I’m a country music fan, and I’ve got the cowboy boots to prove it. I started listening while I was driving across the country in 2000, when it was often the only thing available on the car radio. I got hooked on the stories and the sound, and I’ve been following its developments ever since. So I was delighted that when I clicked on Lil Nas X in Twitter trends this weekend, I found a story about country music and race. Such a story has been some time coming, as we see an uptick in westerns on TV and collaborations between hip hop and country artists. The incident points to the artificiality of genre categories, which are often guided by racist, sexist and classist frameworks.
Lil Nas X is a rapper, singer and songwriter from Atlanta who started his career on YouTube. In December, 2018 he released “Old Town Road” on SoundCloud. The song went viral through the “Yeehaw Challenge” on the media app TikTok. It debuted at number 83 on the Billboard Hot 100, peaking at 15, and also debuted at number 19 on the Hot Country Songs chart and simultaneously at 36 on the Hot R & B chart. Here’s the original version.
A week or so ago, Billboard removed “Old Town Road” from the Country charts, saying that it was misclassified in the first place because the song lacked enough of the elements to make it country.
“I believe whenever you’re trying something new, it’s always going to get some kind of bad reception.” Lil Nas X, who calls the song “country trap,” told Time Magazine.
In a cool twist, Billy Ray Cyrus (“Achy, Breaky Heart”) joined Lil Nas X for a remix, which is also a viral hit. Cyrus tweeted this:
An intense debate has ensued over what constitutes country music, how racism has shaped that definition, and how life is for Black country artists. It’s not too hard to see that the established country music world is really, really White. This video tells the story.
Segregation isn’t just for housing and schools! In the 1920s, record companies split Southern music into racialized categories to hyper target listeners. Race Records became the label for Black people, including blues, jazz and gospel, while White listeners were recruited to “hillbilly” music (string band, vaudeville, country/western). This history chases Black artists who are drawn to making country music. Darius Rucker, former frontman of Hootie and the Blowfish, is probably the most famous contemporary Black country artist, and was the first Black artist to hit number one on the country music charts in 25 years – since Charley Pride did it in 1983. Having been the lead singer for one of the most popular rock bands of the 1990s surely helped but Rucker says that it was still hard. “When I first started out as a country musician, I heard from a radio programmer that I would never be accepted as an African-American country singer,” he said.
Buzzfeed notes the double standard here, pointing out that, “white country artists like Kacey Musgraves and Sam Hunt have branched out beyond the genre’s typical boundaries but continue to be recognized for their work. Musgraves' latest won the Country Music Association Award for Album of the Year in November, in spite of commentary that the album wasn’t really a country album.”
An interest in rural life is on the rise. Over the last five years especially, TV producers have repopularized the Western. Shows like Justified and Hell on Wheels (which starred Common for four seasons), Godless and Strange Empire (which center on women), may be part of a nostalgic cultural moment. The treatment of characters of color varies in these shows. Hell on Wheels was, I thought, relatively kind and complex with Black and Asian characters but quite terrible in its depiction of Native Americans. I think we will see more of this as nostalgia for the things that used to be “normal,” -- not to be confused with “good” -- surface in the age of Trump.
Lately I’ve been immersed in country music. Since last fall, I’ve split my time between New York and Texas, which puts me in a car listening to a next generation of country musicians quite often. I binge watched Nashville recently, examining the presence and role of characters of color (mostly Black, decent storylines, but no one for the whole series), which led me to googling Black, Latinx and Native American country music. There’s a lot of great listening out there, folks, from Ray Charles, Freddy Fender and Linda Ronstadt to contemporary artists that you can find here, here and here. Given the presence of Asian and African refugees in U.S. rural communities, I don’t think it’ll be long before we see the first, say Vietnamese American or Somali American country star.
There’s always something artificial about genre boundaries. It’s good to remember that the artifice is often grounded in the demands of capitalism, racism and patriarchy. Consider the designation of “chick lit” for literary fiction about women when it is written by women. When men write it, it’s just literature. I’m a knitter, but until recently when someone created “fabric artist” to describe us, this women-heavy art field has been relegated to “crafting.” Nothing wrong with crafting, of course, except that it’s not considered art and I am not considered an artist when I do it. But it should be. Country music is southern, rural music -- there’s no way that Black, indigenous and Latino instruments, rhythms and themes haven’t shaped it. Of course they have, and it seems likely that the reverse is also true in some ways. The sooner we stop letting hyper marketing and segregation set the boundaries of the art world, the sooner we’ll be able to acknowledge all of our contributions, and get to building a truly multiracial, democratic, pluralistic culture.