This story has been updated.
Oh the irony of so many people demanding all music sound the same in the name of “diversity.” The only reason we’re even having a discussion of where Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road” should be placed on the charts is because you can’t tell the difference between most any given piece of popular music anymore. It’s all basically the same—hip-hop electronic beats and rapping, with whatever else thrown in as window dressing. It doesn’t matter if it’s hip-hop, country, pop, R&B, or even rock, the same formula persists. And somehow this development is being sold to the public as “evolution,” while in truth it is the bleeding out of the vast tapestry of diverse influences that went into making American culture the most influential and creative epicenter in the world, which is now being destroyed in the gross homogenization of popular entertainment.
We shouldn’t just be having open and honest discussions about what Billboard chart Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road” should be slotted on. We should be having open and honest discussions of whether meme algorhythms that can’t even clock in at 2 minutes and are brought to prominence via things like the Tik-Tok app should even be eligible for chart inclusion at all. A “song” like “Old Town Road” isn’t just an example of the onset of the monogenre, it’s an example of the onset of Idiocracy. Lil Nas X isn’t even a performer. He showed up to an Atlanta Hawks game recently to sing “Old Town Road,” and just stood at center court while the song played over the loudspeakers. At least Wal-Mart yodel boy Mason Ramsey could sing.
If people have fun with “Old Town Road,” more power to them. But memes shouldn’t being included in music charts. And Lil Nas X is the least of the guilty parties in this matter. He made a silly meme track that went viral. He’s doing the American hustle, and gamed the system to get “Old Town Road” to be considered on the country charts in the first place. If anything, you should tip your hat to him. It’s Billboard, and otherwise intelligent members of the music and media community who know this song is a misogynistic joke track, but refuse to speak up in fear of being labeled racist, even in the face of outright lies being perpetrated in this song’s defense.
If the music community actually gave a shit about diversity, they wouldn’t be advocating for a song like “Old Town Road” which is an affront to the integrity of all popular music. They would be opposing it at all turns, regardless of what genre you want to call it. Then, they would actually begin advocating for the inclusion of actual country and roots music artists of African American descent on Billboard’s country charts—artists who devoted their lives to these important American art forms, who exhibit incredible, generational, and world-renown talent, and are just waiting in the wings for their chance at more attention and support while artists like Lil Nas X don’t open doors for them, they close them in favor of viral meme culture invading the music space.
Lil Nas X doesn’t just threaten the integrity of country music as a cultural institution, he specifically makes a mockery and downgrades the legacy of African Americans in the genre, who per capita, do more to preserve the roots and traditions of country music than Caucasian performers. Here’s a list of some of them, many of whom have been featured on Saving Country Music multiple times while being ignored by the rest of the media who profess to want inclusion in country music.
Mickey Guyton – A major label-signed artist, Guyton is a great bridge between the classic and contemporary, pulling fans from both sides of the country music divide, and registering a Top 40 hit in 2015 with “Better Than You Left Me.” Unfortunately, he career has stalled since then as attention gets placed on other artists less deserving.
Yola – Americana UK’s Artist of the Year in 2017, Yola just released her Dan Auerbach-produced debut LP Walk Through The Fire. Yola is blessed with a one-in-a-million voice, and is ripe for being included within the mainstream country ranks.
Rhiannon Giddens – A founding member of the Carolina Chocolate Drop who helped revitalize the African American legacy in country music, she’s already seen charts success as a guest on Eric Church’s Top 10 hit “Kill A Word.” Her solo career is filled with incredible offerings, and she also just released a new album with a supergroup of black women she assembled called Our Native Daughters.
Tony Jackson – Tony Jackson is one of the greatest country singers of our time, evidenced by his viral cover of George Jones’ “The Grand Tour.” He also recently competed on the USA Network singing competition Real Country.
Aaron Vance – A staunch country traditionalist with an incredible voice and unique style, he’s been summarily ignored by the mainstream and much of country music media. His latest record, 2017’s My Own Way displays his incredible adeptness with traditional country.
Charley Crockett – Part African American and Jewish, and a direct descendant of Davy Crockett, his throwback style reconnects the roots of country and blues. He’s released covers records of both country and blues classics, along with his original music. Charley also has that indefinable cool factor, that has made him a fan favorite from the traditionalists in his home state of Texas, to the hipsters in east Nashville and California.
Valerie June – Her roots music footprint is massive, and though there is certainly some old school R&B in her sound and other genres would love to claim her for themselves, the heart of Valerie June’s music still revolves around wood and wires, and the real foundations of country music’s bluesy and Gospel past.
Dom Flemons – A former member of the Carolina Chocolate Drops, Dom Flemons is one of country music’s premier revivalists. His 2018 album Black Cowboys was full of primitive country and folk songs, recitations of black cowboy poems, and was a deep reenactment of what you might have heard from African American trail riders and pioneers during American expansionism, including modes of music making, lyrical phrasing, and instrumentation that went on to influence Western music and country styles that traditionalists in the country genre still employ today.
Kaia Kater – Canada’s banjo maestro and roots revivalist, Kaia Kater has a sound and style that’s bold yet sparse. Great songwriting is bolstered by a strong voice, and she is charting a path as a rising star in roots music, building off the work others have done before her to break down the myth that black artists aren’t owed a debt of gratitude to the formation of the country genre.
Allison Russell – Member of both the roots duo Birds of Chicago and Our Native Daughters, if everyone did things in life with the same passion that Allison Russell sings with, the world would be a better place.
Amythyst Kiah – a Southern Gothic roots music performer born in Chattanooga and based in Johnson City, Tennessee, she graduated from East Tennessee State University’s Bluegrass, Old Time, and Country Music Studies as the only African American in the program during the time of her enrollment. She is also a member of the supergroup Our Native Daughters.
Leyla McCalla – From Haitian heritage, Leyla McCall is a classical and folk musician specializing in cello, who has played with both the Carolina Chocolate Drops and Our Native Daughters. Her first album Vari-Colored Songs was a tribute to Langston Hughes, and was sung in Haitian Creole.
Our Native Daughters – A collaboration between fellow female African American roots performers Rhiannon Giddens, Leyla McCalla, Allison Russell, and Amythyst Kiah, their February 2019 album released via Smitsonia Folkways portrayed the often overlooked suffering, resilience, and agency of black women during the slave era.
Miss Tammi Savoy – An Ameripolitan Music award winner in the rockabilly category, Tammi Savoy bridges the gap between old school R&B and the juke joint vibe of traditional country. A stunning singer, she commonly collaborates with Chris Casello, and has become a favorite on the vintage circuit.
Milton Patton – Though much more of a contemporary artists than others mentioned here, Patton still carries the roots of country in his sound. He once tried out for Americas Got Talent singing Brad Paisley’s “Whiskey Lullaby,” and has struggled to launch a career worthy of his talent.
Sunny War – Call her punk blues, folk roots, or primitive country, what you can’t call Sunny War is tame. Though her countenance is calm demeanored, her music holds powerful messages born on tempest-torn stories that resonate.
Ben Hunter – Primary member of the duo Ben Hunter and Joe Seamons, this Seattle-based primitive country and folk-based musician specializes in discovering forgotten songs and stories from America’s musical past, and putting new life into them for today’s audiences.
Mavis Staples – Though known mostly as a R&B , Gospel, and soul goddess from her work with The Staple Sisters, Mavis has come to be considered one of the greatest living legends in Americana, and regularly lends her voice, musical influence, and wisdom to country performers awed by her presence.
Darius Rucker – Despite quite a few questionable efforts in Hootie’s country career, he did make a #1 song out of Old Crow Medicine Show’s “Wagon Wheel”—taking a song that might have been ubiquitous in the underground, but was probably worthy of a wider audience all the way to the top of the mainstream charts, underscoring again how it’s often minorities championing the more rootsy material in the mainstream. He also recently covered Drivin’ & Cryin’s anthemtic “Straight to Hell,” though that effort stalled out at #40. Still, Rucker has been most of his time in country sticking closer to the roots compared to his mainstream Caucasian counterparts, and to some serious success. Five of Rucker’s first six singles went to #1, proving that African Americans can have success, and refute that race solely plays a factor in who is allowed to succeed in country music.
Priscilla Renea – A songwriter from the pop world who also has composed multiple mainstream country songs, her 2018 Thirty Tigers release Coloured navigated the intersection of the pop and country world, but one where a mutual respect was brought to both art forms.
Along with these current performers, the legacies of Charley Pride, Ray Charles, Stoney Edwards, OB McClinton, Cleve Francis, The Pointer Sisters, and other African American artists that achieved chart success in country is often overlooked. Though not currently active, the legacy of the Carolina Chocolate Drops looms large in African American inclusion into country, Pastor Shirley Caesar was a Gospel artist with lots of country influences, and Linda Martell was the first black woman to perform at the Grand Ole Opry when she took the stage in August of 1969. DeFord Bailey was the first performer on the Grand Ole Opry ever, and is a member of the Country Music Hall of Fame.
Tina Turner‘s debut solo album was Tina Turner Turns the Country On where she covered Hank Snow, Dolly Parton, and Kris Kristofferson among others. And there are many other African American performing artists that have been welcomed into the country and Americana realm such as The War & Treaty and The McCrary Sisters, Black Joe Lewis, and Leon Bridges just to name a few.
Beyond frontline performers, African American side players can also be seen in country currently, including drummer Jerry Pentacost who is one of the most well-recognized and beloved side players in country and Americana, and guitarist Michael “Scooter” McDonald, aka Black Shelton, who has played with numerous outfits in the Texas music scene.
In fact there are so many African American performers in country music and adjacent scenes, it’s tough to list them all. Apologies to all the artists who were not included here.
None of this means that country music didn’t have a race problem in the past, or may not still not need to work to eliminate lingering elements of racism today. But with the recent success of Kane Brown, Jimmie Allen, and Darius Rucker in country, it’s clear that African Americans can make it in the genre, despite the characterizations of the media. Including Lil Nas X in the country ranks doesn’t open doors for black performers, it closes them due to pushing actual musicians down a notch in recognition, stereotyping black country performers as nothing more than opportunistic meme creators with trap beats, while the African American artist who could bridge gaps, have devoted their lives to the music, and can prove the love for country and roots can be universal continue to struggle in the shade of the hip-hop monoculture.
Music has the unique power to down racial barriers. But it does so by celebrating our differences in background, heritage and influence, not attempting to resolve them under misguided notions of inclusion and diversity based solely off of skin color.