Unlike those other top songs, though, “Old Town Road” first appeared on Billboard’s country charts, an origin that not only makes it rare but also controversial. Since the song was first released in December, its popularity has been accompanied by confusion and outrage — not because its sound isn’t country but because its singer is black. “Old Town Road” is a case study of the ways in which sound, culture and politics overlap in our understanding of musical genre — especially a genre such as country, where inclusion is aggressively policed by fans, critics and institutions alike, and where the politics of inclusion hinges on race.
Songs that cross over from the country charts seldom spend this kind of time in the rarefied air of the Hot 100. Although there have been a handful of artists who have made it close to the Billboard summit — LeAnn Rimes, Florida Georgia Line, Lady Antebellum and others — none have seen Lil Nas X’s level of success. Neither, however, have any of the song’s country predecessors courted the same kind of controversy.
In March, Billboard chose to pull Lil Nas X’s song from its country charts — where it had reached No. 19, and would have inevitably reached No. 1 — ostensibly for failing to embrace “enough elements of today’s country music,” while keeping it on the R&B/Hip Hop charts. More recently, many white country fans have taken to Twitter to voice their anger over Lil Nas X’s recent sponsorship deal with Wrangler jeans, a brand that has been connected with cowboy and rodeo culture since the 1940s.
Clearly, for the self-deputized gatekeepers of the country genre, Lil Nas X and his song don’t belong.
And this matters in terms of building a career in country music. The genre has more entrenched gatekeepers than many other musical styles: Country radio success is crucially important for artists, and the format has come under fire in recent years for its narrow playlists, including an aversion to playing songs by women. When country music’s gatekeepers — whether Billboard, country radio stations or white listeners — talk about genre, they tend to try to focus the conversation on musical sound. There is a sense that the sound of the music is neutral, objective terrain. Music has certain “elements” or it doesn’t; songs belong or they don’t.
But such discussions are almost inevitably shorthand for much deeper, more politically fraught issues. Music is never safe, neutral or objective. And as musical genres go, country has an especially complicated history, especially with respect to race.
For a genre that has historically been primarily associated with white artists and audiences, country music has always drawn heavily on African American musical influences, especially the blues. As a musical and poetic form and a performance aesthetic (the “man and guitar” style, for instance), the blues has been the common denominator for nearly every country figure, from Jimmie Rodgers to Eric Church.
In terms of instrumentation, too, country and its adjacent genres, especially bluegrass, have leaned heavily on sounds derived from African and African American music. The banjo, for instance, finds its likely progenitors among a set of West African string instruments: the akonting, the ubaw-akwala, the xalam and the ngoni. If these instruments themselves did not cross the Middle Passage, knowledge of instrument design and performance style certainly did. Musically, then, country music has always been entangled with black culture.
But from very early on in the history of the country genre, artists, audiences and other key stakeholders, Billboard among them, worked to elide or erase that entanglement. When Billboard first started tracking country music hits in 1939, it did so on a chart called “Hillbilly Hits” that was specifically mindful of sales to white audiences, either those in rural parts of the United States or those who had migrated to larger, urban centers. The blues, meanwhile, was lumped in with all other African American recorded production, ranging from jazz to comedy, under the now-infamous signifier “race records.” However much in common Rodgers and his blues contemporaries may have had musically, on the charts they were separated based on race.
These same racialized categories endure today on the Billboard charts, albeit with sanitized nomenclature. When the organization finally did away with the “race records” category in 1949, it inaugurated the “rhythm and blues” genre to replace it. Although rhythm and blues isn’t as messy as “race records” either musically or politically, it nevertheless includes an impossibly huge breadth of music.
In recent years, a number of black artists have objected forcefully to the restrictive character of the R&B/Hip Hop chart, decrying the persistent notion that, despite no longer officially being designated “race records,” the updated chart works in a pretty similar way. In effect, the vast majority of African American artists end up on the R&B/Hip Hop chart, while white artists can be placed there or anywhere else. The white rapper Post Malone, for instance, occupies both No. 3 and No. 4 spots on the R&B/Hip Hop chart, but there isn’t a single nonwhite artist among the top 50 on the country charts.
Simply put, whatever their music may sound like, white artists have infinitely more latitude when crossing genres than artists of color.
Even before Cyrus had anything to do with it, “Old Town Road” could easily qualify as a country rap or country trap tune, both well-established subgenres under the country designation. In fact, it’s worth observing that Lil Nas X doesn’t rap at all on the track. While the fact that it is sample-based and features trap-style drums situates it within the hip-hop genre musically, the melody, lyrical content and acoustic instrument sounds, especially the banjo, are all strong signifiers of country.
More to the point: There has been comparatively little controversy over the incorporation of rap into the genre if it comes via white artists, including stars Jason Aldean and Florida Georgia Line (both of whom have spoken out in support of Lil Nas X). Aldean’s hit, “Dirt Road Anthem,” peaked at No. 7 on the Billboard country charts back in 2010, despite its rapped verses. And yet Billboard pulled “Old Town Road,” a song with similar themes, after only a few weeks. And a hip-hop infused style has propelled artists such as Sam Hunt to country superstardom.
Why is a white artist permitted to stay on the country charts with a rap-based single, while a black artist is removed for “not [embracing] enough elements of today’s country music”? The answer seems clear: It has little to do with the sound of the music, and everything to do with the race of the performer. When institutions and fans alike purport to be protecting the genre’s musical qualities, they are also circling the wagons around whiteness.