Lil Nas X

You can’t go anywhere without hearing “Old Town Road.” It doesn’t even have to be playing. The debut single from Lil Nas X has become so ubiquitous that it’s seeped into our cultural subconscious.

There’s good reason for that. On a base level, the song is really fun. The original version runs a scant 1:53. There have since been three remixes, featuring Billy Ray Cyrus, Diplo and the yodeling Walmart kid. On each version, Lil Nas X playfully sings over a stretched and distorted Nine Inch Nails sample. It’s a blast to listen to. And a whole lot of people have listened to it. It’s been number one on the billboard Hot 100 charts for fifteen weeks now. Lil Nas X’s delightful social media presence and his underdog story (he bought the song's backing track for $30) have helped make the song the biggest non-Disney owned cultural moment of the last few years.

Predictably, all this fun couldn’t exist without a backlash. Billboard initially refused to allow the song on the country charts, claiming it didn’t embrace enough elements of modern country music. Billboard changed their mind after enormous pushback and the Billy Ray Cyrus remix, but the message was clear. Lil Nas X and “Old Town Road” didn’t pass the purity test to be considered country music.

All this arguing is, of course, ridiculous. “Old Town Road” is a country song. It’s a country song not just because Lil Nas X sings with a southern twang and mentions horses, Wranglers, bull riding and other country touchstones, but because the song taps into the forgotten and ignored history of not only Black artists in country music, but African-American presence in the American west.

What we now call “country music” is hundreds of years old, built upon generations of campfire songs and church hymns. It’s near impossible to pick one single progenitor, but if you had to, A.P. Carter is probably the best candidate. Johnny Cash's uncle in law and the patriarch of country music’s first big group, The Carter Family, Carter’s career began in the early 20th century as a traveling musician, roaming Appalachia in search of new songs. Except the songs he found weren’t necessarily “new.” A.P. Carter’s growing list of songwriting credits was mostly filled by songs he didn’t write, but borrowed, songs that were so old their writers had either been forgotten or ignored.

This wasn’t necessarily theft on Carter’s part. These songs weren’t intellectual property as much as they were cultural artifacts bereft of ownership. But the damage was done. These songs were now part of a genre in the burgeoning music industry, and because it was the music industry in the early 20th century, country music became a place for mostly white males, ignoring the genre’s roots in Black communities and traditions.

The erasure of African-American presence from country music is compounded by the erasure of African-Americans from the history of the American west. Though country music was largely born in the south, it's usually focused on the western ideal, obsessed with open plains and big skies. Because our cultural conception of the west is dominated by white points of view, that has trickled down into the music written about it. 

According to Smithsonian magazine, one in four cowboys were African-American. The history of the American west is distinctly non-white, yet African Americans play a scant role in our cultural history of the West, ignoring their actual role in the building of the west.

Like a lot of American history, we don’t know the history of the west as a historical text, but as a cultural one. Our cultural view of the west isn’t informed by census data and historical documents, but by movies and popular stories. With a few exceptions, those movies and stories ignored the racially diverse presence in the west and replaced it with an overwhelming white personage.

Westerns fell out of favor in the late 60’s, and country music hasn’t really been cool in fifty years. Our cultural image of country music and the history that inspired it hasn’t changed much in the meantime. Lil Nas X can change that. His success in a tradition that has largely excluded people of his skin color and sexuality is one of 2019’s greatest moments. And the song slaps, too.