How Lil Nas X and Billy Ray Cyrus Stretched the Limits of Country Music
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because a new star is born amid racial and musical controversy.
OZY Newsmakers: Deep dives on the names you need to know.
What happens when you combine some twangy guitar and trap beats, a meme of cowboys by the fire, a young Black innovator and a country music stalwart? An achy breaky chart.
The unlikely collaboration of Lil Nas X and Billy Ray Cyrus (best known, depending on your age bracket, as Hannah Montana’s dad or the crooner of 1992 smash Achy Breaky Heart) on the suddenly everywhere song Old Town Road (I Got Horses in the Back) has raised racial and genre-bending questions as old as popular music itself, with a backstory made for the social media age. In the process, it’s crowned a new star and revived the career of another. Not bad for a tune initially clocking in under two minutes.
In December 2018, the little-known musician from Atlanta called Lil Nas X (his real name is Montero Lamar Hill) uploaded the single as part of the “Yeehaw Challenge” on TikTok, a social media site. The song later went viral across platforms and climbed to No. 19 on Billboard’s Hot Country Songs Chart in late March. But at the same time, this song’s ascent triggered some vehement pushback about whether Old Town Road belonged in the genre. On the week of March 23, Billboard removed Old Town Road from the country charts — a move that only stoked the fire of internet controversy.
Billboard insisted the song’s reclassification “had absolutely nothing to do with race” (insisting you aren’t racist always works, right?) but that the song “does not embrace enough elements of today’s country music to chart in its current version.” Stars from Justin Bieber to country singer Meghan Linsey objected. Enter Billy Ray Cyrus, whom Lil Nas X had jokingly tweeted about amidst all the pushback, with a fortuitous reply.
In early April, Lil Nas X released a remix of Old Town Road with none other than Cyrus himself. The substance and lyrics remained largely unchanged, but the song now features the legacy country musician singing along with Lil Nas X, who rang in his 20th birthday this week as the song climbed to the top spot on Billboard’s Hot 100, displacing Ariana Grande, Post Malone and Swae Lee.
.@LilNasX Been watching everything going on with OTR. When I got thrown off the charts, Waylon Jennings said to me “Take this as a compliment” means you’re doing something great! Only Outlaws are outlawed. Welcome to the club!
— Billy Ray Cyrus (@billyraycyrus) April 3, 2019
Lil Nas X only began uploading music via SoundCloud last year — initially at the encouragement of his internet following. The meme enthusiast first accumulated fans through a Nicki Minaj fan Twitter account called @NasMaraj, that’s since been banned from Twitter. Cyrus, 57, on the other hand, is a multiplatinum-selling recording artist who’s landed eight singles in the Top 10 on the Billboard Country Songs chart and is the father of singer/songwriter Miley Cyrus.
The irony in Cyrus lending Old Town Road country cred is that he also has been criticized in the past for blending country with pop influences, says David Wild, a long-time Rolling Stone music critic. Country music cannot become frozen in time, particularly as crossover permeates the industry, Wild says. In this case, Billboard has stumbled over itself by trying to enforce rules that don’t apply, he notes.
The whole episode surfaces tension about evolution versus dissolution of a genre, who gets to write the rules in the first place and when rules warrant a timely update. It also highlights the fundamental differences between traditional gatekeepers and a young generation that has no use for them. Lil Nas X wasn’t signed to a record label at the time of the release, though he secured a deal with Columbia Records — after a bidding war — in March.
“Including Wild West signifiers or references to horses in no way qualifies a rap song with a trap beat as country,” wrote Kyle Coroneos, known as “Trigger,” in an op-ed that helped set off the controversy. Lil Nas X is “not signed to a country label, and … has no ties to the greater Nashville music campus in any capacity.” “Trigger” also noted the song’s lack of an official music video as a disqualifying factor, as the self-made video instead just includes scenes from a Wild West video game.
The racial undertones are impossible to ignore as well. Country music has been called hostile to Black artists in the past, but it’s a broader historic problem. As Lindsay Zoladz notes in The Ringer, Billboard’s R&B chart used to go by names like “Race Records” and “Hot Black Singles.” But while artists have been blending genres for decades, White musicians like Florida Georgia Line and Jason Aldean haven’t faced criticism of the same magnitude.
Country defenders argue that there is a deeply embedded identity to this genre — which must fend off its own typecasting. “Trigger,” for one, writes that there is “no credible reason to include this song on a country chart aside from a bigoted stereotype bred from the fact that horses and cowboy hats are referenced in the lyrics.”
But in an era of fragmentation in all forms of entertainment, there’s something refreshing about a crossover hit. In Wild’s eyes, modern music is a chemistry set. “Mix up some good ingredients and see if it explodes,” he says. This song undeniably has, and Lil Nas X intends to get back in the lab before long.
“I’m always going to be experimenting musically, trying new things,” he told Complex. “I tried to make sure everything sounds different, so you hear no two songs and think they sound alike.”