[A guest post by John Duffy on a song that’s been #1 on all single charts for eight straight weeks. – AC]
Billboard can spike it from their charts for lacking the “characteristics of today’s country music,” country radio can refuse to commit to it, and people of good taste can scorn it, but Atlanta rapper Lil’ Nas X’s sincere cowboy novelty “Old Town Road” is a hit.
Country program directors won’t talk about it. They say it was just a blip, a song they never took seriously.
Very well, but in the second to last week of May it was in is 7th week atop the U.S. and Canadian singles charts, and was holding strong at urban and Top 40. Back April it became the most streamed single of all time at 143 million—sorry, Drake. And a handful of U.S. country stations are still spinning it, and they did so more this week than last, about 129 more times.
Perhaps they cannot ignore it any longer. This one might have legs.
“Old Town Road” was a long time coming, and nobody who has listened to country music since Garth Brooks faded out should be surprised. Steve Earle quipped five years ago that the country machine was merely producing hip-hop for folks that were “afraid of black people.”
The wave of “bro country” we had to endure—bronzed dudes with interchangeable names like Bryan and Chase and Bryce, all wearing snapback hats while endlessly dropping tired clichés about trucks, drinking, tractors, mud, and girls—was the sad proof.
It was at once the simultaneous strip-mining of urban culture and cynical reduction of four generations of rural Americana. But for a music that finds itself in a perpetual self-created identity crisis and has no ability left to be the true voice of its own audience, what could honestly be expected? We have seen the demise of country music, and its name is Florida Georgia Line.
Am I being too harsh? No.
When females by far dominate the country buying market yet only make up 11% of the voices on country radio, allowing Mitchell Tenpenny to get away with a releasing a song called “Bitches,” is just asking to be mocked openly.
And one has no business dismissing “Old Town Road” because of its lack of country-ness. Of course, it’s not country, but neither is most country–unless all that is required is to mention God or some form of drinking in the title. And really, is there that big a gap between cowboy lope and gangster swagger?
Sadly, the scourge of bro-country never really went away, as no real insurgency of traditionalism has filled the void, despite the best efforts of Isbell, Musgraves, Simpson, Stapleton and their partisans. Luke Combs is just a thankfully less sexy Luke Bryan.
So along comes Lil’ Nas X, and with a little help from Billy Ray Cyrus on the remix puts “Old Town Road” back on top. This is a country hit Nashville had nothing to do with, wanted nothing to do with, and hoped would just go away.
But make no mistake, country music’s ruling class has no one to blame for it but themselves. “Old Town Road” is the best kind of satire, because it is sincere. This is not a mockery of country music, it is an homage. And Music Row cannot stand it because they didn’t think of it.
Sure, we can impress people on social media by citing examples of R&B/Country crossovers, from Ray Charles to the Pointer Sisters to Kane Brown, or with our knowledge of black country voices like Darius Rucker, Kane Brown, and Jimmie Allen. We could go even deeper, remembering that The Commodores used a pedal steel on “Sail On” at nearly the same time Alabama’s “Feels So Right” topped the charts with straight-up soulful baby-making music.
But Brown and Allen sound white—neither would ever be played on urban radio—and Darius Rucker was a Blowfish. They were created by Nashville, or at least kissed the ring. Lil’ Nas X, while from the south, is an outsider. He did not pay penance on Music Row. As the L.A. Times noted, Nashville “has capitalized on black traditions but not built up black superstars.”
But at the end of the day maybe Steve Earle was wrong, at least when it comes to young people, the ones who made “Old Town Road” a hit. This generation grew up with the long tail of digital possibility bringing an uncategorized world of music to them. Radio formats are increasingly meaningless to people under 40. And the success of “Old Town Road.” the L.A. Times noted, may be “more reflective of a country fan’s typical Spotify playlist than any radio programmer would dare admit.”
So who gets to decide what is country? Ultimately listeners, fans, downloaders will determine whether a song is a hit or not, no matter where we might have filed it in a record store twenty years ago. And if Nashville has fed them a steady diet of thin gruel for half a generation, who are they to complain when an outsider cracks the code.