Lil Nas X isn’t the first artist to blend genres and gain attention. Eight years ago, a group called Gangstagrass took off with the theme to the show Justified, mixing hip-hop and blue grass music. The song, which managed to get some pop and satellite music plays, never managed to gain a lot of traction on country music charts. Some artists of color ran into another response.
Beyonce’s 2016 performance of Daddy Lessons, a clearly country song, generated online blowback by country music fans, and the New York Times had no problem calling it for what it was.
But online, the reception was decidedly more mixed, with some country fans arguing that Beyoncé, who has recently leaned harder into activism around police reform and the Black Lives Matter movement, had no place at the ceremony.
“Why are you showing Beyoncé & Dixie Chicks? One doesn’t believe in America & our police force while the other didn’t support our President & veterans during war,” one commenter wrote on Facebook, alluding to each act’s past political moments. Another added: “Neither are country, and Beyoncé could not be bothered to put some clothes on for the occasion.” Beyoncé, according to one common sentiment, “isn’t even what country represents.” Others were plainly racist. (Last year’s pop-crossover at the C.M.A.s, with Justin Timberlake and Chris Stapleton, was far less polarizing.)
Is the rejection about change? About the artist themselves? Black artists have succeeded in the country music genre before. Charlie Pride had numerous successful singles. Ray Charles’s release of Modern Sounds in Country Music helped change the genre, and yet, artists of colors who seek to change the genre in any way aren’t made welcome.
The genre accepted Sam Hunt delivering songs that seem like drunk dialing, Ray Stevens with a mix of country and Dr. Demento level comedy tracks, John Prine frankly discussing drug use and Vietnam. Kacey Musgraves, who took home a stack of Grammy wins, including best album, also hasn’t offered traditional country format.
These artists, however, all managed to get on the country charts without running into concerns over the number of undefined country elements in their songs. What else do they have in common? They are all white. NBC News points it out:
There is also the issue of country music's origins as they relate to race and Billboard's role in that history. Tosches mentions elsewhere in his book that some of the earliest (white) country stars "such as Jimmie Rodgers, Bob Wills, and Roy Acuff, worked as blackface performers early in their careers." That created a shaky foundation on which to build race relations. It didn't help that Billboard was still publishing a minstrel show column the year it published its first "hillbilly music" list.
While the sun was setting on America's minstrel era, the music industry became more covert about exploiting artists of color. The way that Lil Nas X is being treated — as an unwelcome guest — brings these historically closed doors into much sharper focus.
Garth Brooks, a legend in country music, once said of the genre: “True country music is honesty, sincerity, and real life to the hilt.”
While Lil Nas X’s Old Town Road is only the most recent example, it serves to remind the country music world that living real life to the hilt also includes recognizing that persons of color exist everywhere in America.