NEW YORK (NYTIMES) - Booming beats. A twanging banjo. Is this country music?
When Lil Nas X, a young black hip-hop artist from Atlanta, created the surprise hit "Old Town Road," he did not imagine that it would end up at the centre of a debate on race, the Nashville, Tennessee, establishment and musical genres.
The track marries a beat familiar to hip-hop fans with acoustic sounds and lyrics filled with cowboy imagery.
Lil Nas X had no record deal when he made it, and the song bubbled up on the Internet before it made three different Billboard charts: the Hot 100, Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs and Hot Country Songs.
Once it was a success, Billboard removed it from its country chart. On Friday (April 5), in what seemed to be a dare to Billboard and Nashville, Lil Nas X released a new version of the song that included 1990s country star Billy Ray Cyrus as a featured vocalist. Was it country enough for them now?
When Billboard banished "Old Town Road" from the country chart, it issued a statement to Rolling Stone claiming the song "does not embrace enough elements of today's country music to chart in its current version."
With Cyrus along for the ride, it is possible that country radio stations who ignored it will start playing it.
Billboard's decision to drop the song from Hot Country Songs prompted a debate about race and country music itself. White Nashville artists, like Florida Georgia Line and Sam Hunt, have used hip-hop-influenced beats and production techniques for years. Do those performers have more leeway than Lil Nas X?
Shane Morris, a former record label executive in Nashville, thinks so. "They said there were compositional problems," Morris said of Billboard's chartmakers, "because they didn't know how to justify it any other way without sounding completely racist."
Charles Hughes, director of the Lynne & Henry Turley Memphis Center at Rhodes College, called Billboard's decision "a bad move," saying it perpetuated a long-standing racial tension in black music.
"Black artists have been influential in country a long, long way back," Hughes said, "but country has rewarded white artists that have taken advantage of those influences, without giving black artists the same opportunities."
The rejection of "Old Town Road" by the country establishment, in Hughes' view, echoed a time when country radio stations ignored Ray Charles' groundbreaking 1962 album, "Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music."
Lil Nas X, whose real name is Montero Hill, said he wrote "Old Town Road" last fall, after staying with his sister while avoiding his parents as a college dropout. When his sister finally sent him on his way, he imagined his future.
"I felt like a loner cowboy," he said. "I wanted to take my horse to the Old Town Road and run away. The horse is like a car. The Old Town Road, it's like a path to success. In the first verse, I pack up, ready to go."
He posted the song online in December along with an observation: "country music is evolving." It soon became a sensation on TikTok, an app that allows users to make and share short music videos. Young people made video shorts of themselves dressing up in cowboy gear, using the song as a soundtrack. By March, Lil Nas X had nailed down the deal with Columbia.
In an interview Friday, he sidestepped questions about being dropped from the country chart. "I'm still in Billboard - this is amazing," he said. This week, the song climbed 17 spots, to No. 15, on Billboard's Hot 100, which measures the popularity of pop songs.
In a statement, Billboard said that its chart decisions were determined by factors including the promotion of a song and its reception at radio and on streaming services, and that it could revisit its decision about "Old Town Road."
So far, the song has gotten little support from country stations. Last week, it was played five times on country stations, according to Nielsen; this week, it was played 62 times by 31 stations.
The remixed version of "Old Town Road," with vocals from Cyrus, the singer of the 1992 hit "Achy Breaky Heart," came together two weeks ago, Lil Nas said. The finishing touches were added Thursday night, hours before it was released and went viral all over again.
The rapper's collaboration with Cyrus, father of singer Miley Cyrus, may seem unlikely, but Lil Nas X said he had been a fan for years.
In December, two days after the song's initial release, he posted a message on Twitter asking Billy Ray Cyrus to join him on the track: "twitter please help me get billy ray cyrus on this." While the addition of Cyrus may help the song's chances on country stations and country charts, the new version makes no substantial change to its core.
Cyrus defended the country bona fides of the original version of "Old Town Road" on Wednesday, adding to the pressure on Billboard and the Nashville establishment by casting Lil Nas X in the role of a beloved country music archetype - the outlaw.
"When I got thrown off the charts," Cyrus wrote on Twitter, "Waylon Jennings said to me 'Take this as a compliment' means you're doing something great! Only Outlaws are outlawed. Welcome to the club!"