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‘Old Town Road’ sweeps the charts­—and the nation

April 19, 2019

Kayla Snyder

Of all the songs that aim to blend genres that normally never go together, none have done it quite like Sam Hunt’s “Body Like a Back Road.” It starts like any other bro-country hit, with acoustic guitar twang, drab pop chords and a cringeworthy whistle at the girl that [insert bro] is about to serenade. But by the chorus, we know Hunt is up to something more than just another pop-country jam for the boys. There are deep 808s, shimmering trap hi-hats, and a “hey!” sound effect that sounds damn near the one that Tyga used for “Rack City.” It’s a country song where Hunt throws in every element he can to make it sound hip-hop, down to his opening line where he drawls out, “Gotta girl from the southsiiide….” It’s a perfect song for country’s new audience: an audience that would put a Luke Bryan song in the same playlist as “Bad and Boujee,” and play that playlist on a Natty Light-littered riverside or a dorm room with an American flag on the wall right next to an Animal House poster.

We’d have to wait nearly four years for another hit to try and piece together country and rap with that much success. Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road” has been out for less than six months and has already done something “Body Like a Back Road” never did—top the Billboard Hot 100­­—and it’s done it for two straight weeks. But while the Hot 100 encompasses all genres, “Old Town Road” will never top the country chart like Hunt’s song did. After debuting at no.19 on Billboard’s Hot Country Songs, on the night of March 24, “Old Town Road” vanished.

Billboard released a statement afterwards to Rolling Stone claiming that “Old Town Road” doesn’t “embrace enough elements of today’s country music” for a place on the chart, and at first listen, it’s easy to hear why. The production here is standard trap with little detail to speak of, and Lil Nas X’s murky verses and undeniably catchy hook sound more like a twangy, less autotuned (and somewhat less talented) Travis Scott than any country singer on radio today.

But in many ways, “Old Town Road” is as expertly crafted as “Body Like a Back Road.” Beyond the horse-riding hook, Lil Nas X comes up with some stellar country rap two-liners here. Lines like “Ridin’ on a tractor / lean all in my bladder” and  “Cowboy hat from Gucci / Wrangler on my booty” show that Lil Nas X knows exactly what he’s doing here by smashing together two genres he knows won’t mix. Those overt juxtapositions give Lil Nas X a redeeming self-awareness, something that Sam Hunt couldn’t find a lick of on “Body Like a Back Road.” Listen a bit closer to “Old Town Road” and that sample in the back starts to sound like what it actually is: a banjo.

Regardless of the banjo sample and the cowboy imagery, skeptics have and will shell out the age old critique: “That ain’t real country.” It’s a phrase I’ve heard countless times listening to the radio in Virginia, from old heads who would rather break out their CDs of Johnny Cash, George Strait or Garth Brooks than hear a word of anything on country radio today. They’ve said it about Luke Bryan and Sam Hunt, and they will certainly say it about Lil Nas X.

But Billboard didn’t take down “Old Town Road” for not being “real country.” Billboard took it down for not embracing “today’s country music,” which, to say the least, complicates things. In the past five years, country has seen somewhat of a renaissance with artists escaping the confines of traditional country music. Guitar-wielding bros like Hunt, Dan + Shay and Thomas Rhett have found success infusing elements of ’90s-era R&B, tropical EDM and,  yes, trap, into their pop-country love ballads. Likewise, Kacey Musgraves won Grammys galore for her dreamily crafted album “Golden Hour,” which put banjos next to house beats and vocoders. Country star Maren Morris got a Grammy nomination too, not for a country song, but for “The Middle,” her smash collaboration with EDM staple Zedd. All of these artists are pushing the bounds of country, and all of them have charted in the past five years.

But perhaps no one has pushed that boundary as successfully as the boys from Florida Georgia Line. The sweet talkin’, guitar pickin’ duo have become the epitome of bro-country over the past decade, landing dozens of poppy hits on the country charts. But they’ve also had their share of being shut out: while their hit single “Cruise” spent 24 weeks atop the country charts in 2012, the iconic remix of the song featuring Nelly never showed on the country chart. The remix peaked at #4 on the Hot 100, and, except for a bit of autotune and some extra percussion, is essentially the same as the original, with all the banjos and lyrics about lift kits that made it country in the first place.

Even more head-scratching is the case of Florida Georgia Line’s most recent hit, “Meant to Be,” a collab with pop singer Bebe Rexha. If the “Cruise” remix pushed the boundary of country music, “Meant to Be” has totally jumped the fence. The production is textbook trap pop, with all the 808s, hats and snaps you’d expect to find on any track from today’s top 40. While “Body Like a Back Road” spent 34 weeks atop the country chart, “Meant to Be” spent 50. And while you might be able to pick up a few country elements in “Old Town Road,” in “Meant to Be,” you’d be hard pressed to find one.

The “Old Town Road” situation wreaks of a genre in crisis with the way its artists are moving. With country splintering out in different directions, Hunt towards rap, Morris and Musgraves towards electropop and the rest towards top 40 hits, Nashville has struggled to keep its prodigies playing the genre that made them famous. But while artists like Hunt and Florida Georgia Line still get airplay on country radio, stations continue to shut out artists who aren’t white men, like Morris, Musgraves and now Lil Nas X. Billboard’s removal of “Old Town Road” from the country charts reaffirms the message Nashville has been sending for years: if you don’t look like country music of the past, you don’t have a right to change it in the present. And even that logic ignores the genre’s roots as Country & Western, a pre-Johnny Cash, black-pioneered style.

Of all the opinions one could possibly have on the removal of “Old Town Road,” the most troubling take I’ve heard at Bowdoin is that the original song doesn’t deserve to chart on country, but the remix with Billy Ray Cyrus should. But this is exactly today’s country, where people think a previously non-country song can qualify as country if a white dude rides in and spits a dad-rap verse about Fendi sports bras and Marlboro cigs, as long as that man had one country hit 27 years ago. Country is a genre that continues to place clout over quality, and you can only change the game if you’ve earned the respect of gatekeepers decades past their prime.

Is “Old Town Road” country? Probably not, but Billboard shouldn’t change the rules now. Lil Nas X has every right to be on the same chart that’s been dominated by white artists for doing pretty much the same thing he’s doing: singing gimmicky verses about country-ish things over factory-made beats. But for Lil Nas X, it really won’t matter. “Old Town Road” is probably off to its third week at #1, with or without the cosign of country gatekeepers. At least it’s got the cosign from one of those gatekeepers: before hopping on the remix, Cyrus praised Lil Nas X in a tweet you could only imagine him saying with an approving tip of the cowboy hat, “Only outlaws are outlawed. Welcome to the club.”

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