It’s not Luke Bryan, Kane Brown, or Florida Georgia Line who can claim to be the biggest artist in all of country music at the moment. It’s Luke Combs, who’s been blowing out records, selling incredible amounts of albums, dominating radio, and doing something we haven’t seen since Chris Stapleton exploded on the country scene a few years ago, except even bigger. Still on his first major label release, Luke Combs is already selling out arenas, and promises to be one of the biggest artists, if not the biggest artist in mainstream country for years to come.
At last weekend’s Stagecoach Festival in California, one of the major stories should have been how Combs took the stage after releasing five straight #1 singles to start his career, making him the first artist to ever accomplish this feat in the SoundScan era staring in 1990. This includes his latest #1 “Beautiful Crazy,” which spent an unheard of seven weeks dominating country radio at #1 leading up to Stagecoach.
But instead the focus at Stagecoach was Lil Nas X and Billy Ray Cyrus who showed up for a one song performance of “Old Town Road.” In the midst of the continued, obsequious focus on the song by the media, the LA Times interviewed Combs, calling him the “country superstar you probably haven’t hear of,” underscoring both the understated nature of Luke’s success, and the continued ignorance of the country genre by most in the media paid to cover it. And of course, Luke Combs had to be asked about Lil Nas X.
In the interview, Luke Combs became the second major mainstream country artist to question the quality and viability of Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road,” and not because of the ethnicity of the entertainer, but from the complete lack of substance of quality the 1:53-long track includes. Combs also feels like the song could be lampooning country culture as opposed to promoting it.
“Yeah, it’s pretty catchy,” Combs told the LA Times. “But I feel there’s a little bit of sarcasm there I don’t necessarily appreciate. I feel like I’m being poked fun at a bit. Country music is near and dear to my heart, and one of the things that’s most important to me is that the music should be taken seriously.”
In early April, the Brothers Osborne also severely questioned the track, both in quality, and how it was taking away precious attention from more worthy artists.
“There are tons of girls just waiting for the moment, waiting in line, writing the right songs, showing up everyday to the writing room, sometimes doing two or three or four writes a day,” John Osborne said. “They’ve been in Nashville for over 10 years. There’s a girl in Nashville right now called Hailey Whitters who’s incredible. You go check her music out and you’re like, ‘Come on, we need to get this girl propped up.’ Then this dude puts out a song with kind of quasi country lyrics? Something about a horse, boobies and some shit?”
“Let’s turn the focus away from that,” John Osborne continued. “Don’t create controversy and expect that to give you a hall pass. We need great songs. Go listen to Kris Kristofferson, and then go listen to that song, and if you tell me they have anything to do with each other, then I will quit.”
Lil Nas X and “Old Town Road” have ridden the controversy surrounding the song to now four straight weeks at #1 on the Billboard Hot 100. However its attempt to be re-added to the country charts appears to have failed, at least for the moment. Last week “Old Town Road” was the most added track to country radio on a relatively light week for new song releases, and ended up at #50 on the Billboard Country Airplay charts, bringing into question whether it should be re-added to Billboard’s Hot Country Songs index. But this week “Old Town Road” has been virtually abandoned, receiving marginal new spins, and falling completely out of the Top 60. Despite all the track’s success, barring a miracle, country appears to have staved off the effort to include it on country charts. Make no mistake though, the controversy surrounding the song will continue to swirl, with media demanding the song be considered for country awards come later this year.
The words of Luke Combs, the Brothers Osborne, and others accentuate that beyond whatever controversy may be surrounding “Old Town Road” about if it is country or not, or if it was taken off the charts due to ethnicity, it’s just not a good song no matter what genre you want to classify it as, or who the performer happens to be. And to many, “Old Town Road” is not something influenced by country, but satirizing it, giving all the more reason not to consider it a legitimate song within the country scene. If people enjoy the song, that’s all that should matter to them. But unless it is something that is willing to embrace the spirit of country music, it’s not something that should matter to the country music community.