“Old Town Road” Makes Me Happy, and Country Music is Kinda Racist

If you ask someone what music they listen to, there is a not-insignificant chance that they will answer, “I listen to everything but country and rap.” Which, as this article discusses, is really a lot about class. What people are saying is, “I dislike the two genres of music most associated with lower-caste economic states.”

But ironically, even though country and rap are so closely linked by this common economic distaste, they are separated, currently, by one large thing: race. Country is associated with white people, and rap is associated with Black people. And while the last twenty years or so have seen a large increase of white rappers of both the fairly legit variety (Eminem) and the wtf wangsta variety (What even IS Riff Raff?) country has been slower to allow any variety into its ranks. They have…. Well they have Darius Rucker, honestly. And probably a couple of other artists who I don’t know well enough to name because they haven’t been embraced enough to make it to the popular consciousness. (Also Cowboy Troy was once a thing, but we’re gonna get to him in a minute, too). And this is despite the fact that the most stereotypically country instrument, the banjo, is based on an African instrument and was originally created in the US by Africans.

This racial divide is not an accident. In the 1920s, music marketers were making decisions about how, exactly, to market music. More specifically, they were trying to decide if the blues-influenced music that was becoming popular should all stay in one genre, or if it should be split—on racial lines. So we gained “hillbilly records” and “race records.” Hillbilly music was for white people, and as it slowly morphed into the country music we know today, it pretty much stayed that way.

Along the way, it did a lot of cultural work (along with various forms of fiction and racially-biased historical accounts) to make us think that country music, and the west, were always lily-white. When really, the West probably looked a lot more like the reboot Magnificent Seven than the original (on the set of which, famously, everyone had diarrhea). Even the word “cowboy” is likely a linguistic evolution from a Bad Word for Black people working with cattle. Cowboys of color have existed since the 1500s, when Spanish settlements first started to turn the southern and western United States into “cattle country.” In what we somewhat consider “peak cowboy time,” the late 1800s, as many as a quarter of all cowboys were Black. One of the first famous rodeo stars, Bill Pickett, was a Black man whose parents had been slaves.

But now we’re slowly taking history—and country—back. Enter the “Yeehaw Agenda,” and the true focus of this piece, “Old Town Road.”

Recently country aesthetics have been coming into style in non-country spaces, with Lady Gaga, Kesha, and Beyoncé all delving into the country spectrum. Fashion models also started diving into the look more, until last year the actual “Yeehaw Agenda” celebrating Black fashion and music that incorporates country style really took off. Cardi B wore possibly the greatest cowgirl outfit ever made. And then came “Old Town Road.”

“Old Town Road” and its story are such an amazing amalgamation of different cultural forces. Imagine me trying to say all of this in one breath, just because I love putting the entire thing together: Lil Nas X, whose rap name nods to multiple rappers that came before him, rose to prominence with his country trap single “Old Town Road.” The song is less than two minutes long, and samples the instrumental Nine Inch Nails song “34 Ghosts V.” Its original music video is just footage from Read Dead Redemption 2, and a lot of the lyrics combine the trope in country music of listing country-esque signifiers and the rap/hip-hop trope of bragging about wealth by discussing objects that you own. It grew incredibly popular on the social media app TikTok (I beg you not to make me explain TikTok to you…if you’re really interested, listen to this podcast) and was reaching the early teens on the Billboard country charts before it was removed for “not [embracing] enough elements of today’s country music.” Billy Ray Cyrus (you know, Miley Cyrus’s dad) then swooped in (Lil Nas X tweeted that he would like Cyrus on the song the day after the original was released, and Cyrus had shown support for Lil Nas X after the Billboard removal and said they were fellow outlaws) and released a remix of the song with Lil Nas X. The song charted at #1 on the Billboard Hot 100, surpassing Billy Ray Cyrus’ career-defining hit, “Achy Breaky Heart,” which had only reached #4 back in 1992. The two released another remix with Diplo, and a music video featuring Chris Rock that subtly jabs at the entire controversy. “Old Town Road” has spent 18 weeks on the Hot 100 chart, 15 of them at number 1, and is still in the number 1 slot, currently beating out chart heavyweights like the Jonas Brothers, Ed Sheeran, Justin Bieber, Drake, and Taylor Swift. Then Wrangler announced a partnership with Lil Nas X, which caused a lot of white people to lose their goddamn minds because they are Definitely Not Racist. THEN on the last day of Pride Month Lil Nas X came out as gay and told everyone he “deadass thought I made it obvious” because he put a majestic rainbow skyscraper on his latest EP cover.

You guys. You guys. I love this. I love this so much. If you asked me to come up with the most incredible cultural mashup possible, I don’t think I could come up with this on my own. It is too magical. It is too pure. It is too amazing.

And its journey honestly hits close to home. I grew up in Wyoming, where you have to like country music at least a little bit out of self preservation. I grew up listening to, and liking, country music. I’m still quite fond of stalwarts like Reba McEntire, Dolly Parton, Johnny Cash, Garth Brooks, the Dixie Chicks, and Shania Twain. I loved Toby Keith for a long time before I figured out what a conservative, misogynist shitheel he is. And my familiarity with country music means that I can point to one of the first moments of rap/country crossover (one that didn’t get taken off of the charts, no matter how much I wish it would have): “Save a Horse, Ride a Cowboy.”

The brainchild of Big & Rich, the song got most popular in 2004. While it probably has more rock influences than rap influences, the song is basically “In Da Club” for white people. It has a spoken word section, the phrase “singing and bling blingin’,” and a moment where they go “what, what?” The music video includes a parade, sexy lady dancers who are either cowgirls or business ladies, a college band with a horn and banjo section,  a pretty stellar band leader cameo from their token Black friend Cowboy Troy, and the Big & Rich guys showing off said bling, fur coats, and their… sex doll friend?

I really can’t explain it. But it fucking dominated the radio. It hit 11 on the country charts, was used as the theme for the World Series of Poker, was performed at the CMT awards, and was used for a Chevrolet commercial that aired during the Super Bowl.

Later that same year, Nelly and Tim McGraw released “Over and Over,” a song that I honestly could see either/both on the rap and country charts. Its stars and its musical influences obviously draw from both. The song made the Top 10 on the main Billboard charts, as well as the Top 10 of the rap charts. It… doesn’t seem to have placed on the country charts. At all.

And thus a pattern was formed—country songs created by white men that drew from rap and hip hop would play on the country charts. Country songs that actually featured Black men in addition to those elements… well it was hit or miss. (Note: the following is a non-exhaustive list, just one based on my memory as well as some cursory Google searches. I don’t get paid for this, y’all.) In 2005, Trace Adkins released “Honky Tonk Badonkadonk,” a song I was genuinely hoping to never have to think of again. It hit number 2 on the country charts, and went top 40 on the main and pop charts. Its video heavily features bling, whatever the white lady version of a video vixen is, a reference to Donkey Kong, and Trace Adkins saying “badonkadonk” until I taste purple. Jason Aldean’s “Dirt Road Anthem” topped the country charts, but while the remix with Ludacris sold well, I can’t find anything about it actually charting. Apparently in 2010 Colt Ford released a song with Run DMC AND I AM JUST NOW FINDING OUT ABOUT IT. And let’s…. let’s not talk about that thing with LL Cool J and Brad Paisley. Let’s just not.

Fortunes seemed to be changing a little bit for the crossover hit. Florida Georgia Line tapped Nelly for their remix of “Cruise,” which I think I heard roughly five million times, and they performed it together at the American Music Awards in 2013. Pop singer Bebe Rexha in turn tapped Florida Georgia Line for her song “Meant to Be” in 2017, and the song was nominated for Best Country Duo/Group Performance at the Grammy’s, and I also heard it so many times. And country radio will play Taylor Swift ad infinitum, no matter how much her sound drifts from her “Teardrops on My Guitar” days.

But in the meantime… Beyoncé’s “Daddy Lessons,” while certainly counting (in my mind) as a country song, and earning a performance with the Dixie Chicks at the CMAs, was rejected by the Grammy Awards for the country category. So just to confirm, this is Grammy-worthy country music, but this is not.…. K.

Now, my own feelings aside about how “Daddy Lessons” is superior both as a country song, and just as a song in general (Florida Georgia Line is largely responsible for “bro country” and I Cannot Forgive Them), I think it’s a good example of the absolute goddamn arbitrariness of the guidelines by which institutions are deciding what is and isn’t country music. Am I saying that “Daddy Lessons” or “Old Town Road” sound exactly like the country music that I grew up with? Of course not. But almost nothing on the country charts today sounds like the country music that I grew up with. Genres consistently grow and change, and the acceptability of such growth and change is pretty directly tied to how well it serves the interests of power.

The aforementioned “bro country” has been a solid half decade plus of shallow, misogynistic music that glorified hot ladies, drinking tons of alcohol, partying, and the singers’ trucks. (Next time someone complains that “rap is just so misogynistic and objectifies women,” please remember that the song “Body Like a Back Road” exists, in which a woman is literally compared to a road. A road.) Bro country is pretty antithetical to the type of country I grew up with, which certainly had these elements but usually in a slightly less formulaic design and with a slightly more authentic place of origin and emotion. (See Bo Burnham’s “Country Song (Pandering)” for a fantastic takedown of bro country). “Bro country” certainly caused some division in country music circles, and is one of the main reasons I stopped listening to country music as much. But it was still on country music charts, nominated for country music awards, and played on country music stations. So what is so acceptable about bro country being included in the genre that becomes unacceptable when you look at the work of Beyoncé or Lil Nas X? (I’ll give you three guesses and the first two don’t count.)

Like I said, institutions are largely responsible for deciding what is and isn’t country music. And what they decide isn’t country music just happens to usually involve people of color. Even if you have “objective” guidelines about what makes music fit into a specific genre, those guidelines are interpreted by subjective people. And when it comes to country music, the interpreters are usually white.

In a lot of ways we’re still working off of that same 1920s split—“race records” and “hillbilly records”—where white artists are allowed to push at the boundaries of the genre, but Black artists are not. So overall success of Lil Nas X, the multiple types of diversity he brings to the table, and the conversation he is forcing us to have about these artificial boundaries we have made makes me cackle with glee.

Signed: Feminist Fury

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Featured image is a closeup of the single cover of Old Town Road by Lil Nas X, and depicts the rapper dressed as a cowboy on a horse in an old-timey colour palette, fake-aged to look like an old country album from the 1950s.