Music

Before Lil Nas X Cut a Track with Billy Ray Cyrus, Jimmie Rodgers Was Recording with Louis Armstrong

Friday A/V Club: There's no such thing as "pure country music," because country music has always been a mix.

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Last month a trap song landed on the Billboard country chart, then was summarily dismissed from it. Lil Nas X's "Old Town Road (I Got the Horses in the Back)"—a track that mixes banjo samples and trap beats, with a video filled with Old West imagery—initially appeared simultaneously on the R&B, pop, and country charts, just like Elvis used to do. Then Billboard yanked it off the last of those, explaining that the song "does not embrace enough elements of today's country music to chart in its current version."

That decision earned a lot of well-deserved jeers. You certainly can draw your genre lines in a way that excludes "Old Town Road," but not without also excluding a bunch of other songs that have been climbing the country charts recently. As Alex Robert Ross put it in Fader:

"Old Town Road" has nothing to do with country's old school—it won't be confused for a Merle Haggard cover—but it's tough to pinpoint where, exactly, it deviates from "today's country music." I hear banjos; I see cowboys; I consider "bull ridin' and boobies," for better or worse, to be a more honest admission of modern country radio's obsessions than anything Dan + Shay can come up with. As FGL and dozens of imitators have shown, "today's country music" is clearly—sometimes embarrassingly—trying to embrace hip-hop. So, how does Lil Nas X differ from the rest of the artists on the country charts?

Ross goes on to ask why Billboard doesn't apply the same genre purism to, say, Thomas Rhett's "Look What God Gave Her," which currently sits at #12 on the country chart and, in Ross's words, is "a straight-up, middle-of-the-road, radio-pop song that has precisely nothing to do with 'today's country music' beyond a patronizing take on womanhood and a hammed-up adherence to Christianity." If you dropped Rhett's song into the '70s, people would tell you it sounds much more like disco than country. And while a disco/country crossover isn't hard to imagine—what do you think "9 to 5" was?—Rhett's effort, unlike Dolly Parton's, does not have the advantage of being particularly good.

At any rate, Lil Nas has now upped the ante: Last night he released a new mix of "Old Town Road" with some achy-breaky guest vocals from country singer Billy Ray Cyrus. I like it, and not just as a fun novelty.

OK, you say: Maybe it's good, but is it country? Well, you've got a choice. You can accept that the category we call "country music" is going to keep evolving and drawing on new influences, or you can erect fences around it in a way that leaves out vast swaths of what people who currently consider themselves country fans call country. The latter path isn't exactly new—one of the most popular country-fan exercises is defending Real Country Music against all those suspect pop influences that keep slipping in. I was known to do this myself in my teens and early twenties, when it was getting hard to distinguish country radio from "adult contemporary" schlock. But the stuff I called Real Country Music drew at least as heavily on outside influences as the stuff I was rejecting; it's just that it incorporated most of those influences before I was born, so I missed any controversies they caused. Country music has always been a mongrel, a place where banjos from Africa and steel guitars from the mid-Pacific could somehow combine to evoke images of Ozark moonshiners and Colorado cowboys.

These boundary-drawing exercises have always been kind of arbitrary, and creative people have been reaching across them for a long time. Way back in 1930, Jimmie Rodgers, sometimes called the Father of Country Music, did a recording session with jazz giant Louis Armstrong:

Since then, country music has found itself in bed with swing, with rhythm & blues, with soul, with funk, with rap. It has crossbred with punk rock, with mainstream pop, even with the chimurenga music of Zimbabwe. It's not remotely surprising to see it continuing its decadeslong dance with every kind of popular music.

(For past editions of the Friday A/V Club, go here.)

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44 responses to “Before Lil Nas X Cut a Track with Billy Ray Cyrus, Jimmie Rodgers Was Recording with Louis Armstrong

  1. >>>Country music has always been a mongrel

    three generations of Hank Williamses and their distinct sounds is evidence

    1. Too bad the talent skipped a generation.

      1. Too bad the talent skipped a generation.

        Hank Jr. was genuinely good in the ’70s, before he became a parody of himself.

        1. I’ll concede that. But he’s been a parody much longer than a talent.

          1. Someone should spit some Beechnut in your eye.

    2. And all three rank somewhere from good to great.

      1. I and III = great.
        II = meh.

        III’s cowpunk stuff is mindblowing.

  2. I knew two of the four names mentioned in the title of this article. I really need to get out more.

  3. I sort of get Jesse Walker’s point, but if a governing body can’t set a standard for a particular genre or category then what’s the point of having said genre?

    Also, this song sounds nothing like country music.

    1. Yes, central top-down planning always works so well, why not in a fast-moving culturally-defined area like popular music?

      1. Then toss the charts because – as you say – they’re useless.

  4. OK, you say: Maybe it’s good, but is it country?

    “I like *all* kinds of music: country *and* western!”

    1. I use to like both kinds, Country and Western. Now I just listen to Western. Today’s country sucks.

  5. Let’s combine country, rap, rock and classical:

    Oh, my dog up and left me
    And my b____ drove away in my truck
    So I drank some malt liquor
    And worshipped the devil
    And sang a long aria

    1. I just might borrow those lyrics (with apologies to Steve Goodman) 🙂

  6. I’ve been playing and performing “country music” for near a half century. Perhaps “Americana” is a better term, given the rather varied sources of many of the songs I like to play. You haven’t really lived until unless you’ve heard NIN on solo banjo 🙂

    Please save us from the lunatic censors.

    1. How about the Carter Family? I can play ‘Are You Lonesome Tonight’ on my 000-15 Martin. It makes all the girls cry.

      1. For sure. Written in 1926. Recorded by pop artists, and eventually found it’s way into country music. 000-15 Martin? Sweet. I lost my herringbone 28 in a fire.

  7. Come on, everyone, let’s cheer ourselves up with a nice, happy country song.

  8. “or you can erect fences around it in a way that leaves out vast swaths of what people who currently consider themselves country fans call country”

    Evidence that those vast swathes disagree with Billboard on this?

    Are libertarians now arguing that a private company can’t categorize music any way it feels like? And pretending it’s “censoring” (ref. comments above)?

    (It’s 2019. Do Billboard chart positions matter for anything at all?)

    1. Evidence that those vast swathes disagree with Billboard on this?

      Who said they disagree with Billboard? Maybe they do, maybe they don’t. The point is that Billboard’s chart includes a lot of stuff that any country purist would exclude.

      Are libertarians now arguing that a private company can’t categorize music any way it feels like?

      Not that I’m aware of. There certainly isn’t anything in my post that even remotely suggests that.

    2. Billboard can do whatever it wants to do, including trying to somehow influence what people view as “acceptable” in a particular genre of music. And I am free to mock, criticize, and ignore them at my whim. Okay? 🙂

  9. That Jimmie Rodgers – Louis Armstrong mashup is tremendous!

  10. Sorry about that last one, it was invented in WWII by British intelligence to make the enemy cry himself dehydrated.

    Here is a more upbeat song.

  11. There has been a lot of pushback on this song and others, including Thomas Rhett and FGL, from fans of country music. I mean, it’s one thing to have a country song incorporate elements of other genres. But it’s bogus to take a song which is from another genre entirely and call it “country”. By that logic, Beethoven’s Fifth is a country song.

    It’s not just an issue of what the Billboard country chart looks like. Every time something like this is declared “country” it sucks all the oxygen from genuine country artists who are working hard just to scratch out a living with their music.

    1. Are there any true Scots country singers?

      1. Maybe not, but there are true Scots country bagpipers.

    2. Beethoven’s 5th has already been done as a disco song, so, sure, why not a country song? (well, at least a dance tune..) 🙂

      1. MacArthur Park is the Beethoven’s fifth of genre bending songs.

        1. LOL. You may have a point. 🙂

        2. They asked Jimmy Webb for something different. He delivered more than they . I can’t comment knowledgeably on the mixed musical styles, but I doubt that even Yogi Berra ever managed to mix and mis-apply so many metaphors as are in the lyrics.

  12. Elvis’ mesmerizing hips destroyed musical genre purity forever.

    And then Fred Durst dug up musical genre’s grave, pissed on it, and then buried it again.

  13. If NWA is in the Rock-n-Roll Hall of Fame then Lil Nas X is as country as he wanna be.

  14. I think my answer is country (by today’s standards) but not good. I question the definition of it being good a lot more than it being country.

  15. ‘Country’ music is like if people had tried to cram all the diverse forms of metal under one moniker. Sure, they all come from a common root but they’re sufficiently distinctive that ‘Metal’ wouldn’t be useful when you have ‘heavy’, death’, ‘speed’, ‘hair’ – all pretty distinctive sounds within the metal genre. To say Sabaton and Stryper are both metal might be true but it would be useless.

    1. I don’t know what you call the modern sappy stuff – surely not rock – but this NSFW song combines that with rap.

  16. “Jimmie Rodgers, sometimes called the Father of Country Music, did a recording session with jazz giant Louis Armstrong”

    Yes, but no one (I’ve heard of) argued that everything Jimmie did was “country”. Strawman.

    Anyhow, I stopped listening to what’s on the Radio around 2011, which was a few years late. Too much wasn’t “country”, or even “country-ish”.

    Now, just because you can’t categorize something precisely doesn’t mean the term has no meaning.

    Meanwhile, I’ll keep listening to Alan Jackson, George Strait, Merle, Waylon, Hank Sr., Keith Whitley, Willie Nelson, etc. Maybe even throw in some Jamey Johnson, Aaron Lewis, Mo Pitney, and Colter Wall.

    1. Yes, but no one (I’ve heard of) argued that everything Jimmie did was “country”. Strawman.

      I’m not sure who here is claiming that everything Rodgers did is country (speaking of strawmen). But at his most “country” Rodgers was still heavily influenced by the blues, and the only notable difference between the way this song sounds and the way his other “Blue Yodel” songs sound is the presence of those jazz sidemen. Those songs weren’t classified into separate genres back then, even if you’re tempted to separate them retroactively now.

      1. They were implying that the father of country could only do country music. If they weren’t, then their logic was really stupid.

        I wouldn’t assume that the “creator” of something would be classified into their own “genre” if they were the only one in it. Heck, I’ve got a recording of Hank Sr. live where the announcer called it folk music. Also, what was Bill Monroe originally called before they named “Bluegrass” music after his band?

        1. They were implying that the father of country could only do country music. If they weren’t, then their logic was really stupid.

          If by “They” you mean me, the author of the post, then I’m afraid you’re reading quite a lot into the sentence “These boundary-drawing exercises have always been kind of arbitrary, and creative people have been reaching across them for a long time.”

          Heck, I’ve got a recording of Hank Sr. live where the announcer called it folk music.

          Yes?and on the flipside, there was a time when Woody Guthrie was often considered country (or “hillbilly,” the more common label back then). It took a while for “folk” and “country” to separate from one another, and the split arguably had more to do with Cold War politics than music.

  17. As a country music fan, if you had simply played the Lil Nas song and told me nothing about it, I would not say it was country.

    My assumption would be that whatever the lyrics are, its just a euphemistic way of saying he’s gonna get laid or something.

    Not saying that hick-hop isn’t country, just that this particular song ain’t country.

    I’d also say the Thomas Rhett song ain’t country. If I knew nothing else I’d think it belongs on an Adult Contemporary/Lite Rock sort of station. Some of his other stuff, at least the stuff I know of his before 2016 was country.

  18. They just heard it wrong?he’s saying “gonna take my WHORES down to Old Town Road”.

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