In 1968, a historian named Bill Malone attempted the ambitious project of writing a definitive account of American country music. The resulting tome, titled Country Music, U.S.A., traces how the twang and nostalgia of country music came to be a prominent representation of American culture. In the book’s introduction, Malone writes that country is “America’s truest music” because it “breathes with the contradictions implicit in our lives” and “expresses not only the hopes and longings of average people, but also their frailties and failed dreams.” Fifty years after Malone published his book, a smash-hit country song rocketed through the charts and the hearts of the American people, serving as perhaps the best contemporary example of country’s synthesis of the contradictions and longing of average American life. Rather than a beacon of pride, however, this was likely to Malone’s—and certainly to many other country aficionados’—chagrin. The reason this meteoric single upset the gatekeepers of country was because its artist was Black, and they could tell by listening to it.
“Old Town Road” was first uploaded to the internet in December 2018 by aspiring rapper and social media influencer named Lil Nas X, a 20-year-old Black man from Atlanta. The song, with its plodding banjo and somewhat goofy cowboy sentiments, gained popularity on the social media meme platform TikTok before taking off to mainstream charts, where it occupied the #1 slot on the Billboard Hot 100 for eleven straight weeks. The song is the first to be streamed more than 100 million times for three weeks straight, and it has also set the record for most streams in a single week. The song is an unprecedented smash. Yet despite its connection to country music, it has received nothing but scorn from its influential genre. “Old Town Road” first charted in the #1 slot in the country category, but Billboard quickly removed it from that list, proclaiming that while it “incorporates references to country and cowboy imagery, it does not embrace enough elements of today’s country music to chart in its current version.” This official denial of authenticity is backed by a larger body of critics who argue that the song is rap masquerading as—and making fun of—real country. In other words, it is a Black song trying to pass as, and possibly mocking others who are, white.
“Old Town Road” is a timely and topical example of the racialization of music genres. As a synthesis of rap and country—and, implicitly, of Black and white traditions—it challenges the rigid hierarchies forced upon it. At the core of this controversy is the question of country music’s boundaries, long established and defended by the industry but now crossed and transcended by this song. Analyzing the creation, encroachment, and defense of these boundaries reveals the white supremacist logics influencing the concepts of purity, authenticity, and trickery present in this contemporary debate.
Establishing the boundary: country music as white music
In a 1991 speech declaring October to be “Country Music Month,” then-President George H. W. Bush offered a rousing description of the genre. “Country music is honest, good-natured music played with style and spirit,” he proclaimed. “Country music lovers share an appreciation of the simple and most important things in life: faith, family, and friendship…. Country music crosses the barriers of culture and language, capturing all the joys, struggles, laughter, and heartache that are part of our daily lives” (Presidential Proclamation 6358, 15 October 1991). This evocation emphasizes important qualities of the genre: simplicity, authenticity, and commonality. One important quality not highlighted in this speech, however, is country’s whiteness. Scholars agree that country music is made nearly exclusively for and by white people (Mann 74). As its glorified imagery of the American South and of the “good old days” might suggest, country music speaks to a certain people’s culture and history.
Despite its apparent white predominance, country music has a much more complicated history. As several scholars have demonstrated, the white line around country music been artificially drawn. Ethnomusicologists have determined country music has roots in Mexican, African, and, most notably, African-American musics (Mann 75). Many popular artists who pioneered the genre in the first half of the 20th century, such as Hank Williams, learned their musical chops from African-American mentors and modelled their songs on Black rhythm and blues traditions (Manuel 20). The deep connections between white and Black musics are a result of the similar geneses of the two traditions: each arises from poor, Southern, working-class people expressing their hopes and frustrations (Thomas 76). With this in mind, it seems the two have more similarities than differences, and certainly no inherent opposition to one another.
These two groups, however, were systemically forced against each another, resulting in today’s musical racial divide. While both communities were impoverished in the early 1900s South, white people still owned a valuable resource that gave them an advantage over their Black counterparts: the legal and social privileges stemming from their whiteness (Harris). White people were in a position to exploit Black tradition, appropriating the music they enjoyed while ridiculing the people who made it via blackface minstrel shows. These travelling shows elevated several blackface performers to national fame and birthed some of country music’s original stars (Mann 82). Record companies soon exploited this divide further. In a 1920s and 1930s effort to elevate “hillbilly music” to a national market, record company executives saw a lucrative opportunity. Since they had already mobilized their agents to go south to record hillbilly musicians, they may as well also record Black rhythm and blues singers; once they had both, they could construct “the hillbilly or country music genre…alongside, and often in opposition to, ‘race’ records aimed at African American audiences” (Manuel 427). This strategic division, mimicking the segregation rising across the country at the time, has persisted to this day. Far from being a natural occurrence, country music is white by design, all in the interest of promoting sales and excluding Black people.
Country music historians and record label executives have tried to erase this history. They defend the genre’s predominant whiteness with a combination of colorblindness and cultural differences arguments: musical talent does not depend on race, but the reason Black people aren’t present in country music because they simply don’t like it (Thomas 82). These gatekeepers have also relied on tokenism, citing the few Black artists who have crossed over into mainstream country as examples of how the genre is not racist. These Black country artists, however, are accepted in spite of, not because of, their Blackness. In his history of country music, Malone proclaims that Charley Pride, the biggest Black country star in the history of the industry, sang with a voice that “was so country that no one suspected he was Black” (313). Malone’s formulation is telling: he posits that sounding country means not being Black, and that an embrace of country is a withdrawal from Blackness. Despite the ostensible acceptance of this disguised Blackness, many aspiring Black country artists are still excluded from record deals or quietly forced out of the community (Thomas 84).
The most obvious way that the gatekeepers of country music defend the racial dynamics of their artists is by appealing to the core tenets of country music. If an artist cannot conform to the conventions of the genre, these industry insiders argue, they cannot expect to be included. Scholars have identified the defining tropes of country music: lyrically, the most common topics include “rural life, work and everyday working-class life (especially contrasted with that of the affluent), heterosexual ‘salvific love,’ family life and ‘values’, the southern US, youthful rebellion, Christianity, alcohol, death, humour, and nostalgia” (Mann 81). Musically, country songs rely on twang, or “an abrupt, relatively sharp initiation” of a pluckable instrument like the guitar or banjo, “followed by a quick, usually slightly ascending, muting” (Mann 79). Vocally, country singers adopt the diction and inflection of an American Southern accent, relying on diphthongization and drawl to as one of the most important signifiers of country authenticity. Whether or not the accent is faked, it serves to declare the music as country and distinguish it from pop or soft rock (Mann 79). These core components supposedly offer a bright line test of genuineness for the genre. But in some cases, these rules had to be bent to maintain control of country’s most dangerous threat of contamination: the most predominantly Black musical genre, rap.
Crossing the boundary: country-rap and “Old Town Road”
Despite their supposed conflict, country and rap have much in common. A lyrical focus on common and current events in the community is central to each, and, as noted, both arise from historically disadvantaged communities. And both, of course, are racialized, with rap serving as the musical transmission of Blackness. This musical Blackness can be identified by its African-American Vernacular English diction and intonations as well as the frenetically chopped up drum samples that constitute the beat. Perhaps to obscure these similarities, country music traditionally opposes rap in its stylings: instead of the attention-grabbing, cymbal-heavy rap beat, country music opts for a soothing and simple shuffle.
Even so, the genres’ mutual influence is undeniable, although country has allowed only the most sanitized forms of rap to infiltrate its music. Contemporary artists like Sam Hunt and Kacey Musgrave often opt for more frenetic drums patterns and faster tempos, mimicking rap conventions. In some cases, country artists have even featured rappers on their songs. These rappers are always forced into a mold. On several salient examples—Florida Georgia Line featuring Nelly; Kenny Rogers collaborating with Wyclef Jean; Brad Paisley singing with LL Cool J—the rappers must adjust their flows and lyrics to match the country stylings. Nelly affects a Southern accent; LL Cool J raps about how he forgives white Southerners for slavery. This nominal inclusion reflects a measured, incremental acceptance of rap insofar as it helps the country artist appeal to a wider audience. This is country-rap on country’s terms. Notably, rappers have long been doing the inverse and incorporating elements of country into their music. These rap projects have been ignored by the country music establishment because they never threatened to encroach on the genre from which they borrowed. Not, at least, until “Old Town Road.”
The controversy around “Old Town Road” arose because Lil Nas X labelled it a country song. When he first published it on the streaming website SoundCloud, Lil Nas X chose “country” as its genre. In terms of the three characteristics of country music identified by academics, the song has a legitimate claim to the label. Its lyrics speak to rural life (“I got the horses in the back / horse tack is attached”), the contrast between working-class and affluent lifestyles (“Riding on a horse / you can whip your Porsche”), and youthful rebellion (“Can’t nobody tell me nothing”). It features a twanging banjo, and Lil Nas X affects the necessary Southern accent. Despite these features, Billboard still proclaimed that “it does not embrace enough elements of today’s country music to chart in its current version” to merit a spot on the country charts. This denial is inherently suspect. At a time when many popular country stars are adopting elements of rap and still charting, Lil Nas X is not far out of line. The key difference, however, is that he is an unapologetic Black artist who did not rely on the gatekeeping country record labels and rose too fast for anyone to control. Lil Nas X infiltrated the white establishment of country music, and the response demonstrates the visceral reaction he evoked.
Defending the boundary: Lil Nas X as fraud & farce
The most common rhetoric of the backlash against “Old Town Road” concerns Lil Nas X’s supposed gaming of the system. For example, Rolling Stone interviewed country music manager Danny Kang about Billboard’s decision to remove the song from the country charts, which Kang defended. Kang did not debate the content of the song but rather Lil Nas X’s motivation to label it as country in the first place:
On SoundCloud, [Lil Nas X] listed it as a country record. On iTunes, he listed it as a country record. He was going to these spaces, gaining a little bit of traction on their country charts, and there’s a way to manipulate the algorithm to push your track to the top. That’s favorable versus trying to go to the rap format to compete with the most popular songs in the world.
Kang’s point is not subtle. He believes Lil Nas X intended to cheat the system and “manipulate” the charts in order to leverage country music for personal gain. Implicit in this assertion is a portrayal of Lil Nas X as dishonest—he lied about his song in order to avoid labelling it as rap. Kang’s speculation about Lil Nas X’s intentions belie racial hostility. Lil Nas X belonged in the rap category, Kang asserts, and only by lying and cheating was he able to make his way out. This recalls myriad stereotypical stories of “inner-city thugs” resorting to crime in order to escape the “hood.” Notice that in Kang’s depiction, Lil Nas X had to go to “[country] spaces” and use their resources; he has no place in country and does not belong there. In essence, Lil Nas X is appropriating the country label—and the whiteness it carries—from the country music institution who rightfully own it. As Cheryl Harris argues, whiteness is a “highly valued and exclusive form of property” that grants its owners systemic advantages as well as a sense of identity (Harris 1724-25). In country music, this takes form in the institutional backing of the industry as well as the sense of belonging in the “country space” that insiders describe. When considering the country label as property, Kang’s accusations assume a new dimension: not only is Lil Nas X lying and cheating the system, he is also stealing the label from its rightful owners.
This argument is reinforced by some prominent consumers of country music. Similar to the industry insiders, they hold the property of country-whiteness dearly, as it also grants them identity. One emblematic example is that of Kyle “Trigger” Coroneos, who serves as editor-in-chief of SavingCountryMusic.com. For 11 years, Coroneos’s website has served as a “consumer advocate and an industry watchdog” for country music fans. For Coroneos, “Old Town Road” has been a catastrophe. Coroneos was one of the first to argue that Billboard must remove the song from the country charts, taking for granted that it is not a country song and calling to question whether it can even be considered a legitimate piece of music. After Billboard removed the song and the controversy arose, Coroneos contended that the decision had nothing to do with race, relying on the aforementioned colorblind and tokenizing arguments. As “Old Town Road” has continued to rise, Coroneos’s anxiety has as well. He recently tweeted that “Old Town Road” is the “greatest existential threat to the integrity of country music as an institution [he’s] ever seen.”
There is clearly something larger at stake than the Billboard slot of the song. Coroneos represents the inner sanctum of country music culture that perceives itself under attack. From this perspective, country music has been infiltrated and yet cannot defend itself—any such attempts garner accusations of racism. Without the ability to fight, Coroneos fears that country music will continue to slip toward uncontrollable genre-bending, endangering the genre entirely. Not only is Lil Nas X lying, cheating, and stealing, he is threatening country music’s life.
Country music insiders also fear that Lil Nas X may not only be robbing and threatening but also mocking them. Coroneos recently reported on country singer Luke Comb’s response to “Old Town Road.”Coroneos framed the story resentfully: he wrote about Comb’s recent successes and how they should have been the top country news, but Lil Nas X had stolen his spotlight. After re-establishing the image of Lil Nas X as thief, Coroneos quotes Comb speaking on the song:
I feel there’s a little bit of sarcasm there I don’t necessarily appreciate. I feel like I’m being poked fun at a bit. Country music is near and dear to my heart, and one of the things that’s most important to me is that the music should be taken seriously.
Comb’s issue with the song is not necessarily that it appropriates country music, but that it does so scornfully. This creates the image of Lil Nas X as a sadistic thief, stealing sentimental items just to disparage them. A commenter on this article further develops this eerie historical parallel, writing that Lil Nas X is “the country equivalent of a blackface minstrel.” Here, the underlying crisis reveals itself. As noted, country music rose in part due to the popularity of blackface minstrelsy. These proto-country singers were able to disparage and exploit Blackness in order to create profitable music careers. This is the “existential threat” Coroneos fears: for the first time, a Black man might be disparaging and exploiting country in order to create a profitable music career. Lil Nas X is country’s reckoning. The genre’s longstanding historical injustice has returned as a Blackness that can no longer be subordinated: the longstanding hierarchy in which country was privileged over not only rap but Blackness itself has been upended by “Old Town Road.”
Transcending the boundary: “Old Town Road” beyond genre
The fixation on the true classification of “Old Town Road” reflects an anxiety about purity, authenticity, and trickery that is greatly influenced by white supremacist logics. Conversely, those who profess support for the song do not bother with such petty classification debates. Instead, supporters argue that it transcends country music.
A host of country artists have come forward as allies of the song. Florida Georgia Line defended it in an interview, with one band member stating “Respectfully, I think that song’s way bigger than country music. I think if we sit here and try to figure out if it’s country or not, we miss the point of it being a great song.” Echoing this sentiment, his bandmate simply stated “If you’re trying to put things in a box or in a genre, you’re just kind of wasting your time.” John Mayer offered his musical support when he joined Lil Nas X for a live acoustic cover of the song, taking it into the realm of soft rock. Most notably, Billy Ray Cyrus collaborated with Lil Nas X for an official remix, lending his voice for a grittier take on the chorus. These artists have all faced pushback from the country music industry in the past, and by establishing solidarity with Lil Nas X, they challenge the system that excluded them. “Only Outlaws are outlawed,” tweeted Cyrus to Lil Nas X before the remix, “Welcome to the club!” Cyrus and the other allies do not seek to validate “Old Town Road” as a country song; they uplift it as something greater.
The most significant explication of the song comes from its creator. Lil Nas X has welcomed the publicity arising from his smash hit and has had to face the question of how to classify his song amid the controversy. His response is simple: “The song is country trap. It’s not one, it’s not the other. It’s both.” Lil Nas X sees no tension between the two. He unified two oppositely racialized genres, identifying the common ground between them and using it as a foundation for a song that speaks to hundreds of millions of people. He is not the sadistic thief bent on breaking boundaries and making a mockery of country’s whiteness. He seeks to build, not steal; by transcending the boundaries, he exposes and overcomes their arbitrary exclusions.
“Old Town Road” is an exquisite example of the hostile defenses that country music and whiteness writ large will mount against those who would seek to violate its boundaries of purity. The fixation on the song’s authenticity belies a refusal to accept Blackness in a white space, and the rhetorical portrayal of Lil Nas X as a scornful thief reveals deep anxieties about preserving racial hierarchy. Far from a trivial controversy, the debate over the song’s classification brings deep racial tensions to the surface. It also provides a semblance of hope. “Old Town Road” has paved the way for radical experimentation in the genre and demonstrated that an obsession with pure origins does not determine success. By purposefully blending racialized genres, Lil Nas X has challenged the nation to indulge in impurity and imagine a world in which artists are not confined by boundaries. Malone argued that country, replete with its whitewashed history and idealized portrayal of Southern white life, is “America’s truest music.” The truth, however, is that this depiction is false and exploitive. Instead, when considering a song that “breathes with the contradictions implicit in our lives,” “Old Town Road” is the strongest contemporary contender. White supremacy lies beneath society’s every surface, and it takes dynamic songs such as this one to expose these tensions and contradictions. Expressing “not only the hopes and longings of average people, but also their frailties,” this song and its controversial rise are emblematic of the average person’s hopes and frustrations for the nation: what more could we want than to overcome historical internal conflicts to create something transcendent?
Bush, George H. W. 1991 Presidential Proclamation 6358, Country Music Month, 15 October.
Harris, Cheryl I. “Whiteness as Property.” Harvard Law Review 106, no. 8 (June 1993): 1707. https://doi.org/10.2307/1341787.
Malone, Bill C. Country Music U.S.A.: A Fifty-Year History. Third revised edition. 1968. Reprint, University of Texas Press, 2010.
Mann, Geoff. “Why Does Country Music Sound White? Race and the Voice of Nostalgia.” Ethnic and Racial Studies 31, no. 1 (January 2008): 73–100. https://doi.org/10.1080/01419870701538893.
Manuel, Jeffrey T. “The Sound of the Plain White Folk? Creating Country Music’s ‘Social Origins.’” Popular Music and Society 31, no. 4 (October 2008): 417–31. https://doi.org/10.1080/03007760802052551.
Thomas, Rebecca. “There’s a Whole Lot O’ Color in the ‘ ‘White Man’s” Blues: Country Music’s Selective Memory and the Challenge of Identity.” Midwest Quarterly, n.d.
Zach Schauffler is a (very) recent college graduated pursuing a lifetime of writing. He graduated from the University of Virginia in May with a B.A. in Political & Social Thought. While at school, he spent a year researching how satire confronts white supremacy and wrote for several campus publications, including The Cavalier Daily, The Yellow Journal, and the Q* Anthology. Now, he tweets and writes on Medium while chasing jobs in the written word.