Old Town Road is a Good Song — But it’s Not Country
Genre conventions — especially those concerning authenticity and traditionalism, both fundamental characteristics of country music — are incredibly difficult to define. They’re even harder to regulate. That’s why the raging controversy about “Old Town Road,” the hit single from Atlanta-based rapper Lil Nas X, is so important. The song has provoked fierce debates on race, the Nashville establishment, and musical genres.
If you haven’t heard the track yet, take a moment to check it out before continuing this article. Even listening to just the first 30 seconds will give you a pretty good idea of what everyone’s talking about.
Essentially, the song’s trajectory and success have been muddled by concerns over genre authenticity and racial discrimination. Released in December 2018, “Old Town Road” debuted in Billboard’s Hot Country Songs chart just months later. A week after it entered at №19, however, it disappeared — switched over to the Hot Rap Songs chart, where it entered at №24. Although the original track sampled the banjo and contained references to horses and tractors, Billboard said in a statement that it did not “embrace enough elements of today’s country music to chart in its current version.”
That move, in tandem with a consequent decision to release a remixed version of the song featuring country music icon Billy Ray Cyrus, has made Lil Nas X the poster child for questions about gatekeeping in country music. Most of these questions, unsurprisingly, revolve around race — Lil Nas X is a black teenager from Atlanta, and country is a predominantly white genre. Fans and musicians alike have been quick to accuse Billboard of racial discrimination — rapper Sir Ski Mask the Slump God even going so far as to tweet “Wow, Discrimination At It’s Finest.”
I understand that backlash. Despite the contributions of both classic and contemporary black artists, country music has a reputation as unfriendly to artists of color. Genre legends like Cowboy Troy and Dwight Quick have struggled to become mainstream because of their skin color, and modern artists like Darius Rucker are incredibly open about the hate mail they receive. Racial discrimination in country music is an established and well-documented problem, and we should always be wary of our own conscious and unconscious bias.
That said, “Old Town Road” is not a country song, and it has nothing to do with Lil Nas X’s race. Ultimately, it’s about authenticity and appropriate gatekeeping.
I’m a little conflicted about this. The country establishment’s fixation with authenticity unarguably poses a problem for the genre’s evolution and accessibility. This isn’t the first piece I’ve written about that concern, and it’s not something to be taken lightly. At the same time, though, the decision to expand or amend genre conventions belongs to that distinct music community. Genres should and do evolve over time, but as a result of communally deliberated and agreed-upon distinctions.
Just because you use country signifiers or references in a song doesn’t make it a country song. Artists have sung about horses and the Wild West for years, and not all of them are country musicians (the best example of this being the Beastie Boys’ “High Plains Drifter”). Reducing a genre — especiall y one as inextricably tied to a distinct class and demographic as country music — to just horses and hats is harmful to the community, and borderline disrespectful.
Respect is an inextricable element of authenticity, and one of the reasons “Old Town Road” absolutely cannot be considered a country song. Lil Nas X’s decision to artificially adopt a country twang for the track makes it seem almost as if he’s parodying the genre, which provokes an immediate visceral and emotional response among members of the community that identifies with the genre. The song’s music video — essentially a promotional piece for Red Dead Redemption — reinforces this implication, suggesting Lil Nas X’s original motive behind the track is monetization and not a genuine homage to country culture. The response to the song on Tik Tok, a ‘challenge’ where users affect what they believe to be country behavior and clothing, is also part of the problem.
There’s no credible reason to include this song on a country music chart. It samples banjos and references stereotypical country genre elements, but ultimately doesn’t do enough to embrace the genre to be considered real country — as Billboard said in their initial statement. It doesn’t even do enough, in my opinion, to be considered hick-hop (a distinct subgenre of country music that is definitely worth exploring if it’s new to you).
Billy Ray Cyrus has been very vocal in his defense of the track. “Country music fans decide what they like,” he tweeted, “Not critics or anyone else.” I agree. The community is the ultimate arbiter of what qualifies for their genre. Even this approach, though, discounts “Old Town Road” as a country music song. It’s important to note that just because the song charted on Billboard’s Hot Country Songs does not mean that country fans were the ones listening to it. Quite the opposite is true — it’s receiving virtually no airtime on national country radio stations, suggesting the country music community has yet to accept the smash hit into their genre. The song was played just five times on country stations last week; this week, it was played only 62 times by 31 stations nationally.
To be fair, my own personal ideas of what country music is are not necessarily mirrored by the rest of the community. I’ve never thought Florida Georgia Line’s 2012 hit “Cruise,” which many celebrated as a pop country smash, counted. Nor do I classify their more recent collaboration with Bebe Rexha, “Meant To Be,” as country. In no way am I the ultimate judge on whether something is country. But I do feel comfortable making the argument I am here.
I have absolutely nothing against Lil Nas X. He’s a promotional genius, and “Old Town Road” is undeniably a banger. I’ve listened to it at least five times today. But it’s not country.
Originally published 4/6/19.