(This report has been updated.)
The definition of “real” country music often sparks fierce debate. In the last two weeks, it ignited a controversy.
It all started in December when 19-year-old Atlanta rapper Lil Nas X released “Old Town Road,” which his producer described as “country trap” and his label called a “country-inspired rap track.” Incorporating banjo, hip-hop and sampling Nine Inch Nails’s “34 Ghosts IV,” it arrived with a music video featuring cowboys in the Wild West.
The song took off on YouTube and SoundCloud and fueled a popular meme on the app TikTok; by late February, it was No. 1 on Spotify’s Viral 50 playlist. It soon topped the iTunes country chart. The success sparked a bidding war among record labels, and Lil Nas X landed a deal with Sony Music’s Columbia Records. In mid-March, “Old Town Road” went mainstream as it broke into the all-genre Billboard Hot 100 at No. 83. The song also debuted at No. 19 on the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart, which measures streaming, sales and radio play.
That’s when the controversy began.
In late March, Rolling Stone published a feature about how “Old Town Road” became a viral hit, reporting that Billboard had “quietly removed” the song from the Hot Country chart and “informed Lil Nas X’s label, Columbia Records, that his inclusion on the ranking was a mistake.” Billboard told Rolling Stone, “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 song is at No. 7 on the Hot Rap chart.)
The story swiftly made the rounds in music publications. Lil Nas X, whose label did not return The Washington Post’s request for comment, Instagrammed Pitchfork’s article with a sad face emoji and wrote “extremely disappointed.”
Lil Nas X tweeted: “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.” He told Time magazine the song is “country trap” and should be on both the country and R&B/hip-hop charts.
On Thursday night, the situation took another twist when Lil Nas X released a remixed version of “Old Town Road” with Billy Ray Cyrus, the country legend who broke out with “Achy Breaky Heart” in 1992. Cyrus opens the song rapping a verse of his own (“Hat down, cross town, living like a rock star/Spend a lot of money on my brand new guitar . . .”) and has received rave reviews from the Internet; “Billy Ray Cyrus” and “Old Town Road” trended worldwide on Twitter for hours.
Some speculated Billboard might change its mind with a country music superstar on the track:
“I loved the song the first time I heard it. Country music fans decide what they like. Not critics or anyone else,” Cyrus said in a statement. “Waylon Jennings once told me every once in a while the industry outlaws someone because they’re different. Country music fans don’t need to be defined by critics. I’ve always said, don’t think inside the box, don’t think outside the box. Think like there is no box. So, I’m honored to collaborate with Lil Nas X on ‘Old Town Road.'"
This is not the first time there has been a dispute over country classification. In 2016, Texas band Green River Ordinance did not seem thrilled when Billboard labeled them as “rock and folk,” taking away their chance for high placement on the country album chart.
But “Old Town Road” was primed to blow up on social media, as it touched on several polarizing topics: the decades-long debate of what defines country music; the idea that many of country’s recent biggest hits, including Jason Aldean’s “Dirt Road Anthem” and Sam Hunt’s “Break Up in a Small Town,” involve elements of rap and hip-hop; and the fact that country music is an overwhelmingly white genre, in which a black artist only recently launched his career with a No. 1 hit.
Rapper Ski Mask the Slump God tweeted a Twitter Moment roundup of the issue and wrote, “Wow, Discrimination At It’s Finest”; Lil Nas X quoted the tweet and added, “bro thank u for being one of the only artists to speak on this publicly.”
Billboard said dropping the song from the country chart “had absolutely nothing to do with the race of the artist.” Lil Nas X’s manager Danny Kang agreed, telling Rolling Stone, “That’s a hip-hop song,” and explained that the rapper strategically listed the track on SoundCloud and iTunes as country to gain more traction. (“Old Town Road” no longer appears on the iTunes country chart.)
A Billboard spokeswoman declined to make staffers available for an interview but released an extended statement to The Washington Post:
When categorizing genres for chart inclusion, Billboard examines several factors, including a song or album’s musical composition (with acknowledgment that sounds within genres consistently evolve; an artist’s recording history and track record within a particular genre; similarity to current charting titles in that genre; which radio formats and streaming platforms are showing notable support; and how a title is being marketed.
In the case of “Old Town Road” by Lil Nas X, it prematurely charted on Hot Country Songs because its rights holders had tagged it as country, but it hadn’t yet been thoroughly vetted for the standard criteria noted above. The song’s removal was primarily based on the track’s overall lack of country music instrumentation, and subsequently, in the tracking week ending March 24, it received 63 plays (translating to 286,000 audience impressions) on radio stations reporting to Billboard’s Mainstream R&B/Hip-Hop airplay chart and zero on stations reporting to the Country Airplay survey, according to Nielsen Music.
The song is also classified as various forms of rap, but not country, on Spotify; was not released by a country-focused record label; and its producer, YoungKio, told Billboard, “This beat is a trap beat with a rock-type sample. That’s how I see it. It’s not a country beat.”
Decisions to remove a title are never made lightly or without thought given to all affected parties. The removal of a title from any of our genre charts is not a common occurrence, but has happened in the past under similar circumstances in which a charted title was deemed not an ideal fit after additional analysis. At the same time, such decisions are not final and remain subject to further review as the market evolves.
While many on social media debated the issue, it also turned into a larger conversation about how artists of color are treated by the music industry, including in the pop and rock genres. Others brought up the fact that, again, lots of country hits do not sound like “traditional” country anymore, so why should this song be treated differently?