Rapper Lil Nas X may have been deemed not country enough by Billboard, but he got plenty of support from country music fans and artists when he made his debut CMA Fest performance.
Fans were chanting for “Old Town Road” about an hour before he appeared on the CMA Fest stage in Nissan Stadium in Nashville, Tennessee, on Saturday. The crowd roared with excitement when the 20-year-old rapper came out in a sparkly orange denim suit and white cowboy hat and boots with Billy Ray Cyrus on guitar and Keith Urban on banjo. He may only have one song that anybody knows, but the crowds in the stadium reacted as if Taylor Swift had been there.
Anticipation for his appearance was high as he had played a much smaller performance earlier in the week at Blake Shelton’s Ole Red Nashville bar at a Spotify artist showcase. There, even country group Midland and Phillip Sweet of the band Little Big Town were among the fans who came out to his late show on a tiny rooftop stage.
The cowboy-themed country trap song has sat on the top of the Hot 100 list for 10 weeks, spawned social media memes and dances and prompted numerous think pieces about black cowboy culture and the state of country music.
John Marks, global head of country for Spotify, called Lil Nas X a “cultural moment.”
“To me, it’s expanding the probabilities and possibilities for music and country music at large,” Marks said. “I think it has the potential to open new doors to country music to new fans and really truly give a boost to overall consumption numbers in country music.”
But Marks acknowledged that the song took many people in Nashville by surprise when it first came out and not in a good way.
“I was actually made aware of it by a couple of music executives who were a bit nonplussed by seeing Lil Nas X debut at No. 1 on the country charts,” Marks said.
Billboard removed the song from the Hot Country Songs chart shortly after, saying it wasn’t country enough to warrant inclusion, but the controversy only seemed to fuel the song’s fire. It got a remix with Cyrus, of “Achy Breaky Heart” fame and no stranger to riling up country music purists. It’s become so omnipresent that some country radio stations, which by and large did not add it to their regular rotations when it first came out, began playing it enough for the song to be included on Billboard’s Country Airplay chart. The song has peaked at No. 50 as of last week. The airplay chart does not track streaming or digital downloads.
Since the song has reigned at No. 1 on Hot 100, the rapper has been popping up everywhere this summer, including at Stagecoach with Diplo and Summer Jam with Cardi B.
Spotify, which has kept the song in their country playlists, jumped at the chance to bring in the rapper for its Spotify House at CMA Fest, which included a variety of acts, from iconic artists like Tanya Tucker to new artists like Ingrid Andress and plenty of other artists who rarely get heard on country radio.
“This is a great example from our opinion of almost genre-less music,” said Brittany Schaffer, Spotify’s head of artist and label marketing, Nashville. “For Spotify, it’s less about whether we are dictating what the genre is and more about listening to the listener’s response and interest in hearing the song.”
Willie Jones raised eyebrows when he appeared on “X Factor” singing country music, but as a black man from Shreveport, Louisiana, country and gospel and R&B were all intertwining influences for him. Jones said Lil Nas X is generating conversations, but also changing perceptions.
“I think it is also is opening the door for people to be able to just feel more comfortable with making country music because I think it’s been just such a stigma around it,” Jones said.
Broken Bow Records, the same label that Jason Aldean is on, just signed Blanco Brown, an Atlanta producer, singer and songwriter who released “The Get Up,” a hip hop country line dancing song that combines lap steel guitar and 808 drum machine and high hats.
“I love country music, so what? I love R&B, so what? I love trap music, so what?” Brown said. “Why can’t I just be them all?”
But this era of blurred lines doesn’t necessarily sit well with everyone in country music. Artists like Brothers Osborne and Luke Combs have questioned the track’s authenticity and lyrics, with Combs telling the LA Times that he feels the track has a bit of sarcasm. After Wrangler jeans announced a partnership with Lil Nas X, even some critics on Twitter complained.
Cody Johnson, a Texas artist who signed last year to Warner Music Nashville, was more blunt in his assessment of “Old Town Road.”
“I think it’s a little bastardizing for artists to use the country industry for gain and not because they believe in what it should stand for,” Johnson said.
For most country music fans who gathered this week in Nashville, they were more interested in enjoying themselves and listening to music than debating the country music bona fides of Lil Nas X.
Jason Lambert, a professional fisherman from West Tennessee, was one of the few who made it into Lil Nas X’s Spotify House performance on Thursday and said he was quite familiar with “Old Town Road.”
“Pretty cool song, pretty cool beat,” Lambert said. “I don’t know if it’s country or not. But it’s fun.”