On March 11th, when Billboard released its Hot Country Songs chart with Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road” placed at #19, the press paid no attention to the event aside from a quick blurb in the trade periodical Music Row Magazine. There were no think pieces published about the significance of the moment, no celebrations about the breaking down of racial barriers in country’s traditionally white environment. In fact the placement went curiously unnoticed and unaddressed aside from country music chart nerds on social media, and perhaps industry professionals who keep tabs on such things.
When the next chart was published on March 18th and “Old Town Road” had been removed, similarly no press reaction or even acknowledgement accompanied the decision since nobody had been paying attention that “Old Town Road” was on the country chart in the first place. The first member of the press to address the issue was Grady Smith two days after the move by Billboard to remove the song, and then Saving Country Music addressed the issue three days after that, on March 23rd. At this point, it was five days past when Billboard had decided to take “Old Town Road” off the chart, and there were no accusations of racism, no involved think pieces about the move, and no wringing of hands about what this said about race in music and America. It went mostly ignored as an anomaly on the charts that was eventually corrected.
It wasn’t until Rolling Stone published an article called Lil Nas X’s ‘Old Town Road’ Was a Country Hit. Then Country Changed Its Mind on March 26th—a full nine days after the removal of the song before anyone questioned the legitimacy of the move. In fact a whole new weekly chart cycle had passed and been published when Rolling Stone chose to address the issue. However with the misleading headline of the article blaming “country music” as opposed to Billboard for the removal, and with the insinuations by Rolling Stone that the removal had been racially motivated, it started the discussion on if Lil Nas X was a victim of racism in the media in earnest. Within days, the biggest story in all of entertainment media was how country music had removed Lil Nas X from the country charts because he was black, with little context or counterpoints being offered about how and why Billboard had arrived at their conclusions.
Soon, entertainment and political media outlets were scrambling to take advantage of the viral story by posting news articles, think pieces, and other coverage to suck up their fair share of the attention being paid to Lil Nas X and “Old Town Road.” One of the first of these such pieces appeared in Pitchfork by writer Sheldon Pearce, published on April 1st. Saving Country Music is quoted in the Pitchfork article, and it expressly states that Saving Country Music’s criticism came before Billboard removed “Old Town Road” from the Hot Country Songs chart.
However this was completely untrue. As stated above, the first Saving Country Music article on the subject was posted five days after Billboard had made its decision (and happens to be based in Austin, not Nashville). In fact in the Saving Country Music article that Pitchfork linked to, it clearly states, “In the latest chart update, Billboard appears to have switched Lil Nas X and “Old Town Road” to the Hot Rap Songs chart. The song does not appear at all on Billboard’s Hot Country Songs chart dated March 23rd, and instead appears on the Hot Rap Songs at #24 with a ‘New’ tag slapped on it, meaning it’s a debut entry on the chart.”
This incorrect timeline of how and when “Old Town Road” was removed from the country charts, and who was to blame then began to be parroted incorrectly as a media echo chamber began to form in the quick rush by many outlets to cover the story. Few writers or editors were checking their work, or independently sourcing their material. An article posted on April 9th by Salon states, “The [Billboard] move followed this op-ed published on the website Saving Country Music, ‘Billboard Must Remove Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road” From Country Chart.’ ” once again establishing a false narrative and presenting an incorrect version of the “Old Town Road” timeline.
This is not a trivial point. The result of Pitchfork, Salon and the nonfactual reporting of other outlets was a narrative and timeline where country music purists had pressured Billboard to make the move, as opposed to Billboard coming to their own conclusion independently after it was determined the song was not fit for the charts. As Lil Nas X’s own manager Danny Kang has admitted, Lil Nas X chose country as the genre for “Old Town Road” in metadata listings to game the system, and receive more traction since the song would chart better in country where there was less competition. Danny Kang told Rolling Stone, “There’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.”
At this point the curse was cast. Lil Nas X being removed from the country charts was the cause célèbre of the moment, and outlets were publishing stories about it left and right. Few, if any were written by journalists who cover country music, and they were often littered with misinformation or nonfactual details that all outlets were getting wrong in unison. None of these articles included country music journalists, artists, or experts being interviewed and/or consulted for objectivity, equal time, or to clarify important points. Even though it took nine days after the removal, and a misleading headline in Rolling Stone to start the public concern in earnest, the Lil Nas X story had now reached a boiling point.
But it wasn’t just the Rolling Stone article that sent the story off to the races, where now 100 or more articles populate the internet involving Lil Nas X, country music, and race. On March 30th, a Twitter user named Shane Morris posted a 16-part Tweet that has since received over 14,000 retweets, including from prominent celebrities, musicians such as Questlove, and blue checkmarked verified journalists (including some who eventually reported on the story). This thread is what sent the story of Lil Nas X, “Old Town Road,” and country music into hyper drive.
“Hi. Former country music label person here,” the first tweet read. “Lil Nas X was kicked off the Billboard country charts because the (mainstream) terrestrial country music market is filled to a surfeit with racism and bigotry. Allow me to explain…”
Shane Morris went on to enumerate the blatant racism he had encountered while working as a “label person” in the country music business, as well as the double standard of including pop stars like Maren Morris on the country charts, yet not “Old Town Road.” But the bullet point of the Twitter thread were numerous incorrect assertions and outright lies about the contributions, participation, and inclusion of African American in the country music genre.
Shane Morris said in one tweet, “This same week in 1963, Alabama Governor George Wallace delivered his infamous ‘segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever’ speech. Billboard started their Hot 100 in 1958. The Top Country songs started in 1964. A black man didn’t make it to #1 until 2008.”
Then Morris said in a second tweet. “Four black men in total have ever topped Billboard’s Country charts with either a single, or an album. Darius Rucker, Kane Brown, Jimmie Allen… and as of last week Lil Nas X. 25% of black men to ever top Billboard’s Country chart have been removed. Not a great statistic.”
As Saving Country Music first pointed out on March 31st, all of the information in these tweets is incorrect. The Billboard Hot Country Songs chart was implemented in its current form in 1958, not 1964. In fact 1964 does not correspond with any change or update with Billboard’s country song index whatsoever. Also, Lil Nas X did not “top” Billboard’s country charts, he only came in at #19.
However the biggest error in these tweets is the complete exclusion of the legacy of Country Music Hall of Famer Charley Pride, who had 29 #1 songs during the period Morris said no black artists had topped the charts. It also glosses over that Pride had 52 Top 10 hits in his career, and is one of the most successful country singers of all time. And this speaks nothing to the chart success other African American artists achieved during the era before 2008, including Ray Charles, Stoney Edwards, OB McClinton, Cleve Francis, The Pointer Sisters, and Anita Pointer.
In 1985, Ray Charles had a #1 on the Billboard Hot Country songs chart with “Seven Spanish Angels,” and had six other Top 20 hits between 1983 and 1985 over four separate records. Charles had a #1 record in country with Friendship in 1984. Anita Pointer had a #2 song in 1986 with the recently-passed Earl Thomas Conley called “Too Many Times.” Other African American contributions also pepper country’s Billboard chart past.
Though it’s a universal conclusion that the participation of African Americans in country music has been in the minority since the late 50’s when Billboard first started charting the genre, erasing the legacies of legendary and groundbreaking African American country artists not only offers a skewed perspective on history, it degrades the critical contributions of these pioneering and successful performers. It was also the gross misrepresentation of country’s black legacy that fueled the viral nature of the Shane Morris Twitter thread, and the increased perception among the public that country music was purposely excluding Lil Nas X due to race, including among journalists reporting on the issue, many of whom cited Shane Morris in their articles.
Shane Morris presented the perfect champion for the Lil Nas X controversy to the press, and his perspective was the proof they needed to declare that the removal of “Old Town Road” from the Hot Country Songs chart was racially motivated, even though current African American country artists such as Kane Brown and Jimmie Allen have enjoyed chart success recently. Shane Morris was the perfect specimen for the media to create a prevailing confirmation bias around—a turncoat from the country music industry, a whistle-blower from the inside who had unique perspective on the issue who was risking his professional career by exposing country music’s racist leanings.
Not only did Shane Morris and his bad facts benefit from a complete lack of vetting from the press as they were publishing excerpts from his Twitter thread and links to his account which swelled his follower numbers and retweets, the press even embellished his role in the country music industry to bolster the importance of his revelations. Even though Shane Morris claimed only to be a “country music label person”—and this was a rather ambiguous title that could mean Shane simply handled social media posts for a certain label or was doing web development services in a contractor status—he was specifically cited in scores of articles on the Lil Nas X controversy as a “country label executive” by some of the biggest media outlets in the world, meaning he was being given credit for being top-level manager and decision maker in country music.
In an April 5th article in The New York Times, writer Ben Sisario cited Shane Morris as a “former record label executive in Nashville.”
In an April 2nd article published by The Guardian and written by Hubert Adjei-Kontoh, Shane Morris is also cited as a “former country music label executive.”
Similar to mischaracterizing the timeline of when Billboard removed “Old Town Road” from the Hot Country Songs chart, this distinction is not trivial. Whether due to a media echo chamber, or purposeful embellishment to give a more forceful effect to Shane Morris’s claims, the media made Morris into a senior, executive-level member of the country music industry, when this wasn’t even what Shane Morris was claiming.
The Shane Morris Twitter thread, and many of its unproven, and outright incorrect facts were published by a dozen or more different outlets. Vulture quoted Shane Morris in their article on the subject, Huffpost cited the Shane Morris in their story, and so did The Daily Beast, none of whom did any background vetting on Shane Morris, nor put out any effort to verify his claims or former employment status in Nashville. Along with all of the quotations and links the Shane Morris Twitter thread received, NPR interviewed Shane Morris directly on April 5th for their nationally-syndicated program, “Morning Edition,” predicated off the idea that he was a country music insider with intimate knowledge on the subject. In the same segment, Saving Country Music was mentioned, but no effort was even made to get the proper spelling or annunciation of the author’s name, let alone being asked to speak on the facts of the situation.
For Shane Morris’s part, when confronted about the incorrect information contained in many of his tweets that went on to make it into numerous media outlets—and specifically the incorrect claim that no African American had charted on Billboard’s Hot Country Songs chart until 2008—his reply was, “Red State Country Fans: “Your thread missed Charley Pride. Everything you say is a lie.” Me: “You voted for a motherfucker who lied about where his dad was born, and who just yesterday said windmills fucking cause cancer. Miss me with the bullshit, aiight?”
Shane Morris has yet to correct or clarify any of the misinformation in his Twitter posts, nor has anyone in the media aside from Saving Country Music attempted to do so for him. His verifiably inaccurate posts continue to remain live, and are still receiving traction and retweets on the Twitter format, along with continuing to feed misinformation rebroadcasted in the press. Furthermore, the above tweet is representative of how Morris commonly illustrates contempt for “red state” dwellers, and is very active in commenting on politics, regularly with contempt for Republicans and conservatives, while labeling country music as a haven for these affiliations. Shane Morris has a very plausible motive for lying about the level of racism in country music since he clearly sees it as an institution allied with his political enemies. For a short period Shane Morris claimed he would run for Congress to replace retiring Tennessee Senator Bob Corker.
Saving Country Music did reach out to both Sony Music Nashville, as well as Sony Music proper to verify the employment of Shane Morris, as well as other public information and human resource associates throughout the Nashville and Music Row campus to inquire about the employment of Shane Morris either currently or in the past. Though both Sony and Sony Nashville said they could not discuss employment details for departing employees, they did verify that Shane Morris did work at Sony Music Nashville for a certain period. However they also confirmed that he in no way worked in an any sort of “executive” capacity, and that his employment could have been on a contract basis. One current Nashville professional told Saving Country Music that Shane Morris’s claim as a “former music label person” was even a stretch for the work he performed while affiliated with Sony, and that the idea that he was in any capacity to offer intimate knowledge into the inner workings of the industry were “as ludicrous as the information he posted about no blacks being on the country charts for 40 years.”
Shane Morris’s company is called Beautiful Majestic Dolphin, which operates as a internet consulting and fulfillment firm, and claims to have worked either currently or previously with Carrie Underwood, Kenny Chesney, and Cam, along with multiple other non country performers. Saving Country Music was not able to independently verify if Beautiful Majestic Dolphin has ever worked with these country artists, or if it is currently.
However there was much that Saving Country Music was able to verify about Shane Morris’s past. Though most had never heard of Morris before the Lil Nas X and “Old Town Road” controversy, Shane Morris is very well known among multiple fan bases for being one of the most aggressive and vile trolls on Twitter in all of music. He’s been accused of making death threats towards young girls, has been caught attacking and threatening to kill or harm the children of performers, along with making homophobic jokes, and jokes about AIDS, genocide, Nazis, 9/11, and the Holocaust, many of which have been verified and documented online. After Saving Country Music posted the initial rebuttal to Shane Morris’s Twitter thread on March 31st, numerous individuals reached out to say they had either been personally threatened by Shane Morris in the past, or knew individuals who had received threats from him, including people on message boards, Tumblr, Facebook groups based in Nashville, and especially on Twitter.
In a Nashville Scene article posted on October 9th, 2018 about Shane Morris’s offer to help potential progressive candidates with web design solutions, an update was added to the story that read, “Update: Morris allegedly has a history of using abusive and discriminatory language online. Read more here. When asked about the allegations, Morris responded with an image of a fabricated Pith tweet disparaging minorities.”
See the update at the bottom:
The link in the Nashville Scene update leads to a Tumblr account, but there is no content on the page. However Tumblr is one of the places fans of bands such as Fall Out Boy, 5 Seconds of Summer, Twenty One Pilots, and others would often aggregate screenshots of the death threats, discriminatory language, and other abuse they would suffer at the hands of Shane Morris. Sometimes the content was removed after Shane Morris would further threaten them if they did not comply.
But reporting on the issue wasn’t just confined to social media. In May of 2013 after Shane Morris sent out an especially vile barrage of tweets threatening violence against Fall Out Boy, lead singer Patrick Stump, bassist Pete Wentz, and their fans, SPIN and other outlets reported on lead singer Patrick Stump’s reply to Shane Morris.
“You suck at heckling,” Patrick Stump said to Shane Morris on May 8th, 2013 on Twitter. “We could start with how none of your insults have contextual substance. You’re all shock. ‘AIDS.’ ‘Dead Babies.’ ‘Emo.’ ‘Eyeliner.’ ‘Kill Yourself.’ It’s fluff. It’s lazy.”
Pete Wentz also replied on Twitter to a Shane Morris tweet in 2013, saying, “…you may be an attention seeking whore but u can’t threaten my kid and fans and not think there are repercussions.”
However at that point, Shane Morris had already deleted many of the threatening Tweets he sent to Patrick Stump, Pete Wentz, and their fans. But some were either screenshot, or rebroadcast by other Twitter users. A collection of the tweets can be found below.
Though some of the tweets could be chalked up to humor in poor taste, they certainly are not the work of an upstanding individual, or someone who stands for social justice as Morris professes, or someone whose opinion should be taken seriously by the press. Shane Morris is a long-time aggressive Twitter troll who has used death threats and discriminatory language to attack music fans over many years, and then deletes the evidence shortly thereafter to avoid repercussions.
Though few aside from Saving Country Music and mainstream country duo Brothers Osborne have confronted the Lil Nas X situation with a perspective counter to the Twitter and media mob, long-time music industry consultant and lawyer Bob Lefsetz did address the Lil Nas X controversy on Wednesday (4-10) in his well-circulated Lefsetz Letter.
“I’m not saying that you shouldn’t stand up when you’re unfairly treated. But this was an off-the-cuff ‘Billboard’ decision to exclude it, YOU’D HAVE MADE THE SAME CHOICE! … Which is why people are afraid of standing up and speaking their truth, they’re gonna be shouted down by the crowd. The tyranny of social media is what’s shutting people up … It’s just another blown-up story in the endless tsunami of crap we encounter online every day. That’s the internet, where that which matters is mixed in with that which doesn’t and people have no idea of the truth and based on these false/fake/fakokta reports, they’re misinformed and testifying wrongly.”
The truth is that country music does have a dubious past with race, some of the racial biases may still linger within the industry today. It’s incumbent on the press to help ferret these elements out, including some that may have resulted in Lil Nas X being removed from the country charts. However, publishing incorrect information and using notorious internet bullies as information sources and interviews subjects is of no help, neither is erasing the legacy of African Americans in country music to underscore a talking point.
“Old Town Road” is now the #1 song in all of music, and it will likely be re-added to the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart in the coming weeks now that it is beginning to receive country radio airplay. Once reinstated, it will reside at the top of the country charts well into 2020, and challenge for the longest-running #1 song in the chart’s history.
However it wasn’t just the infectiousness of the track that got it there. It was also due to indisputably incorrect and biased reporting by major media outlets, from legacy music magazines such as Rolling Stone, all the way up to NPR and The New York Times in the increasingly pernicious trend of media echo chambers, Twitter influence, and confirmation bias that makes internet superstars out of individuals such as Shane Morris, and subverts the truth.
EDITORS NOTE: Due to the history of Shane Morris deleting tweets, and coercing others to delete them, screenshots of the tweets have presented to make a permanent record in the interest of public safety. Many of the below tweets are still active on Twitter, and can be found via search. This is just a selection of the many Tweets Saving Country Music discovered.