The history behind country rap: How “Old Town Road” came to be

Hick Hop
Ryan Fey/THE REVIEW
Existing in a space between country and hip-hop, “Old Town Road” is a fascinating anomaly.

BY
Senior Reporter

Have you ever wanted to ride your horse into the sunset while listening to Atlanta hip-hop music? If yes, then Lil Nas X’s new song, “Old Town Road,” is the answer for you, hitting the No. 1 spot on the Billboard Hot 100 this month. The song is a genre-fusing hit, mixing elements of country and trap music to create a unique sound.

Along with the song’s success, it has also garnered plenty of controversy, with many asking if it’s really country or just another rap song.

For some, the answer is both: It is a bona-fide country-rap song. Country rap is a fusion of the two genres, giving a more southern sound to the otherwise urban style of hip-hop.

The genre dates back to 1998, with Kid Rock’s “Cowboy” being regarded as one of the first country-rap songs to be released. Other more rap-centric artists, such as Bubba Sparxxx and Nelly, have released songs that have since been considered country rap.

In recent years, country rap has become more the domain of the country genre. Artists like Florida Georgia Line and Blake Shelton have dipped their toes into the sound, with songs like “Cruise” by Florida Georgia Line reaching the top spot on Billboard’s country chart, and No. 4 on the Hot 100. This development of country rap being dominated by country artists has led many to coin the term “bro-country,” where the lyrics typically focus on alcohol, partying, women and pickup trucks.

This paradigm shift from the typical sound of outlaw country to bro-country has been dominating the airwaves this decade, leaving many listeners alienated. Other more underground artists have filled in the gaps with a different sound.

Alabama rapper Yelawolf fused the sounds of outlaw country and hip-hop on his album “Love Story.” Hip-hop-influenced country is still the dominant force, however, with many of the top songs falling into the category of bro-country.

This evolution of country leads up to the current state of the genre, where artists such as Lil Nas X, Lil Tracy and DaBaby, all known for hip-hop, have been able to score underground country hits. Lil Nas X is the first of the new crop of country rappers to be able to have a wide mainstream appeal. Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road” has broken the record for most streams on a song in one week, becoming the most successful song of the genre.

The lyrics are typical of a bro-country song: women, trucks, horses, drugs and dirt roads. The defining aspect that leads many to believe that Lil Nas X’s viral hit is simply a cowboy-themed rap song is the drums. Loud 808 bass drums and fast hi-hats are used on the track, which are typical of trap. This isn’t the first time that trap and country have been fused, though. Atlanta rapper Young Thug dabbled in a country-trap crossover with his 2016 mixtape “Beautiful Thugger Girls” but received little commercial success.

“Old Town Road” has gained success partly due to its use in memes. The video-sharing platform TikTok helped propel the song into the spotlight, with many of its users playing the song during their comedic videos. The pseudo tongue-in-cheek nature of the song also has helped it’s crossover appeal.

Although the song is somewhat comedic, it is undeniably catchy, which explains its meteoric rise from underground meme to worldwide smash hit.

Country faces a unique situation now with “Old Town Road” reaching No. 1 on Billboard’s Hot 100 chart. Billboard had previously removed the track from its country charts, citing issues with it not embracing enough traditional country elements to be deemed truly part of the genre. Billboard received backlash for these actions, with accusations of racism stemming from the removal.

The country community’s decision on if “Old Town Road” is country will determine where the genre goes from here, and the debate is certainly worth watching. Many popular country artists have deemed the song country, with stars such as Florida Georgia Line and Shay Mooney praising the track.

Country legend Billy Ray Cyrus is featured on a remix of the hit, gaining over 70 million plays on Spotify alone since it’s release. It seems that the artists of the country community have embraced the shift in the genre, and many are waiting in anticipation for where the sound of country goes from here.

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