Country or Not? Lil Nas X's 'Old Town Road' Raises Big Questions About Genre in the Streaming Age

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Lil Nas X

Lil Nas X has ridden his horse straight to the top of the Billboard Hot 100 with viral country trap hit “Old Town Road,” and galloped onto the Country Airplay chart as well. And his genre-blending tune, which includes a sample of Nine Inch Nails' "34 Ghost IV," has left some country artists and executives delighted, others bedeviled and some downright confused about what qualifies as country in the Wild West of music streaming.

“Old Town Road” jumps from No. 15 to No. 1 on the Hot 100 dated April 13. The song, aided by airplay on Bobby Bones’ syndicated morning show and WMAD (Madison, Wis.), debuts at No. 53 on Country Airplay. On the week of March 16, Billboard placed the tune, released by Sony's Columbia Records, on the Hot Country Songs chart, where it debuted at No. 19. The following week, Billboard removed the song for several reasons, including its trap beat, a lack of country airplay, no involvement by Sony Music Nashville and mixed categorization and playlisting on leading streaming services. Since then, a remix with Billy Ray Cyrus has been released, adding to the debate of where the song sits among genres. Further chart adjustments are possible as the song’s reach develops.

The cultural obsession over how to classify the song highlights the growing chasm between streaming and terrestrial radio. Streaming services have created a new breed of genre-jumping music fans, who disregard any attempt to label their listening habits, while country radio has only found its playlists narrowing to the near-exclusion of almost anything but music made by men. (A study released April 5 by the University Of Southern California’s Annenberg Inclusion Initiative found that only 16 percent of country artists appearing on Billboard’s Hot Country Songs chart between 2014-2018 were women.) The growing discrepancy between what streams and what airs is a vexing mystery to the country music industry as well, since many believe radio still wields the ultimate global star-making power.

“There are a ton of girls just waiting for the moment, writing great songs... then this guy comes along and puts out a song with quasi-country lyrics,” said Brothers Osborne’s John Osborne, when asked about “Old Town Road” at April 7’s Academy of Country Music Awards. “Go listen to Kris Kristofferson and then go listen to [‘Old Town Road’] and if you tell me they have anything to do with each other, then I will quit. I’m out. I’m done with the genre.”

However, other artists, including Florida Georgia Line, whose music has often featured crossover elements including pop and rap, took a more moderate stand. “If you’re trying to put things in a box or a genre, you’re kind of wasting your time,” FGL’s Tyler Hubbard said. “If you like the song, play the song, if you don’t then don’t.” His FGL bandmate, Brian Kelley, agreed. “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. I mean that as respectfully as possible,” he says. “I love the song. I don’t think the question is whether it’s country or not; it could probably fit in there. I don’t have a problem with that at all.”

At the ACMs in Las Vegas, many record label executives told Billboard they didn't think “Old Town Road” was a country track, not even with Billy Ray Cyrus’ inclusion on the remix, though country labels have a clear interest in protecting valuable chart real estate for their own acts from being occupied by artists they perceive as format outsiders. Some said the track’s musical composition made it a misfit and one executive said that “just singing about horses is not enough to consider it a country song.”

Another executive wondered if the strategy of uploading a song to streaming services and tagging it as country to boost visibility would be copied by other pop or hip-hop upstarts; a rap-leaning act tagged country could stand out amid country acts more so than among other pop and hip-hop offerings.

But now, Sony Nashville CEO Randy Goodman tells Billboard his team has started testing the song in some country radio markets. “It would be negligent not to look at it,” Goodman says. "Can you hear it as country? Can you hear it as rap? Is it something we could have signed? Yeah, in the new world order. It’s No. 1 in streaming even if country radio isn’t playing it."

FGL’s songs have often blurred the line between country and other genres, including Nelly’s verse on “Cruise” and reggae icon Ziggy Marley’s appearance on “Life is a Honeymoon,” while Jason Aldean’s largely spoken 2011 hit, “Dirt Road Anthem,” included a remix with Ludacris. Those are only a handful of songs that have blended country with other genres in recent years, some of which miss out on country radio play as a result. Rednex’s “Cotton Eyed Joe,” Mo Thugs Family’s No. 1 Hot Rap Songs hit “Ghetto Cowboy” (which includes lyrics from Kenny Rogers’ “The Gambler”), Miley Cyrus’ “Hoedown Throwdown,” Pitbull’s “Timber” featuring Kesha and Avicii’s “Hey Brother” featuring Dan Tyminski, never made Billboard’s Hot Country Songs chart (which, based on airplay, streaming and sales, requires Billboard to designate songs for inclusion based on genre fit; Country Airplay, on the other hand, purely reflects plays on reporting stations).

The addition of Billy Ray Cyrus on the remix helps tip it over to country, according to LoCash’s Chris Lucas. “It made it a lot more country to me, putting Billy in it,” he said. “But I don’t knock Lil Nas X. I think the song’s awesome and congratulations to him. There’s a little hip-hop to it, nothing wrong with that.”

As far as contributing to another remix of the song, LoCash’s Preston Brust is all in. “I would 100 percent be on a remix. Here’s my number,” he joked.

R&B/pop star Khalid, who performed “Saturday Nights” on the ACMs with Kane Brown, also cited music’s melting pot. "I’m coming in from outside the genre,” he said. “I really do enjoy the song. I’m a big fan of fusion of genres, crossover, of [mixing] hip-hop and country because I feel like that’s something I do as well.”

Khalid, who said he hopes to make a folk album, added that songs such as “Old Town Road” open the genre to more diversity “These are the steps that are going to make it happen for everybody,” he added. “I love the fact that he got Billy Ray Cyrus on the remix because that song is so awesome and I love how everybody is vibing with it because it makes everybody happy.”

In the end, top country songwriter Shane McAnally welcomes all music that potentially draws a bigger audience to country music. “I’ve always been confused about why we want to block things out of country that aren’t supposedly traditional,” he says. “I am a traditionalist and love traditional country music, but when you think about things like Taylor Swift or Dolly Parton back in the day, or even Johnny Cash, they brought more attention to country music, so I’ve never understand why there’s this, ‘Well, that’s not country, it shouldn’t be lumped in.’ Country is a lot of different things. I think by inclusion we just bring more people to the traditional music.”

Additional reporting by Annie Reuter and Laela Zadeh. This story has been updated. 


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