song is country music we should believe him like we believe Sam Hunt.

Ultimately, Lil Nas X’s juggernaut defies genre. That’s part of what made it so popular. Also, of course, because Nashville is so interested in making money. However, if the success of “The Git Up” by Blanco Brown, a Black country rapper, is any indication, the genre is already making room for “Old Town Road” predecessors. The hip-haw “Cupid Shuffle” spent five weeks atop the Hot Country chart and was generally made welcome by the country music community. Although both songs can be dismissed as fun, Tik Tok-ready genre-blending earworms, refuting the idea of country music as white music is not only empowering but historically accurate. 

So, what were the intentions behind Billboard’s removal of “Old Town Road” from the country chart? Likely a mixture of racism and genuine anxiety over the preservation of “authentic” country music. But, as noted before, attempts at either are futile. The genre has never been fully white and is characteristically ever-changing. Even songs supposedly poised against the rise of artists like Lil Nas X actually lean in to what he’s doing. Remember “Hell Right,” the Blake Shelton song that takes a jab at “Old Town Road” from the beginning? It uses autotune in its pre-chorus. That’s why I’m expecting to hear a lot more about “the horses in the back” against hip-hop instrumentals in the future.