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The Long Ride To 'Old Town Road': Black Artists And Their Contributions To Country Music

Lil Nas X poses backstage during the 2019 Stagecoach Festival at Empire Polo Field in Indio, California.
Matt Winkelmeyer/Getty Images for Stagecoach
Lil Nas X poses backstage during the 2019 Stagecoach Festival at Empire Polo Field in Indio, California.

Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road” has shattered Billboard Hot 100 records after 19 chart-topping weeks.

It’s a certified hit, but there’s one chart the country-trap track isn’t on that many say it should be: Hot Country. Billboard removed “Old Town Road” from country charts in March after the song broke the Top 20, claiming it was a mistake to label it a “country” song.

The controversy has sparked a national conversation about who’s included in the genre — and whether genre is a useful mechanism at all.

Journalist Nadra Nittle weighed in on the debate in a recent piece for Vox. She attributes attitudes about country music to the whitewashed myth of the American West.

Country-pop songs have been staples on country charts for decades, but “country-trap,” “hick-hop,” and “hip-haw,” as rap-country blends have been nicknamed, have yet to become standard in the genre. Since some fans blame this on anti-blackness, Billboard’s decision to pull “Old Town Road” from the country charts has raised questions about the purpose of musical genres and the historic exclusion of African Americans from country music.

“When one understands that ‘country’ music is a marketing genre and that black country people are a culture, one begins to peel away the layers of perception and the definitions of who should be playing a certain type of music and why,” Dom Flemons, the neotraditional country musician known as the American Songster, told me.

Black musicians have been prominent contributors to country music for at least a century — from DeFord Bailey to Ray Charles to Solomon Burke to Charley Pride. So why are there still such rigid ideas about what the genre should sound like?

We talk about the long tradition that paved the way for “Old Town Road.”

Show produced by Bianca Martin, in partnership with Smithsonian Magazine. Text by Kathryn Fink.


Dom Flemons, Grammy-award winning music scholar, historian and multi-instrumentalist; Founding member, Carolina Chocolate Drops; @domflemons

Charles Hughes, Director, Lynne and Henry Turley Memphis Center at Rhodes College; author, “Country Soul: Making Music and Making Race in the American South;” @CharlesLHughes2

Rhiannon Giddens, Folk singer and songwriter; member, Our Native Daughters; Founding member, Carolina Chocolate Drops; MacArthur Fellow; @RhiannonGiddens

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