Science tells us that you probably woke up this morning with the chorus to “Old Town Road” in your head. Even if you didn’t, it may be there now. (How about now?) With its plucky banjo and Sergio Leone whistle, Lil Nas X’s absurdly catchy song gives the conventions of country music a hip-hop twist, complete with booming bass and lyrics like “Cowboy hat from Gucci/Wrangler on my booty.” Since it came out last December, “Old Town Road” has climbed to the top of singles charts from Nebraska to Norway, and it recently claimed the Billboard record for longest-running No. 1 single.
A viral hit song may not seem any more significant than, well, a viral hit song. But in March, Billboard magazine removed the song from its “Hot Country Songs” list, where it had reached number 19 and was on track to hit No. 1. The magazine defended its move in a statement that said the song didn’t “embrace enough elements of today’s country music to chart in its current version.”
To many critics, the move had racial undertones, since the list has recently included songs by white artists that blend the sounds of hip hop and country every bit as much as “Old Town Road” does. Regardless, Lil Nas X’s hit is a reminder that neither country music nor the cowboy culture it’s associated with are as lily white as some people would like to believe. And they never have been.
Frontier America was a vastly more diverse place than your typical John Wayne movie suggests. Although diseases brought by Europeans had already killed millions of Native Americans, by the turn of the 19th century some 600,000 Native American still fought to protect their homelands from a rising influx of outsiders. The forefathers of North American cowboys were Mexican vaqueros, who wrangled herds at a string of Franciscan missions spread along the coast of what would become Southern California.
As many as 1 in 4 cowboys were African American, many of them newly freed slaves who found less discrimination and more opportunity in rural Arizona or Texas than in urban Boston or New York. Dozens of all-black towns were founded throughout cowboy country, some with names like Blackdom, N.M., and Africa, Texas. An even lesser-known kind of cowboy hailed all the way from Hawaii. Paniolo, as they were called, roped wild cattle in tropical jungles, herded them across jagged lava-rock landscapes, and drove them into the surf for loading onto steamships, sometimes fending off sharks in the process.
Despite both the undeniable diversity of cowboy history, not to mention country music’s roots in American blues, country as a genre has become one of the least diverse in terms of fans and musicians. That’s changing, though. Last year alone, Kane Brown won awards for favorite country male artist, album and song at the American Music Awards, and Jimmie Allen’s debut single “Best Shot” was the first by a black artist to premiere at No. 1 on the same Billboard list that Darius Rucker of Hootie and the Blowfish topped and Lil Nas X was booted from.
So Billboard’s decision to nix “Old Town Road” wasn’t just myopic; it borders on un-American. Blurring lines — or better, exposing that the lines were hazy to begin with — has always been America’s reality, whether we’re talking about cowboy history or musical genres.
Julian Smith is the author, with David Wolman, of “Aloha Rodeo: Three Hawaiian Cowboys, the World’s Greatest Rodeo, and a Hidden History of the American West.” He wrote this column for The Dallas Morning News.
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