Country Music Is Not a Monolith. Quit Stereotyping It As One

On March 26th, 2019, Rolling Stone published an article titled, “Lil Nas X’s ‘Old Town Road’ Was a Country Hit. Then Country Changed Its Mind.” Published after “Old Town Road” had been removed from the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart with little or no outrage or even attention paid to it, it was the title of this article specifically that lit the spark behind the eventual international outrage that had many accusing country music of racism.

But there was a big problem with the title of this article particularly. It was patently and verifiably false. “Country music” had passed no judgement upon Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road” whatsoever, meaning the genre’s artists, its fans, its labels, its industry professionals, its radio and touring partners, its awards entities, or anyone else affiliated with the genre in any official capacity. The removal of “Old Town Road” from the Billboard country charts was an exclusive and unilateral decision made by Billboard—an independent media entity and chart publisher that has no direct affiliation with any genre.

In fact, if you actually read the Rolling Stone article in question, Lil Nas X’s manager Danny Kang spells out in no uncertain terms that Lil Nas X purposely manipulated the metadata for “Old Town Road” by marking it country because he knew the track would face less competition in country compared to hip-hop, making the track more likely to chart.

“On SoundCloud, he listed it as a country record,” said Danny Kang. “On iTunes, he listed it as a country record. He was going to these spaces, gaining a little bit of traction on their country charts, and here’s a way to manipulate the algorithm to push your track to the top. That’s favorable versus trying to go to the rap format to compete with the most popular songs in the world.”

When Billboard discovered this, they made the only prudent and ethical move possible—they removed the song from the country charts, and moved it over to the hip-hop charts. After all, if any artist could claim any track as “country” just to get more traction, it could open up a Pandora’s box of pop and hip-hop artists submitting their tracks to country. Billboard also concluded that “Old Town Road” didn’t fit on the country charts sonically either.

On multiple occasions, Billboard clarified that it was them who made the decision to remove the track from the charts, and that they received no outside pressure from anyone in the country music industry to remove the track. In fact, most professionals in the country industry had no idea the track had appeared on the country chart in the first place. They had no idea who Lil Nas X even was, nor had they even heard “Old Town Road.”

Nonetheless, it was that title, “Lil Nas X’s ‘Old Town Road’ Was a Country Hit. Then Country Changed Its Mind” that became the narrative that the rest of the media ran with, accusing the entirety of country music of racism for something Billboard decided on their own.

That’s not to say that the Rolling Stone article and its author Elias Leight did not allude that country music had a shaky past when it comes to race. To impugn country music for its apparent racial insensitivity and gatekeeping against Lil Nas X, Elias Leight brought up the instance in 2016 when the Grammy Awards country music screening committee said that Beyoncé’s song “Daddy Lessons” was not country, and disallowed it from competing in the country categories.

Previous to the “Old Town Road” controversy, the “Daddy Lessons” conflict was the preeminent moment in modern country history when the entirety of the country music genre was accused of racism, with think piece after think piece about the effrontery of “country music” denying Beyoncé’s bid for a Grammy. But again, this wasn’t a decision made by “country music,” as if the genre is a living, breathing monolith, unified in thought and action across its various styles, entities, scenes, and organizations. It was a decision made by a committee of professionals working for the Grammy Awards specifically, which just like Billboard, is an independent body.

In fact, in both the Lil Nas X and Beyoncé situations, “country music” actually did acknowledge the contributions of these artists. At the 50th Annual CMA Awards in 2016, Beyoncé was given the marquee performance slot of the night, singing “Daddy Lessons” with the [Dixie] Chicks. In 2018, “Old Town Road” won the CMA Award for Musical Event of the Year. Yet in the official record of many, “country music” as a whole repudiated these artists and songs, with these instances constantly being cited as evidence for systemic sexism and racism inside the country music industry, and their CMA Awards moments excluded.

This came up more recently when once again when the Grammy Awards country music screening committee made the correct decision to not allow Kacey Musgraves’ most recent album Star-Crossed to compete in the Best Country Album category. And once again, as opposed to going after the Grammy Awards, it was sold as a case of “country music” gatekeeping a woman from competing in country categories, including by the CEO of Kacey’s label. The accusation was implausible since the last time Musgraves released new music, she won four Grammy Awards, including three in country categories, while the decision to move Star-Crossed to compete in the pop categories was the correct one.

This is an ever-present problem for the country genre, especially when it’s covered by journalists and publishers outside of the country music fold who don’t understand the mechanisms of how the country music industry works. Country music is often considered this homogeneous, white, Christian blob, with a fictitious set of white heterosexual males sitting in a cloakroom pulling levers of power.

Characteristics such as racism, sexism, homophobia, and bigotry are just assumed about country music, and in its entirety, without any true evidence proffered to substantiate those accusations, aside from the ones falsely established by mischaracterizations, such as “country music” changing its mind about “Old Town Road.” It’s a stereotype. And we see it over and over again.

That doesn’t mean that there hasn’t been instances of bigotry in country music in the past. Of course there has been. And it doesn’t mean there aren’t lingering concerns about inclusivity that the country industry should still be addressing in the present. But the compounding of these anecdotal instances has created the specter for some outside observers that in 2021, bigotry and racism is still pervasive throughout country music, when this just isn’t substantiated by an real world evidence, only inferences and assumptions based off of decisions made by single entities—entities sometimes or often sworn to impartiality from the industry itself.

And not only has it resulted in some damaging, dangerous, and outright false reporting, it has also created this assumed base of knowledge that all country music is sexist, racist, and homophobic, substantiated by citing the tweets of one-off social media trolls, and where everything else reported is run through this filter of assumptions.

Pop country singer Kelsea Ballerini has just released a book of poetry called Feel Your Way Through. In the book, there is a poem called “The Right Side of History” where she’s said to address the Morgan Wallen N-word situation, and how she handled it initially.

Ballerini is already on the wrong side of history when it comes to some of her tweets. On On June 28th, 2020, Kelsea Ballerini tweeted out “Imagine being selfish enough to put thousands of people’s health at risk, not to mention the potential ripple effect, and play a NORMAL country concert right now,” about a Chase Rice concert. After Ballerini’s assertion that Rice had played a “normal” concert during the pandemic went viral, multiple media outlets including The Washington Post, CNN, Huffpost, Daily Mail, Wonderwall, and even a United States Representative tweeted out and reported the same false information.

Chase Rice did not play a “NORMAL” concert. Instead, Saving Country Music confirmed that the 10,000-capacity venue had capped its attendance to 4,000 to keep in line with county regulations, and that ultimately, a total of only 809 people had attended the concert in the 10,000-capacity venue, socially distanced before they rushed the stage at the end. And once again, the headlines weren’t how Chase Rice specifically had played an unsafe COVID-era concert. It was how “country music” had allowed it to happen. Many of the outlets also cited a “4,000” attendance figure, which was verifiably false.

But this is not the tweet Kelsea Ballerini is apologizing for, even though it was on the wrong side of history. It’s when news broke of the Morgan Wallen N-word incident, and Kelsea tweeted out, “The news out of Nashville tonight does not represent country music.”

Instead of being praised for standing up against Morgan Wallen’s behavior and speaking the truth, Kelsea Ballerini was roundly criticized, especially by many in the media and some of her fellow artists for asserting that Morgan Wallen’s behavior was not representative of country music. After all, remember what happened with Lil Nas X and Beyoncé? Maren Morris tweeted back at Ballerini, “It actually IS representative of our town because this isn’t his first ‘scuffle’ and he just demolished a huge streaming record last month regardless. We all know it wasn’t his first time using that word. We keep them rich and protected at all costs with no recourse.”

But of course, there was recourse for Wallen. He was thrown off of radio, his tour was cancelled, he was rendered ineligible for awards. It ultimately didn’t hurt Wallen’s pocketbook as his fans rose up to support him amid the “cancellation,” but the industry roundly rejected Wallen’s behavior, and across the board, even as he released multiple apologies. Only now after 10+ months is Wallen being allowed to return to radio and the live context.

“I can acknowledge a misstep,” Kelsea Ballerini recently told CBS This Morning about the Morgan Wallen tweet. “I’ve learned that sometimes, even in the purest intentions, you should keep your mouth shut and learn. And that’s what I’m doing now … I have had kind of a very small corner of cancel culture around that. I’m such a peace-maker by default. I’m a chronic people-pleaser.”

And people-pleasing is what Kelsea Ballerini is doing here by apologizing for her Morgan Wallen tweet, which was the truth. Morgan Wallen’s actions were reprehensible, but they were in no way representative of country music in 2021. They were representative of Morgan Wallen, and Morgan Wallen only. But once again, many wanted to use Wallen’s actions to represent the monolith, stereotyped notion of “country music.” This action at its root is bigotry—bigotry against country music by using the actions of one to represent the many. It’s unfair to the artist, fans, and entities working to make country music inclusive to lump them in with the actions of Morgan Wallen or anyone else.

In 2021, Kelsea Ballerini and Maren Morris are part of country music (to the chagrin of many traditionalists). So are Jimmie Allen, Kane Brown, Mickey Guyton, Darius Rucker, Chapel Hart, and other black performers. Do we really think other major mainstream country artists like Luke Bryan and Dan + Shay are out there using the N-word on a regular basis? That feels very unlikely. Again, it doesn’t mean lingering racism isn’t still out there in the country music industry. But Morgan Wallen doesn’t represented the entirety of country music any more than Billboard did when they decided Lil Nas X didn’t deserve to be on the country charts.

If all you have to prove country music’s intrinsic racism that is regularly cited in conversations and articles is the Lil Nas X anecdote, or the Beyoncé anecdote, or mainstream radio charts when all the format plays is the same forty songs over and over, or the Morgan Wallen story, then you really don’t have any proof at all. Because these things don’t represent “country music” as a whole. It’s just that some want them to, because it suits their narrative.

Country music is a wide, diverse, and in many ways, disparate entity, with the cultural divide running right down the middle of it. And the actions of one never represent the entirety of the many.

© 2023 Saving Country Music