by Ashley Austrew
What comes to mind when we say country music? Pickup trucks and cowboy hats? Garth Brooks and Patsy Cline? How about West African string instruments and Atlanta-based hip-hop? Past and present, country music—and what gets to be called country music—is far more complex than many realize.
What is country music?
Country music is defined as “a style and genre of largely string-accompanied American popular music having roots in the folk music of the Southeast and cowboy music of the West, usually vocalized, generally simple in form and harmony, and typified by romantic or melancholy ballads accompanied by acoustic or electric guitar, banjo, violin, and harmonica.”
The regional influences of the genre are likely how it came to be known as country music in the first place. The word country itself is old, however, recorded in English in the 1200s. By the early 1500s, country was being used to denote rural areas and things in distinction to urban ones. There’s even evidence of the phrase country music in the late 1500s, though the name for the modern music genre, alongside country and western and country-western, isn’t recorded until the 1940s.
What about the actual music the phrase describes? Most people think country music began with the cowboys who sang campfire songs out on cattle drives, but its true origins are far older and more diverse that.
For instance, the banjo—an instrument prominently featured in country and bluegrass music and, as a result, associated with white people—is based on instruments black slaves brought from West Africa. As Pamela Foster, author of My Country: The African Diaspora’s Country Music Heritage (1998), explained in the Chicago Tribune: “In the antebellum South, banjos, fiddles and harmonicas were the dominant instruments played in black culture. Unfortunately, history has distorted these facts to make people believe jazz, blues and spirituals were the staples of black culture at that time when, in fact, it was country.”
After slavery was abolished, segregation and Jim Crow laws meant that music was often separated into genres by race. White folk music became country music while music by black artists, including blues, gospel, and rhythm and blues, was labelled “race” music. But, black and white artists worked together in music studios more often than is thought. Patrick Huber, a professor of history and political science at Missouri University of Science and Technology, notably identified around 50 black artists who played on white “hillbilly” records, as they have been called, before 1932.
Nevertheless, the erasure of black artists has long been a problem in what we popularly understand as country music. Many people know Johnny Cash, for example, but they don’t know DeFord Bailey, a black musician, best known for his harmonica playing, who was an early superstar of the Grand Ole Opry in the 1920s. Such erasure continues today, as we see with Atlanta rapper Lil Nas X (Montero Lamar Hill), who can’t seem to get his own hit country song recognized by the music industry.
Country music controversy
Initially released in December 2018 before going viral on the video-sharing app TikTok, Lil Nas X’s song “Old Town Road” charted in March 2019 on Billboard’s cross-genre Hot 100, Hot Country Songs, and Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs all at once—a major accomplishment.
Fans loved the track’s twang, cowboy imagery, and accompanying music video set in the Old West. But, in a much-questioned move by the leading music tracker and publication, Billboard yanked the song from its Hot Country Songs chart, where it was slated to go number one, in late March.
In response to questions about the take-down, Billboard released a statement to Rolling Stone that read: “When determining genres, a few factors are examined, but first and foremost is musical composition. While ‘Old Town Road’ incorporates references to country and cowboy imagery, it does not embrace enough elements of today’s country music to chart in its current version.”
Fans were stunned, and many wondered if Lil Nas X was excluded because he was a black artist rather than because his song didn’t sound “country” enough.
*He’s not white enough
— KOOL MOE RUGRAT🔆 (@OGP1MPING) March 27, 2019
Lil Nas X responded to the controversy brilliantly: In April 2019, he remixed the song with country artist (and father of Miley) Billy Ray Cyrus. As of April 2019, the song still isn’t back on the country charts, but his move called out a disturbing trend in country music: Black musical influences seem welcome as along as they’re attached to white artists.
Country or crossover?
One of 2018’s biggest songs, a duet called “Meant to Be” (released in 2017) with country act Florida Georgia Line and pop singer Bebe Rexha, blurred the lines between country, pop, and R&B in a major way. “Meant To Be” was originally recorded for Rexha’s pop album, with her listed as the lead artist on the track, and it features soulful piano and a danceable beat. The only thing that sounds “country” about the song, some say, are its twanging vocals—the same thing some say of “Old Town Road.”
Yet, the song was able to to top the country charts due to changes in Billboard‘s methodology that took hold in October 2012. That’s when Billboard started factoring data from streaming and digital downloads into chart placements, opening up the doors for crossover hits that were being downloaded across genre lines.
“Meant to Be” reached number one on both Billboard‘s Adult Top 40 and Hot Country Songs, where it sat for 50 weeks. It was also nominated for a Grammy Award for Best Country Duo/Group Performance. Even though there was some debate about whether or not it was really country music, it was never pulled from any charts.
Rexha and Florida Georgia Line are hardly the first artists to capitalize on our collective love of cross-genre hits. Shania Twain was a country artist who crossed over into pop music with her 1997–98 song “That Don’t Impress Me Much.” Taylor Swift started her career with music rooted firmly in the country category and then gradually incorporated pop hooks and hip-hop beats. She’s now a full-fledged pop megastar, but a number of her songs still blur the lines between country and pop, like 2012’s “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together,” which was Swift’s first Billboard Hot 100 number one. It also topped Billboard’s Hot Country Songs chart for nearly 10 weeks.
In a statement to Rolling Stone, Billboard representatives said the decision to remove “Old Town Road” from the country charts was not motivated by race—after all, the most “country music” elements in the song are its lyrical content and vocal twang. But, it’s difficult to dismiss race as a motivator when there is evidence of so many white artists profiting from mixing genres and incorporating black sounds into their music at the same time black artists aren’t finding a home on country radio.
Some country fans were outraged in 2016 when Beyoncé performed her song “Daddy Lessons” with the Dixie Chicks at the Country Music Association Awards—a song Ebony called “one of the best country songs of the year.” Yet, in 2011, country artist Jason Aldean had a hit song called “Dirt Road Anthem,” which features Aldean essentially rapping over a country beat. It didn’t meet similar outcry or question about whether or not the song “belonged” in country music.
At a time when white artists like Florida Georgia Line and Taylor Swift are often praised for incorporating elements of pop, hip-hop, and R&B into genre-bending songs, the decision to formally declare “Old Town Road” as “not country” seems odd—because the song is so popular among hip-hop and country fans alike. Classifying music into genres is important, of course, especially when it comes to awards and radio play. It becomes problematic, however, when musicians are excluded from recognition on certain charts or from being played by certain radio stations on the basis of seemingly arbitrary standards that don’t apply to all artists across the board.
If country music becomes more a crossover genre, perhaps it’s time for country music to be a more crossover phrase. But, whether you call a track like “Old Town Road” hip-hop or country, one thing’s for sure: It’s a big hit.
Ashley Austrew is a freelance writer from Omaha, Nebraska. Her work has been published at Cosmopolitan, Scary Mommy, Scholastic, and other outlets.
For more by Ashley, read: “Why Can’t Women Swear?” | “Is It Time For All Couples To Use The Term “Partner”? | “Is “Crude” The Right Word To Use To Describe Someone’s Language?” | “What Does It Mean To Be Electable?” | “Has The Word ‘Expert’ Lost Its Meaning In 2019?” | “Does ‘Spark Joy’ Mean The Same Thing In English And Japanese?” | Is There A Difference Between “Calling In” And “Calling Out”? | Why Do Journalists Avoid The Word “Liar”?