'Old Town Road' is Country Music for the 21st Century

Billy Ray Cyrus joins Lil Nas X on the "Old Town Road" remix, a genre-agnostic country-trap hybrid.  (Jason Kempin for Getty Images/Lil Nas X on Instagram)

When Billboard removed Lil Nas X's "Old Town Road" from its country charts last week—stating, essentially, that the song wasn't country enough—the decision sparked a debate about whether black artists have the same leeway to push genre boundaries as white artists.

The country-trap bop, which incorporates banjos, rural lyrics and a Southern twang over trap drums, doesn't fall squarely into the country or the rap camp, instead fusing elements of both for a very 2019, genre-agnostic sound.

Critics quickly raised the fact that white artists like Taylor Swift and Jason Aldrean don't encounter the same pushback from country music gatekeepers for incorporating pop and rap elements in their work. Meanwhile, experimental artists such as FKA Twigs and Moses Sumney have long spoken about the ways black artists get boxed into rap and R&B categories, even when their music has more kinship with electronic artists such as Björk.

Yesterday, Lil Nas X got a little help from another country star who faced pushback in his heyday: Billy Ray Cyrus. Cyrus' hit "Achy Breaky Heart" stirred controversy in the country world when it came out in 1992; singer Travis Tritt called it "frivolous" and said he didn't want country music to turn into an "ass-wiggling contest." (Lol.) That didn't stop "Achy Breaky Heart" from hitting No. 1 in four countries and going triple Platinum.

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"Only Outlaws are outlawed. Welcome to the club!" Cyrus tweeted to Lil Nas X on April 3. The next day, the two went into the studio to record an "Old Town Road" remix, which dropped last night at midnight, and surprisingly slaps even harder than the original. Cyrus, who's lived the Hollywood lifestyle for decades, flexes as hard as Migos when he sings, "Baby's gotta have her diamond rings and Fendi sports bra / Driving down Rodeo in my Maserati sports car."

The playful, intergenerational and genre-crossing collaboration is a lot of fun, and there's not a huge difference between Lil Nas X and Cyrus' cadences. The seamless way their styles fit together points to the shared roots of rap and country: blues. In fact, most American music, from house to rock 'n' roll, started with the innovations of African-American artists. It makes perfect sense that a young black artist would put his own spin on country in the 21st century.

Just as genre lines are dissolving, the landscape of America is changing. As large cities become gentrified, and as communities of color migrate to suburban and rural areas, music once classified as "urban" isn't necessarily being made in urban environments. These demographic changes are redefining America's cultural landscape, and leading to new creative directions.

At this time of cross-pollination, when the internet exposes us to unexpected influences and collaborators, the genre categories of yore do a disservice to gloriously unclassifiable music like "Old Town Road."

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