The nearly-instantaneous ascent of Lil Nas X’s "Old Town Road" is one of 2019’s most astonishing stories; a 20-year-old online personality named Lil Nas X uploaded a country rap song to SoundCloud last December that is now the no. 1 song on Billboard’s Hot 100. It’s a journey that has kicked up all sorts of dust, including a Billboard chart controversy, a deep-dive into Lil Nas X’s history online that exposed his involvement in Nicki Minaj’s fan community (which he and his team have repeatedly denied), and extensive critical analysis tackling the socio-political underpinnings of "Old Town Road"'s rise to the biggest song in America.
While "Old Town Road"'s unprecedented success tells an intriguing story about the value of the country music industry’s traditional gatekeepers, the genre’s racist history, and the role of social media in American pop culture, the song follows a concrete musical tradition, too. Many have pinpointed Woody Guthrie’s "Talking Blues" and the style of music it represented as an ancestral predecessor to the increasingly robust relationship between rap and country in the modern chart era. But this guide purports to focus specifically on the lineage of "Old Town Road," and how its platter of sounds—banjo, trap drums, a tongue-in-cheek twang—became so potent in the cultural imagination.
In the past 20 years, the notion of "genre" has evolved from a defining category tag to more of a marketing term—indeed, Lil Nas X tagged his initial SoundCloud upload of "Old Town Road" as "country" so that his song wouldn’t have to compete with SoundCloud’s saturated rap library. But the sonic blueprint "Old Town Road" successfully follows began in the cradle of the American south, where audiences could easily abide genre crossover moments (so long as they were the two biggest regional genres in a given area). While something like "Old Town Road" is having a conversation with the music that immediately preceded it, the roots of country rap in its current form date back to the early 2000s.
The songs in this guide tell the musical story that led us down this road, carrying us into a time where the swirl of genres and musical touchpoints is stranger and more inspiring than ever.
Back in the mud (2000-2003)
While tracing back the roots of country rap could take you a number of places—back to "Talking Blues," to "Hillbilly Rap," or onto Kid Rock’s AllMusic page—a great place to start, in terms of the trap-drums-laden modern sound, is with Bubba Sparxxx.
As a teenager in LaGrange, Georgia, Warren Anderson Mathis, who is white, had a reputation as a great high school football player, playing linebacker and tight end. But when a college career didn’t stick, he began to pursue music independently, crafting a sound fashioned from the rural music his parents listened to (Mathis’ dad was a bus driver) and the rap mixtapes he and his friends sent for in the mail. Sparxxx linked up with So So Def staff producer Shannon "Houch" Houchins to record the 12-song LP Dark Days, Bright Nights, an independent release that was such an unexpected regional success—thanks to its intriguing cocktail of country and trap sounds—that it ended up in the lap of Jimmy Iovine, who quickly signed Sparxxx to Interscope. Under Interscope’s umbrella, the record went Gold.
With Interscope, Sparxxx recorded his most popular material while also developing the prescient, personal Deliverance, a well-received record that was considered a commercial flop, barely breaking the top 10 and falling off the chart within a couple months. It was undeserved. On Deliverance, Sparxxx mixes rapping with singing, interpolating Yonder Mountain String Band on tracks like "Comin' Round" and adding fiddle and guitar sounds into Timbaland’s bank of samples. If you’re looking for the sonic bedrock of something like Post Malone, Sparxxx is where it started.
Crossover attempts, some ill-fated, some not (2004-2013)
In the early-to-mid-2000s as pop versatility became an important selling point for the biggest American artists, prominent rap and country artists began to reach across the aisle with increasing frequency. Generally, the songs came in two formats: country songs made by rap artists, or rap songs made my country artists. (I do not believe it’s going to shock you which approach turned out better music).
As part of his 2004 genre-spanning collection, Sweat/Suit, Nelly enlisted Tim McGraw for a low-key, lazy summer singalong called "Over and Over." The song was concrete proof that rap artists and country artists could co-exist in a pop music context, and that the collaboration didn’t need to sound forced or sum-of-its-parts. (About a decade later, Nelly would even use country as a vehicle to revive his music career). "Over and Over" topped out at no. 3 on the Hot 100, but was not included on the Hot Country Songs chart at all.
It would take until the 2010s for rap and country collaborations to become mainstream, but when it happened, the floodgates opened. Massive country artists like Jason Aldean and Blake Shelton commissioned their own half-rapped hits, resulting in tracks like Aldean’s "Dirt Road Anthem" (a track originally cut by the extremely on-the-nose country rapper Colt Ford, produced by Houchins) and Shelton’s "Boys ‘Round Here."
As the ‘10s approached, it would become increasingly common for someone like Aldean to be sure to say "I listen to Kanye West" in an interview or for, say, Taylor Swift to rap with T-Pain for a CMT Awards video. This era culminated with the country pop group Florida Georgia Line taking a country rap song to its highest chart position, having equipped their modest Hot 100 hit "Cruise" with a Nelly verse. (The partnership was mutually beneficial, as Nelly had been trying out country rap himself). The remix lifted the song to no. 4 on the pop chart and held down the Hot Country Songs no. 1 for 27 weeks. The group, who built their narrative identity around light references to hip-hop, is now one of the most successful groups in the entire music industry.
While many of the songs from this period reek of opportunism, and include cringe-y videos (the BBQ scene in "Boys Round Here," dear God) this sonic narrative set the stage for the streaming era, where no musical collaboration could be considered too farfetched.
Playlist: Nelly - "Over and Over" (feat. Tim McGraw) (2003) / Jason Aldean - "Dirt Road Anthem" (2010) / B.o.B. - "Both of Us" (feat. Taylor Swift) (2012) / Nelly - "Hey Porsche" / Blake Shelton - "Boys ‘Round Here" (feat. Pistol Annies) (2013) / Bubba Sparxxx - "Country Folks" (feat. Colt Ford and Danny Boone) (2013) / Florida Georgia Line - "Cruise" (feat. Nelly) (2013) / Florida Georgia Line - "This is How We Roll" (feat. Luke Bryan) (2013) / Florida Georgia Line - "It’z Just What We Do" (2013)
The Road to Old Town Road (2013-present)
After 2013, categorizing music by genre might as well be pointless. As Internet natives came of music-making age and posted their songs online, any combination of styles was possible, and major artists took advantage of this sea change, too. This phenomenon lent itself to the rise of more-or-less genreless artists like Post Malone or Sam Hunt, who—despite bearing traditional genre qualifiers of hip-hop and country, respectively, make music that doesn’t sound much like traditional genre fare. But the framing still mattered to some.
Savvy rappers like Young Thug picked up on the trend, utilizing a few sonic country signatures—acoustic guitars, "Yeehaw!" ad-libs—into tracks like "Family Don’t Matter" and leaning on a ton of country music mythology and melodies. ("Country Billy made a couple milli/ Tryna park my Rolls Royce inside the Picadilly").
Making a country song became something of a meme. When fans online begged Lil Tracy for more music—most likely more music that sounded like the moody rap he was making with GothBoi Clique at the time—he relented, but with the lightly trolling country fantasy "Like a Farmer," a song that preserves the co-opting of country tropes in amber. ("I got horses in my car like a farmer," Tracy raps. "Yeehaw, finna pick up your daughter. He want beef I'ma have to get him slaughtered.") Viral songs like "Turn Up the Weekend" also emerged, where the deep-voiced singer Big Wet sings booming country hooks over trap drums.
That brings us to "Old Town Road." No one pushed the tension as far as Lil Nas X, whose breezy megahit "Old Town Road" crystallized the connection. Born out of a social media phenomenon—the Yeehaw Challenge—the song’s success stretched across cultural fault lines, surfacing the current discussion about country music establishment’s relationship to artists outside of their bubble.
The short song (the original version is under two minutes) has created an overdue conversation about who has the right to be a gatekeeper, and who is allowed to appropriate which sounds. Billboard's decision to exclude "Old Town Road" from its chart has racial and classist undertones; a guest verse from Hot Country Songs veteran Billy Ray Cyrus still hasn't placed "Old Town Road" on that chart, despite its dizzying success on basically every other one.
But Cyrus' inclusion on the remix scans more as a wink from a savvy online creator than a plea for the Hot Country Songs chart. Lil Nas X himself has declined to join Billboard’s critics, a development that speaks to yet another interesting facet of the controversy—the modern musician’s desire to not be labeled with a genre designation whatsoever. The "Old Town Road" saga has put the careers of huge stars like Post Malone—who has distanced himself from being called a rapper—into clearer focus, where genre is more of a burden than a helpful and informational sorting tag. While country music grapples with what is or isn’t country, Lil Nas X are living in a present where that conversation is largely pointless. Lil Nas is already plotting the release of new music; none of it sounds like "Old Town Road."
Playlist: Post Malone - "Go Flex" / Sam Hunt - "Take Your Time" / Branchez and Big Wet - "Turn Up on the Weekend" / Lil Tracy - "Like a Farmer" (feat. Lil Uzi Vert) / Young Thug - "Family Don’t Matter" (feat. Millie Go Lightly) / Tierra Whack - "Fuck Off" / Young Thug - "Me or Us" / Maren Morris - "Rich"