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What is Country Music? Posted by on Apr 11, 2019 in Culture, music, Music and Song, News

If you are a music fan in the United States, or many other places in the world, you have likely heard of the Billboard charts. This is a weekly tabulation of the popularity of songs in a variety of genres, or styles. These lists are compiled by Billboard Magazine and its online presence, Billboard Biz. The charts account for the sales, downloads, and radio airplay for all music in the US. For any artist to place high on more than one chart is a sign of major success. They are called crossover artists because their music has crossed over in popularity from one listening group to another.

Photo courtesy of Pixabay, CCO

The standard chart for everyone in the music business is the Billboard Hot 100, the most popular music in any genre. Recently, one song appeared on the Hot 100, R&B/Hip-Hop, and Hot Country lists on the same week. Old Town Road, by rapper Lil Nas X, became one of the most spectacular crossover recordings ever. Then, the following week, it disappeared from the Hot Country song chart. The controversy that followed has stirred a very hot debate in American music. What is country music, anyway?

Old Town Road seems to have all the ingredients of a country song. The beat is accompanied by a banjo, it has an unmistakable southern twang, and the lyrics speak of cowboys and a disdain of expensive cars – “Ridin’ on a horse, ha/You can whip your Porsche”. It would seem to be as much of a country song as Hamilton is a Broadway musical. Was Billboard guilty of racial or cultural bias?

Adding to the controversy, the song has now made it to #1 on the Hot 100 chart and is among the top songs played on country radio stations. Billy Ray Cyrus, one of the biggest stars in country music has recorded a duet remix of Old Town Road with Lil Nas X which is currently the most popular song in the world! There is even a viral video competition, the Yee-Haw Challenge (#YeeHaw), of people dressed as cowboys dancing to the song.

Did Billboard get it wrong? Rap and country are storytelling musical genres. Most songs in both categories are narratives of misfortunes in love and life. Country music’s roots come from folk and blues, as does rap. The biggest difference is probably in where the largest audiences for the two styles are found. Rap is more of an urban sound; country appeals more to rural audiences. The fact that Old Town Road bridges both genres is precisely why it has found its way to #1.

Admittedly, there is a significant difference between the typical sound of the two genres. If hip-hop and rap are distinguished by deep bass beats, country is always going to be associated with the twang of a guitar. Yet, country has been on a constant makeover since the early 90s, blurring the lines between rock and roll and the old country roots. You are more likely to hear a pounding bass guitar than an old-fashioned steel guitar and fiddle. As any casual observer would probably note, it is more surprising to hear a banjo in a rap song than a booming electronic rhythm in a country song.

Montero Lamarr Hill, the real name of Lil Nas X, is benefitting from the controversy in a big way. He only just turned 20, has signed a contract with Columbia Records (which represents Beyonce, Adele, and many other top names in the recording business), and his debut album is now one of the most eagerly awaited recordings of the year. Billboard may not think he’s country, but the country thinks he’s pretty exciting.

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