When 19 year old Lil Nas X (born Montero Lamar Hill) released his now hyper-viral song “Old Town Road” last year, it’s unlikely he foresaw the impact it would have on the music industry, nor the conversations it would spark about race and genre classification.
The one minute and fifty-three second track, performed in an exaggerated southern draw with a mix of trap and country production styles, went viral on the video sharing app TikTok. The app, a Chinese clone of the now dead Vine, launched three years ago and has recently gained tremendous traction in the US among teens and college students. Hill, a college dropout who left school to pursue music full time, originally promoted the song on TikTok as a meme. Today, “Old Town Road” sits atop both the Apple Music and Spotify USA Top 50 charts. Its official video, a compilation of clips from the popular cowboy video game “Red Dead Redemption 2,” has amassed over 18 million views on YouTube.
For a brief moment, the track was also climbing the Billboard Hot Country chart before the company pulled it from that designation and removed it from country consideration altogether. According to Billboard, “Old Town Road” was mistakenly added to its country charts. In a statement made to Rolling Stone, the company said that “While ‘Old Town Road’ incorporates references to country and cowboy imagery, it does not embrace enough elements of today’s country music to chart in its current version.”
The problem with that statement is that “today’s country music” is a loosely defined, genre-bending amalgamation of rock, pop, and yes, even hip hop influences. The top charting country acts of the past ten years have included the spoken word rap stylings of Sam Hunt and Jason Aldean, the Motley Crue meets Kid Rock cringe-fest that is Brantley Gilbert, and the glitzy pop fantasy that is Kacey Musgraves.
Beyond just the influence of other genres within the music, country artists have a well-documented (though poorly received) history of collaborating with rappers on cross-genre projects — all of which were classified as country by Billboard. From Tim McGraw and Nelly’s 2004 R&B/country fusion “Over and Over,” to Brad Paisley and LL Cool J’s impossibly tone deaf “Accidental Racist,” to Florida Georgia Line’s remix of their hit song “Cruise,” featuring Nelly (an admittedly better attempt by the St. Louis rapper), country and hip hop have been crossing paths for well over a decade.
Still, as if Billboard’s statement didn’t ooze enough hypocrisy and racial bias — at best generational ignorance — the truth is “Old Town Road” is no more a parody of southern culture than every country song for the past fifty years.
Its cowboy imagery and lyrics about livin’ the bad boy life, drinking, and cheating on one’s “baby” are the literal epitome of formulaic country writing. Its themes are the same worn-out tropes invoked by such lines as Luke Bryan’s, “I got that real good, feel good stuff. Up under the seat of my big black, jacked up truck,” or Brantley Gilbert’s immortal, “make you wanna slide on in like, ‘girl wassup?’”
And if you think those tired old themes are a product of modern country, take it from the king of racist country music himself, David Allen Coe, whose 1975 country anthem, “You Never Even Called Me By My Name,” literally spells out the ingredients of a perfect country song: momma, trains, trucks, prison, and drinking. Lil Nas X has confirmed that the song’s line, “can’t nobody tell me nothing,” is a direct reference to tension between him and his parents following his decision to drop out of school. The song’s video features sufficient imagery of both trains and the outlaw life, and in it he refers to his bladder as being full of “lean.” All that’s missing is a truck, which in this case has been swapped out for the eternally more authentic horse motif.
Any way you look at it, Billboard is left with little if any credible justification for removing “Old Town Road” from its country charts beyond blatant discrimination. In an interview with Time Magazine, Lil Nas X has defined the song as “trap-country fusion,” adding that it should be included on both rap and country charts. On the basis of pure structure and musicality, when viewed through the lens of modern country, this author finds no reason to disagree.