The most popular song in America features country artist Billy Ray Cryus and is about riding a horse, overcoming opposition and longing for home. Somehow that’s not enough to make it country. Billboard and so many others say that Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road” is not a country song.
For nearly as long as country music has existed, critics have lampooned that today’s country isn’t really country. That’s not too shocking, as nostalgia overwhelms objectivity. University of New Hampshire Professor David Finkelhor dubbed the phenomenon of the current generation freaking out the next generation is weak or not what the last generation was as Juvenoia.
Country music has their own version of Juvenoia: a fear the next generation of country music isn’t really country or not what it once was. In 2009, Steve Tuttle wrote for Newsweek that country today just isn’t the same:
How did we get to this strange, alien land where there’s a country-awards show that honors pop-music teeny-boppers and a lot of the songs aren’t really country by even the stretchiest definition? It didn’t happen overnight. Ever since the Carter Family made their famous Bristol recordings in 1927, people have been arguing about what country music is, was and should be. Traditionalists got bent out of shape in 1962 when Ray Charles recorded “Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music,” which took the genre and transformed it into something more approachable for a mass audience. Now it’s considered a groundbreaking classic.
Willie and Waylon ushered in a more hard-core “outlaw” country in the late ‘70s, but then in 1980, John Travolta rode into town on a mechanical bull in “Urban Cowboy,” and traditional country music took another hit. And of course there was the great “folk scare” of the 1960s, which threatened to kill off traditional bluegrass. But the truth is, bluegrass had been around for only about 20 years at the time.
Then the 1990s brought us Garth Brooks, more commonly known as just Garth, who I originally thought was all hat and no cattle, surely the final nail in the honky-tonk coffin. His pop-sounding megahits and his wacky flying over arena stages on a wire in his way-too-tight Wranglers made my skin crawl. Almost two decades later, and by today’s Rascal Flatts-ian standards, I consider him almost a modern-day Hank Williams.
Alan Jackson told GQ last year:
Aaaah, you probably don’t want me to get on my soapbox about it. There’s some good music out there, but there’s not really much at all that’s real country music anymore on the mainstream country charts—what is nominated for awards—and it’s been going that way for years now, and I don’t know if it’ll ever come back.
The “Old Town Road” isn’t country critics might have an answer here: Sure, country music has a host of last generation folks lamenting modernity, but that doesn’t mean “Old Town Road” is country. They might say the criticism of the way people think about “What is Country?” justifies giving a second listen to “Old Town Road,” but on a second listen, the song just isn’t country.
That view is wrong. Let’s go through the reasons one could give for it not being country.
Not enough traditional country instruments:
What instruments are required for a country song, and how much do you need to hear those instruments?
I’d call this view the “Hurt” view. In 2002, Johnny Cash took Nine Inch Nails’ song “Hurt” and wonderfully worked in a guitar to make a country hit. Under this theory, lyrics matter less in deciding if something is country.
There are two problems with this idea. First, “Old Town Road” has traditional country instruments—to say nothing of the premise that country can police its instruments. The song features a Nine Inch Nails sample from “28 Ghost IV.” Lil Nas X took a banjo beat form of that song. When Johnny Cash used a guitar 17 years earlier, it was country. When Lil Nas X does it 17 years later—with a banjo instead of a guitar—it wasn’t?
Second, lyrics have to matter. This theory would exclude considering, “Cowboy hat from Gucci. Wrangler on my booty” as country. The Southern and country influences jump out with every lyric. Maybe there’s a balance where the instrumental alone would warrant excluding this as a country song, but the lyrics have to have some value. And they weigh heavily in favor of ruling this a country song.
“Old Town Road” starts with a banjo sample and discusses country themes the whole time. That’s country.
Lil Nas X isn’t really rapping. He’s singing. And if he is, then have I got some history to let you know about country music and rap.
In 2001 ,Toby Keith released, “I Want to Talk About Me.” Keith raps the whole time. That song reached No. 1 on the Billboard chart. It was allowed to stay there.
In 2011, Jason Aldean’s “Dirty Road Anthem” has a second verse where it’s not even close whether he rapping. That song reached No. 1 and was allowed to stay there.
Big and Rich rap in plenty of their songs, including “Coming to Your City.” It was No. 21 on the country charts and allowed to remain.
Even assuming Lil Nas X is rapping and not singing, that’s not a reason a song isn’t country. Country has embraced singing styles closer to rap. Lil Nas X fits comfortably in a genre that’s allowed Keith, Aldean and Big and Rich creative freedom.
It’s a parody:
just because old town road has funny lines doesn’t mean it’s parody. it has a theme. anybody with ears can tell i put some kind of effort into that song.— nope (@LilNasX) March 27, 2019
Some argue that the only way to include the song is to stereotype that country music is about tractors, horses and heartbreak. That’s not what’s happening.
“Old Town Road” uses country metaphors to tell a story. As Lil Nas X said, “The horse would be like, not having much, and Old Town Road would be that path to success. You know, you’re taking that horse to Old Town Road.” That’s not making fun of the genre. It’s embracing it as a means of telling a happy story.
Parody also doesn’t rule out something being country. Rascal Flatts’ “Backwards” makes fun of how country songs often use a few common tropes. The song didn’t stop being country because it joked about some stereotypes.
This song isn’t parody. To the extent it plays on country stereotypes, it doesn’t do this more than plenty of other country songs and artists.
It’s a trap song:
I guess the idea here is that because the bass drops and the beat builds faster than some country songs, it’s not a country song.
It’s true that Keith, Aldean and the other country artists that dip into rap don’t use the same beat Lil Nas X uses for much of the song. So what?
Country music didn’t embrace drums at first. As Wide Open Country details:
Yep, the Grand Ole Opry was strictly a no-drums affair for decades after it first opened. Bob Wills ignored the Opry’s rules in 1944 and brought a drummer, making him the (disputed) first artist to ever do so. Every now and then for the next 3 decades artists, like Jerry Reed, broke the rules without ruffling too many feathers.
But full-time use of drums wasn’t allowed until a management shift in 1974. There could be plenty of reasons to not allow drums. On one hand, technology at the time made it hard to broadcast music cleanly, and a big loud drum set may disrupt the storytelling of the songs. On the other, the Opry was a very traditional affair, and many saw the shift to drum usage in the 1950s as “not real country.” That’s right. Even in the 50s people were saying that newfangled music ain’t real country.
Genres expand and shift over time. The beats in “Old Town Road” may be different than what country was in 2018, but they might be the most popular beats in 2028. What we consider country—much like what we consider to meet a definition of anything—can shift.
“Old Town Road” is both a trap song and a country song. The song is a fun story about starting low and trying to achieve the American Dream. It does that with more country elements than plenty of Big and Rich songs, and mixes in traditional country lyrics and a singer with a Southern accent. That’s more than enough.
A little of all these criticisms adds up to not country:
The argument: The limited country instruments, him maybe rapping, the trap beat and the song not really being about country music all add up to enough to exclude it from the ranks of country music.
That’s still not persuasive. If you take 1,000 shots and miss them all, then it doesn’t matter that you took so many shots because you didn’t score. And there’s no value in these criticisms. Each one is badly mistaken and leaves a narrow vision of country.
Then make a positive case for its inclusion:
I’ve done that throughout, but okay.
“Old Town Road” has more than enough to make it country. Lil Nas X sings in a Southern dialectic about common country themes: a tractor, horses, financial distress and the hope for more. He starts it off with a banjo theme, a common country instrument. He adds Billy Ray Cyrus, a former country star, who brings another verse ripe with country themes from the “Marlboro Man” and spending a lot of money on “A brand new guitar.”
“Old Town Road” is different. But that doesn’t mean it’s not country. Lil Nas X has released the most original song in a while. He’s given country music a wonderful song. And country music should be glad to accept it.