‘Old Town Road’ has gained fame not just for its country-hook goodness, but also for the controversy raging around it. Sam Brooks explores what the song’s success says about country music’s purity problem.
“Yeah, I’m gonna take my horse to the old town road
I’m gonna ride ’til I can’t no more
I’m gonna take my horse to the old town road
I’m gonna ride ’til I can’t no more”
This is the chorus of the now notorious viral hit ‘Old Town Road’ by Lil Nas X. It’s currently the number one song in America, a week after being removed from the Billboard Hot Country Music Charts, and less than a week after being remixed by Billy Ray Cyrus.
There’s a lot to unpack here, and where better to start than the music video/visualization:
Firstly, the song itself. It’s country music, undeniably. Despite the Soundcloud rap vibe of the verses, and the Nine Inch Nails sample, it’s country music. It’s not what a lot of modern country necessarily sounds like – more to come on that – but it fits into country music more cleanly than it does any other genre of music. It might be double-tracked and reverbed, but a banjo is still a goddamned banjo, and it’s ready to duel. (Despite this, the song is comfortably charting on the Hot R&B/Hip Hop Songs Chart in the US.)
Secondly, the visuals – and the visuals here are more important than you might imagine. Perhaps more so than any other genre, country music is built on imagery. And it’s very specific imagery at that; it’s hay bales, the broad side of barns, guns shooting bottles of beers. It evokes an idealised kind of small-town, big-farm living. And what better way to do that than using footage from the video game Red Dead Redemption 2, right now the biggest Western in the world, in any medium?
More importantly, ‘Old Town Road’ works as a country song even if you’re somebody who doesn’t like country songs. As much as its catchiness, that’s the key to its success: it evokes the classic imagery of country music (old town roads, horses, literally riding on a tractor) then turns it on its head. It’s as much a parody of a country song as it is deeply a country song, sort of like how Miley Cyrus’ Bangerz era was as much a parody of whiteness as it was the whitest thing to happen to pop music. After all, what’s whiter than creditless, authenticity-free appropriation?
Which brings us to the uncomfortable reason as to why ‘Old Town Road’ was cleanly, and quickly, removed from the Hot Country Music Song Charts. It’s not just about race, although that’s a big part of it. Lil Nas X is African-American, and although things are slowly changing, country music is about the whitest genre you can get.
No, ‘Old Town Road’ was removed because country music has a purity problem.
“I actually love country music.”
When I say I love country music, I usually have to provide a lung’s worth of addenda that take any weight out of that statement. “There’s actually a lot of really good country music!” “It’s not all about having sex with your truck!” “I don’t like the mainstream stuff, really!” “But the mainstream stuff is really good!”
But I do, genuinely, love country music. I love it even though it’s the one mainstream genre that seems to get a blanket ‘no thanks’ from most of the population – so much so that when, a few weeks ago, I asked (begged) my flatmate to come to Introducing Nashville, a lineup show with Brandy Clark, Devin Dawson and Lindsay Ell, he joked that we’d have more teeth than the rest of the attendees combined.
Stepping into The Tuning Fork felt like stepping into another country entirely, a country where people hang guitars on their wall and mount animal heads right next to them. It was a simple gig, with Clark, Dawson and Ell trading off songs for an hour and a half. The banter was jovial and light, the audience politely rowdy.
Watching these three perform, the world outside The Tuning Fork fell away. I was standing in a full crowd of country music fans who knew all these songs. It was probably the only room I’ve ever been in where people not only loved country music but knew country music. We sang along to the songs, we swayed and threw our hands up after one too many white wines. We problematically affected southern accents.
The three acts represent three heads in the Appalachian hydra that is country music right now, although not necessarily the most popular or most truck-fucking, chart-topping stuff.
Devin Dawson is the sensitive country bro. He sings about his feelings, he sings about the feelings of the women around him, in a way that at its worst can feel a bit Male Feminist™ but mostly feels like a subversion of that trope. In his biggest song, ‘All on Me’, he sings:
“You got my number you can call on me
If you’re in trouble put the fall on me
When you’re mad you can take it out on me
When it don’t add up you can count on me
When you’re low come get high on me
Make it slow take your time on me“
In a genre where men are celebrated for pushing down their feelings and hardening up, it’s pretty subversive for a dude to just be like, “Hey! Have some feelings, rather than doing emotional labour for me.”
One seat over from him on the Tuning Fork stage, sat Lindsay Ell, the ingenue. If you squint, you can see in Ell a bit of Taylor Swift before she saw an 808 in the store window. A few years ago, Maren Morris could’ve been sitting on Ell’s stool. Before her, Kacey Musgraves. And before her? Someone who never made it to our shores, someone who didn’t trade the steel guitars in for electric ones, for better or worse.
Back to Ell. She’s doing the kind of country music that’s full of wit and hooks (“You make me feel like Jessica Biel, Steppin’ out of the stretch, Diamonds huggin’ my neck for the paparazzi, Got me like I’m droppin’ the mic“) but she has a cadence that borders on spoken word, or even rap.
And finally, Brandy Clark. I’m going to show my biases here. Brandy Clark is one of my favourite artists, and to me she represents the future of country music. On the surface, her music might sound the most traditional of the three Introducing Nashville performers. Clark’s accent is shamelessly Southern, there are guitars galore, and her songs evoke that familiar rural imagery (though less truck-fucking, more eye-rolling) that the best country music does.
She opened her set with a song she wrote, but was recorded by country music’s current whiskey-toting, high-heel-carrying maven Miranda Lambert, ‘Mama’s Broken Heart’.
It’s a genius piece of songwriting. Like the best traditional country music, it sounds like it could just as easily have been released in the 70s or the day before yesterday, while still getting in subtle digs at her mother’s generation and being like, ‘fuck that, I’m gonna do my own thing’. This is the chorus:
“Go and fix your make up, girl, it’s just a break up
Run and hide your crazy and start actin’ like a lady
‘Cause I raised you better, gotta keep it together
Even when you fall apart
But this ain’t my mama’s broken heart”
Words to live by, my friends. The best of Clark’s songs do this – they evoke the past while looking forward to the future, finding new angles on old stories. In any artform, I appreciate artists who can mine the past for the future’s gold, rather than pretending like the past doesn’t exist at all. Clark retains the purity – the aural purity – of country music while subverting a few of the ideas that keep that purity intact.
That word ‘purity’ again. Purity is, ironically, a dirty word now.
Purity conjures up connotations of racial purity, conversational purity, of separatism and exclusion.
Country music is a genre that coasts a lot on the cache of being about a certain milieu, of conjuring up very specific images, and mining those images for emotional depth. In the best cases, those images create universality out of their specificity. Think of something like ‘Jolene’: we all know a Jolene, and we’re all begging her not to take our metaphorical man.
Further along the track, think of something like ‘Merry Go ‘Round’, from Kacey Musgrave’s first album. No matter how small our town, we all know people who got stuck there and we fear of the same happening to us.
That’s the part of country music that draws me to it the most. More than any other genre, the best country songs are masterclasses in short-form storytelling. They’re full-bodied character studies in the space of four minutes. Take Patty Griffin’s ‘Making Pies’, an undersung, towering masterpiece.
It’s an Alice Munro story set to music, about a woman who wakes up before dawn, and yes, makes pies. She goes and types for the pastor on a Thursday night because ‘he ain’t hard to like at all’, she shows pictures of her nephew at his birthday, she looks up at Jesus on the wall in church. The lyrics do more than evoke this woman, they plant her right in our mind. So much so that when that devastating middle eight comes, slowing the song right down, focussing on the death of her husband, it hits us right in the gut.
Country music is full of gorgeous stories like this, but it’s long past time for the genre that encompasses those stories to change. ‘Old Town Road’ isn’t the best case for that – like I said, it reads as much as a parody of country music as it does a genuine country song, and it has all the earworm goodness of a viral hit. It stays around as long as a virus does, but not much longer.
None of the performers I saw at Introducing Nashville are, on the outside, threatening the purity of country music. Their music passes the once-over glance to be let into the club. While it may be subtly challenging the status quo – especially Brandy Clark, whose work wittily and fiercely positions the narratives of women and othered people – it still sounds like country music to the less-than-casual listener, by which I mean, to the hater.
That’s the unfortunate stereotype around country music. It’s for uncultured folk, it’s for people who are more familiar with haystacks than with smartphones, and other classist stereotypes. Also, it’s for white people.
And, look. Those first few images are unkind, and representative of a demographic of country music fans that the most popular country artists definitely plumb for maximum commercial impact. It’s hard to blame people for not responding to those images. Take Sam Hunt, for example.
It’s essentially a song about Sam Hunt being tempted by women – who all fit into marketable, easily understood stereotypes like “city girls with pretty eyes, broken-hearted rich girls, debutantes, small town runaways”. It’s a huge pop song, and hellaciously catchy, but god knows it taps into every stereotype about country music you already have.
The highly commercial stuff is also, unfortunately, largely male. A study released a few days ago by the USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative revealed how bleak the country music industry is for female artists, who tend to be doing its most subversive work. Out of the top 500 songs on the chart for the past five years, the study found, only 16% were performed by women.
A study released by me, surveying me, right now, says that the best country music being made right now is by women. Check out Brandy Clark above, check out Kacey Musgraves (still country, still pop), and check out Miranda Lambert.
But that point about whiteness? Yeah, that one’s fair, and harder to shake off. Country music is built on a series of images – idyllic, rural, small town images – whose source also happens to be the source of a wild, well-recorded history of systemic racism. You know, the American South. The best, and the most progressive, country music gets away from these images, but it doesn’t shake the overwhelming whiteness.
So while I’m sure that Billboard excluding Lil Nas X from the Hot Country Songs chart has more to do with the song’s content than his race, it doesn’t change the fact that the history, imagery and sound of country music is entrenched in a milieu that leaves it closed off to other sounds and experiences – and other races too.
It keeps it pure – but how much is purity worth anymore?
The Bulletin is The Spinoff’s acclaimed daily digest of New Zealand’s most important stories, delivered directly to your inbox each morning.