When I arrived at Hardin Simmons University in Abilene, Texas, I was quickly immersed in West Texas traditions. This included an undesired baptism into the abyss of country music. The inescapable honky-tonk sounds flooded the dormitory halls and our football locker room. I hated it. As far as I knew, country music contradicted everything about my culture. Hip hop better defined who I was. So when the teammates on my football team played music after practices in the locker room—rotating genres for specific days of the week (Modern Mondays, Hip Hop Tuesdays, and Western Wednesdays)—Tuesdays were a moment when I could openly reconnect to my roots, my culture.
But after practice one Wednesday, the unthinkable happened. I started singing along with a country song. I somehow memorized the lyrics to “Big Green Tractor” by Jason Aldean. But even worse—I liked it. Before long, songs like “Honey Bee” (Blake Shelton), “Chicken Fried” (Zac Brown Band), “Gettin’ You Home” (Chris Young), and “Dirt Road Anthem” (Jason Aldean) became personal favorites on Wednesdays. So by the time I graduated from HSU, I developed an appreciation and love for country music and it’s culture.
With the same disgust and dismay I initially expressed for country music, many artists and fans of the genre show a similar distaste for the popular song “Old Town Road” by Lil Nas X. Born Montero Lamar Hill, X describes the song as “Trap Country” or “Country Trap”—a newly created genre that fuses trap-style hip hop beats with country drawls and guitar strums.
When the Atlanta-based artist released “Road,” he ignited an ongoing firestorm of country controversy. Though the track quickly climbed the country music charts, Billboard pulled it from its ranks, stating, “Upon further review, it was determined that ‘Old Town Road’…does not currently merit inclusion on Billboard’s country charts.” It does not embrace “enough elements of today’s country music in its current version,” according to the company, although it contains many of the familiar traditional guitar-strumming sounds, drawls, and lyrical themes—like riding horses, old towns, broken relationships, and dirt roads—of country music.
Some of Billboard’s decision to remove “Road” from the country charts is influenced by the country community’s disapproval of the song. Artists like Luke Combs senses the song is a sarcastic representation of country music. He believes “that the music should be taken seriously.” But even hip hop artists like Dave East share criticisms of “Road,” more directly describing the song as “wack.” Other critics cite cultural appropriation as good enough reason to permanently remove “Road” from the country charts.
Despite the onslaught of critiques for “Road,” it succeeds. For every rebuke there’s maybe a dozen commendations. Black and white artists applaud the song’s success as it continues to hold the top spot on multiple charts. When veteran country artist Billy Ray Cyrus heard “Old Town Road,” he openly disputed the critics. “I was thinking, Cyrus wrote on social media, “what’s not country about it? What’s the rudimentary element of a country and western song? Then I thought, it’s honest, humble, and has an infectious hook, and a banjo. What the hell more do ya need?” Cyrus has since teamed up with X for the “Old Town Road” remix, which helped further boost the song’s success. As of this writing, the Cyrus-remixed version is No.1 on Billboard’s Hot 100 for the eighth consecutive week. Additionally, it has reached the top of the Streaming Songs, Hot R. & B./Hip-Hop Songs, and Hot Rap Songs charts. (Billboard has since said it may revisit the previous decision to remove the song from its country charts.)
Though much pomp, recognition, and success surrounds Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road” it remains perpetually excluded from the country charts (as of this writing). Is X making fun of country music? Should we take his song serious? What are we to do with a song like his; a tune that doesn’t sonically befit an established genre? How we think about genre-bending artifacts like “Road” opens the door to more substantial inquiries about cultural taxonomy and how the Church can be a harbor for cultural misfits. It can also be a useful tool for understanding how the nuances and complexities of cultural appropriation and misappropriation can become unnecessary roadblocks when trying to build bridges across ethnicities.
To first understand the controversies of Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road,” it is important to explore the musicians intent for creating it.
At first “Road” may seem like a parody of country clichés, but it’s creation was birthed out of ambition and good old-fashioned, tragic teenage rebellion. The nineteen year old Hill felt his life was becoming an unremarkable one. Post-high school he enrolled in college, a feat that is becoming increasingly commonplace. Hill, however, aspired to be a full-time musician. So he dropped college—a decision that, too, is a growing trend—and focused on building his platform. Hill’s parents thought his passion quixotic and impracticable. “There’s a million rappers in this industry,” Hill’s father told him.
What birthed from—what Hill defines as—his parents disbelief in him is “Old Town Road.” Embedded within the track is a message to his parents: “Can’t nobody tell me nothing/You can’t tell me nothing,” a sentiment most of us have felt toward our parents at some point of our lives. In an interview with Time Magazine, X reveals that “Road” is an emotive statement to what is and has been true about the foundational American spirit: rebellion. X says he wanted “Old Town Road” to be a triumphant metaphor. “It came after a period of feeling like I was out of options,” he told Time. “But during the month of me making it, I gave it a different meaning, so that the ‘Old Town Road’ would be the symbol for success. The horse would be not having too much, but having what you have, in order to get to where you’re trying to go.” Before long, what originated as a song to defy his parents quickly morphed into a viral online sensation. In the process, he ignited a firestorm of controversy.
Controversy and music usually go hand in hand. There isn’t anything new about it. More recently, Ariana Grande’s hit single “7 Rings” rendered a focus on cultural appropriation. Writers and critics called attention to lyrics like, “Make it all back in one loop, give me the loot/Never mind, I got the juice,” and “I see it, I like it, I want it, I buy it,” all rap-sung over a pithy trap-inspired beat, that sound like rip-offs of previous productions in the hip hop and R. & B. genres. They also spotlighted Grande’s pink-themed music video, which rivaled imagery of rapper 2 Chainz health awareness trap house. The problem many have with Grande appropriating black imagery and lyrics, is not that she borrows the themes, but she uses them for personal gain without the experiences often associated with them.
Many of the misappropriation arguments for “Old Town Road” echo the “7 Rings” diatribes. The sentiment is that Lil Nas X isn’t a white male from rural America and shouldn’t use country music culture to personally benefit from it. As defined by the Cambridge Dictionary, cultural appropriation, or misappropriation is “the act of taking or using things from a culture that is not your own, especially without showing that you understand or respect this culture.” This is what many from the country music community feel Lil Nas X is doing with “Road”. People that come from backgrounds where horses, boots, and old town roads were, or are, norms connect to this imagery in country music more than those who don’t. So to make fun of or appropriate country themes the way, some people feel Lil Nas X does, will undoubtedly draw a multitude of backlash. And from this particular perspective, rightfully so.
But for many African Americans, we see it quite differently. Those who’ve watched their culture misappropriated for centuries see the “Old Town Road” controversy as yet another example of ethnic exclusion.
Initially, it was easy to determine the real reason “Road” was removed from Billboard’s country charts: jealousy and ethnic envy. Lil Nas X—a young, black college dropout with no experience in country music—garnered instant success. Meanwhile, other white country musicians remain undiscovered. Some white artists are slowly rising to notoriety. Others have reached X’s level of success, but via the long and arduous endeavors of performing at small shows and auditions. The fast-track to success may leave some wondering how, and why, does this black kid get to enjoy instant-fame, while other, more seasoned, white boys are still waiting for their opportunity? It’s the classic American recipe, posed as a question in the subconscious, that still abates inclusivity. It’s the myth that if one black is granted access to success and privilege, then the door is shut to many other “well-deserving” whites. So the the underlying belief that triggers the calculation for why “Road” remains excluded from the country charts, is preeminently rooted in that dreadful ‘R’ word that establishes whiteness with power. Yes, racism.
Country music isn’t as ethnically inclusive as other genres to boot. So when a newcomer like X burgeoned with fame due to virally memed Tik Tok videos, it was sure to conjure a conglomeration of naysaying artists and country music fans. But X’s rookie rise to country music success isn’t the only example of African American artists who’ve been outcasted from country music settings. Other esteemed black artists who created crossover tracks like “Road,” have also been greeted with hostility from some in the country clique.
Hip hop artist Nelly and country singer Tim McGraw faced similar scrutiny in 2004. Nelly’s country ballad, “Over & Over,” from his Suit album, didn’t even receive country chart consideration, despite originally featuring one of the most famous and notable artists of the genre—Tim McGraw. If a collaboration with such a prominent artist like McGraw, wasn’t worthy of a country-nod, then the only remaining variable left to reason for exclusion is the ethnicity of the song’s primary artist. When country artists, like Jason Aldean and Florida Georgia Line, featured hip hop and R. & B. artists on their songs, they received no such removal from the country charts, leaving us to consider the distinctions for ourselves.
Beyoncé’s 2016 song, “Daddy Lessons,” sonically, is a country song. Like “Road” it contains themes which most country listeners would be familiar with. Beyoncé was invited to perform a remixed version of “Daddy Lessons”—which features the renowned country female group Dixie Chicks—at the Country Music Awards. Not long after the announcement, a perfunctory tweet from country artist Travis Tritt made headlines. “We don’t need pop or rap artists to validate us,” he stated. Tritt’s sentiments were obviously made without consideration that the Houston-born artist was honoring her Texas roots. “Daddy Lessons” performs as an ode of appreciation for the country genre—a style that is thematically synonymous with the state of Texas (our state boasts of professional teams nicknamed after stereotypical country iconography: Cowboys, Rangers, Spurs, Mavericks, et cetera). Beyoncé went on to perform with the Dixie Chicks at the CMA’s and it was praised as one of the more country performances of the night.
The fracas surrounding “Road” contrasts the aforementioned examples in how much further the attempts to ostracize X from everything culturally “country” have gone. For example, when the Wrangler Jeans company announced a partnership with Lil Nas X for his line in “Road” (“Cowboy hat from Gucci, Wrangler on my booty”), some country fanatics pledged to boycott the company; many dissenters publicly lamenting their disapproval on social media. “If you have any sense, you’ll stop production and burn what’s left,” a user facetiously challenged Wrangler. Another commented: “I’m sick… Wrangler was the true Cowboy brand…but of course they can’t stay true to their consumer and try to appease a totally different audience that had to google what Wranger was when he mentioned it in that rap song.” With sentiments like these in 2019, we are resigned to consider the same variables that reveal a deliberate attempt to ethnically exclude any musician who hasn’t fully assimilated to the ideals of country music culture.
Some will challenge that these stated claims have more to do with the displeasure of “Old Town Road’s” style rather than Lil Nas X’s race. And to prove it’s not a color issue they will assuredly highlight Black Country artists of today, like Darius Rucker. Rucker, a former member of the rock band Hootie and the Blowfish, transitioned to a solo country career and has since seen his fame skyrocket with five No. 1 singles and a litany of Country Music Award nominations. They will undoubtedly use Rucker as the go-to example of the nondiscriminatory nature of the country genre. They will also probably point out their equal displeasure of previously mentioned groups and artists like Florida-Georgia Line, Jason Aldean, and Luke Bryan. Critics call their 21st century styles “bro-country.”
The Darius Rucker argument can be explained as a stipulation for assimilation if one is to be “accepted” on the country music charts. Rucker’s style and audiences remain particularly and culturally “white” in style and content, whereas Lil Nas X maintains a distinctly Black cultural vibe with “Old Town Road.” The “distaste for bro-country” rationalization is even harder to explain away. If the emphasis is for a specifically stylistic difference of taste, then, as mentioned before, those artists would also be removed from the country charts. As it stands, they are not, but Lil Nas X is.
With X at the center of such popularity and controversy now, it looks as if country music could be on the brink of cultural expansion—whether the old guard wants it to accept it or not. Producer/artist Blanco Brown is taking a stab at the “trap country” wave with his latest self-titled EP, but even more noticeably with his catchy tune “The Git Up”. Similar to the way X collaborated with known country artist Billy Ray Cyrus, Brown partnered with country artist Lainey Wilson for a country music dance video. It is apparent that “Old Town Road’s” popularity influenced “The Git Up,” yet Brown’s angle for the song maintains a stylistic uniqueness that’s more “country-friendly.” Regardless, country music artists and fans must determine if the limitations applied to songs like “Old Town Road” and “The Git Up” are worth lambasting. Time will reveal how receptive or hard-hearted the country music community will be toward future black artists who hope to expand the cultural limitations set by longtime country zealots. As with what’s evidenced, for now at least, the castigation from the traditionalists will continue.
But perhaps the collective blowback for these new “trap country” styles are steeped in fear. Maybe the essence of apprehension is trepidation of the unknown. Perchance there is a fear stoked in an inability to define what “Old Town Road” is, or exactly who Lil Nas X is. What will happen to country music if its rich history is not preserved, or if there aren’t any rules for future artists to abide by? Xenophobic alarms, like these, are triggered by cultural indolence—an apathetic unwillingness to categorize cultural phenomena.
Nailing down a definition for cultural entities like “Old Town Road” is difficult for most people. But it is a worthy task. Andy Crouch explains in his book Culture Making: Recovering Our Creative Calling that “culture is what we make of the world. Culture is…the name for our relentless, restless human effort to take the road as it’s given to us and make something else.” Even Adam, the first created man, could only create from what already was. There is indeed “nothing new under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 1:9). So when Lil Nas X debuted the one minute and fifty-three second long “Old Town Road” record, he was not merely appealing to the qualities that fans of both genres enjoy. He made something from what’s already been created.
At the same time, we are creatures dependent on structure and order. It’s the reason we cling so tight to our beloved “hip hop” or “country” genres, as we personally define them. So when an artist like X and a song like “Road” challenges us to redefine our cultural borders, our world is reshaped and we initially don’t like it. Regardless, we must do something with it. We cannot be indifferent to culture. Our environment is constantly shaped and reshaped by it. It will either be reformed out of a displeasure for a thing or out of satisfaction for what it accomplishes. Usually, though, reformation can feel threatening and unsettling to a world we’ve comfortably settled in, with all it’s simplified categorizations we can easily identify. When it’s not so easy to identify what’s what, the process of renaming can become infuriatingly frustrating. Its the same reason church leaders excommunicated Martin Luther from the Roman Catholic Church when he nailed his 95 Theses on the church doors. And the same reason the other Martin Luther—King Jr.—was met with much hatred and vitriol when he led nonviolent protests and marches that challenged segregation and unfair economic practices. When we cannot define a new cultural entity, or find it too hard to do so, the easier and weaker action is to rid ourself of the thing’s existence. Thus a unique song like “Road” becomes the next piece of garbage chunked by a cadre of critics.
As previously explored here, complicating the legitimacy of “Road’s” country “elements” only further incites unnecessary assumptions and standards for who or what is allowed in an already dangerously polarized society. America’s history actively speaks to and informs us of what is implied when an ethnically or culturally black artifact is removed from a (perceived) structurally designated “white” space. So when a black artist like X and his obviously country song are dismissed as simply not having enough country elements, the truth embedded within American history will inform us of our present reality. Put simply: the imbalanced and unfavorable critiques of a song like “Road’s” ‘country-ness’ leave African Americans to ponder if the judgements of the song are—at their best—unnecessary straining at gnats, or are—at their worst—actions of modern racism. We quietly pray it be the former while history screams, “its the latter!”
Lil Nas X understands his critics—black and white—more than most probably realize or are willing to give him credit for. It’s with this knowledge he is creatively bringing people together. His wisdom is displayed in the song’s star-studded music video/movie short, which was directed by Calmatic. The visual includes his trusted ally Billy Ray Cyrus, along with comedian Chris Rock, hip hop artists Vince Staples, Rico Nasty, Jozzy, Diplo, Haha Davis, and the song’s producer, YoungKio.
The video opens with X and Cyrus making off like bandits on horses with a bag of money in 1889. The two are chased by Rock and his deputies before the comedian calls off the chase stating, “When you see a black man on a horse going that fast, you just gotta let ‘em fly!” The bandits stop at a house where Cyrus suggests they stay for the night. “I don’t know man,” X reluctantly states, “last time I was here they weren’t too welcoming to outsiders.” “You with me this time,” Cyrus tries assuring X, “everything’s gon’ be alright.” But X’s premonitions about staking out at that place substantiate into a real threat on his life when the owner of the house draws a gun and shoots at him. X makes for a tunnel that turns out to be a time-travel portal, transporting him to a black neighborhood in the future, our present-day.
When X is transported to the neighborhood he is met with blank stares and intrigue. He rides his horse down the street with confidence and cool, which brings to memory images of Django (Jamie Foxx) riding through a plantation where slaves looked upon him in awe. The residents’ curiosity in the video transforms the neighborhood, opening an avenue of possibility that communicates an idea that minorities can profit off of expanding boundaries.
The music portion of the video ends in a bingo hall soon turned dance hall where Cyrus performs his verse. The room is filled with elderly white participants where X joins them in a two-step. Overall, the video works to tear down needless boundaries between cultures, long at odds in a myriad of ways.
The movie-short, like the song, is a soliloquy symbolizing the real-life journey of Lil Nas X’s adversity and success. But more interesting is a nod to the history and influence black cowboys and artists had on country music. 1889, the year the music video is set in, is also the same year Jack Thorp, the author of a small book called Songs of the Cowboys, began collecting cowboy songs. According to Kansas History, Thorp’s “initial find was ‘Dodgin’ Joe,’ sung around a black trail crew’s camp fire.” Other songs, like “Home on the Range,” which became a Western anthem, can also be attributed to blacks in the early beginnings of the musical style. The suggestion is that country music wasn’t, and isn’t, a necessarily a “white” genre to begin with. Therefore, it should be a shared cultural experience, not an exclusive one.
Time will tell if “Old Town Road” will be a classic hit that can broaden the horizons for “trap country” or “country trap.” Maybe it will just be another summer trend. Regardless, we can grasp this moment, this artist, this song, the critiques and the praises, to better understand our beautifully complicated world. In that regard, we need “Road” and Lil Nas X. If not but to simply help us identify and destroy our musical genre biases and stereotypes, “Road” and X will challenge us to free ourselves from the imprisonment of our personal and cultural boundaries.
In all sincerity, whether white country veterans can acknowledge it or not, they need “Old Town Road” on Billboard’s country music charts. It’s possible to respect western music history and hold it in high esteem while simultaneously exploring new heights and limitations of euphonic country tunes. Likewise, if black people can realize the full-circle effect of X’s “Old Town Road” and the black cowboy’s place on the country charts, we can once again push culture forward with the rhythmic and odds-defying music that helps our world keep spinning. We no longer need to run from the “country” label as a genre foreign to who we are. Country is who we are. We’ve simply allowed others to borrow it.
When Lil Nas X was asked by Time if he believes the removal of “Old Town Road” had racial undertones and if the song should be on the country charts, he replied: “I believe whenever you’re trying something new, it’s always going to get some kind of bad reception…The song is country trap. It’s not one, it’s not the other. It’s both. It should be on both.”