Lil Nas X’s ‘Old Town Road’ Takes Cues From Charlie Daniels + Willie Nelson — Really
Sure, Lil Nas X and his megahit "Old Town Road" may seem like they emerged without precedent, out of thin air. When you look closer, though, the song's twangy rap not only fits neatly within the evolution of the country music genre, but also that tons of artists -- including some of traditional country's most adamant stalwarts -- have dabbled in hip-hop.
For any readers who've been living under a rock for the past few months, "Old Town Road" went viral on the TikTok app in March of 2019, and subsequently debuted at No. 19 on Billboard's Hot Country Songs chart. Billboard then removed the track from chart consideration, saying that while its Western imagery and banjo-inflected beat did indeed include some of the genre's elements, "Old Town Road" did not embrace enough aspects of country music to be included on the chart. An uproar ensued on social media, and many raised the question of whether or not the media company's decision to remove Lil Nas X from the chart was racially motivated.
Among the most vocal to jump to the Atlanta-based rapper's defense was country star Billy Ray Cyrus, who then contributed vocals to a remixed version of Lil Nas X's song (which ultimately made it back onto country charts). Cyrus posited, among other things, that Lil Nas X was following in the footsteps of country music's greatest outlaws, and that getting banned from the country chart was, in fact, proof positive that he deserved to be there more than ever.
"When I got thrown off the charts, Waylon Jennings said to me, 'Take this as a compliment,'" Cyrus pointed out on Twitter. "Means you're doing something great. Only Outlaws are allowed. Welcome to the club!"
Not only is there a precedent in country music for artists bucking the mold the way Lil Nas X has, but it's also far from the first time a country star has flirted with hip-hop stylings. Florida Georgia Line have notoriously blended genres, scoring a cross-genre hit with a remix of their song "Cruise" in 2012, featuring rapper Nelly, who also joined the country superstar duo on tour in 2017.
Plenty of traditionalists have railed against FGL for not being "real country;" however, even many of the artists championed by genre purists have experimented with other styles from time to time. Tim McGraw had a full-blown hip-hop hit with "Over and Over," another Nelly collaboration, in 2004, years before FGL even broke into the country mainstream. Following its release, "Over and Over" went Top 5 on the all-genre charts, and peaked at No. 7 on the Billboard Hot Rap Songs chart in November of 2004.
Going back further in time, there's even more evidence that country music's tangled relationship with hip-hop is not a new phenomenon. True, Hank may not have done it that way, but Hank Jr. sure did -- just look at his 2013 remix of "Redneck Paradise" with Kid Rock. Willie Nelson and Snoop Dogg came together over their mutual love of marijuana in 2008, recording "My Medicine" for the rapper's Ego Trippin' album.
Collaborations aside, country music and hip-hop share some common ancestry in the blues and spoken-word traditions. Country's early decades were marked by spoken-word style, as evidenced by artists including Johnny Cash and Jimmy Dean. Those kinds of songs are still hugely popular in country music today -- for example, "The Devil Went Down to Georgia," which Charlie Daniels released in 1979 and which continues to receive airplay and delight crowds to this day.
To learn more about the artists who have blurred the lines between hip-hop and country, press play above to watch this week's episode of The Secret History of Country Music, from The Boot's partner site, Taste of Country.
Here Are All of the Cameos + Pop Culture References in the "Old Town Road" Music Video