In 1996, Robbie Fulks sang a clever song called “Every Kind of Music But Country.”
That tune from the York, Pa.-born songwriter is about a relationship that hits a snag over musical taste. “She liked everything about me except for one thing,” the woebegone singer moans. “She liked every kind of music but country.”
It’s a cute little number that plays on a still common (if wrong-headed) conception: That nobody with cool, truly sophisticated taste would cop to being a country music fan. What could be cornier than rhinestones and a 10-gallon hat? Who wants to be a cowboy?
In 2019, it turns out, just about everybody.
From all sorts of angles, artists outside the hidebound country community — from Solange to Diplo to Bruce Springsteen to the unlikely hero of the movement, rapper Lil Nas X and his unstoppable hit “Old Town Road” — are staking claims to the sounds and iconography of the genre that represents itself as being quintessentially American. In so doing, they call into question the definition of what “country” is, where it came from, and whom it belongs to.
The range is wide. Japanese American indie heroine Mitski Miyawaki titled her acclaimed 2018 album Be the Cowboy, channeling the “arrogance and freedom” of the gunslinging archetype that she told Trevor Noah “is so appealing to me, especially since I am an Asian woman.”
With her When I Get Home, Solange Knowles released a promo film embodying what pop culture archivist Bri Malandro dubbed “the Yee Haw Agenda,” paying tribute to the black cowboy tradition in Houston. (African American horse culture is also a Philadelphia phenomenon that was chronicled by former Inquirer photographer Ron Tarver, among others, in a 2017 Harlem photo exhibit.)
Queer Country is on the rise, most conspicuously in the person of Orville Peck, the masked and pseudonymous Roy Orbison-esque crooner whose new album, Pony, is a serious hoot. Along with RuPaul’s Drag Race-winning country singer Trixie Mattel, Peck carries on the gay hillbilly tradition pioneered by bands like Lavender Country.
Many indie acts have been putting their own twist on country tropes. Philadelphia songwriter Shamir is a longtime country fan whose new album is called Be the Yee, Here Comes the Haw. Brooklyn psych-country singer Dougie Poole’s Wideass Highway was a 2017 standout.
Much credit for the popularity of the kitschy country aesthetic goes to Kacey Musgraves. Despite being shut out of country radio playlists that are almost exclusively male, the Texas songwriter has expertly expanded her audience by singing pop songs that promote inclusion while she celebrates hillbilly couture wearing bedazzled denim chaps.
Also done up in dude ranch gear is former trendsetter Diplo. The no-longer Philadelphian DJ-producer has a new project as Thomas Wesley (his real first and middle names) with a variety of country singers, the perfectly pleasant first of which is “So Long,” featuring Cam.
And speaking of noncountry white guys dressed in western wear, there’s Bruce Springsteen. His new album, Western Stars, is due June 14, and though the one track released so far, “Hello Sunshine,” isn’t a country song per se, it does lean in that direction.
The song and the album, according to Springsteen, intentionally evoke the country-leaning Laurel Canyon sound of early 1970s Los Angeles and bring to mind songs of that era, such as Glen Campbell’s trademark version of John Hartford’s “Gentle on My Mind” and especially Danny O’Keefe’s “Good Time Charlie’s Got the Blues.”
The Springsteen artwork also goes (almost) full cowboy. The cover of Western Stars — which is said to have been finished for years, and which has been referred to as “his Jimmy Webb album” — is adorned with a gleaming, galloping horse.
In promo pictures, Springsteen is dressed like a Jersey buckaroo headed out to the ranch, quietly planting his feet in the America that there’s been so much shouting about making great again.
There’s a cowboy hat in the frame, but Springsteen has it in his hand, rather than on his head. It’s as though the white man nicknamed the Boss knows the time has come to check his privilege, and is reluctant to go all-in on the John Wayne Manifest Destiny imagery.
All that brings us to Lil Nas X, the rapper born Montero Lamar Hill, who turned 20 last month.
The extraordinary success of “Old Town Road,” which went viral this year via the Yeehaw Challenge meme on the social media app TikTok, has not only launched a thousand think pieces like this, it has also occasioned an identity crisis that has exposed racial bias in country music.
“Old Town Road” is a charming less-than-two-minute ditty that’s a fascinating amalgamation conflating trap music production with clear elements of country, like drawling vocals and banjo fills. It also displays a teenage mind-set that seems squeaky clean compared to much over-sexed pop: “My life is a movie,” Lil Nas raps. "Bull ridin‘ and boobies / Cowboy hat from Gucci.”
The song, now available in its original form, in a version featuring Billy Ray Cyrus, and in a Diplo remix, seems too innocuous to have given an entire industry a conniption fit.
But that’s what happened: After the song was touted online by Justin Bieber and others, it shot up the Billboard Hot Country songs chart in March. That is until it was removed, which Billboard explained by saying, “It does not embrace enough elements of today’s country music,” a decision it claimed in a separate statement that “had absolutely nothing to do with the race of the artist.”
Many observers, like songwriter Mose Sumney, were quick to call bull. The obvious hypocrisy lies in that much of what is considered “country” made by big-name stars like Luke Bryan and Florida Georgia Line has next to nothing to do musically with traditional country music.
It signifies its ruralness with trucker hats, bonfires, and short-shorts but is largely devoid of the musical regional quirks that have been lost to the mass-production assembly line. This is why an entire Americana or alt-country universe exists, treasuring ties to traditional artists like Merle Haggard and Loretta Lynn.
By purely musical standards, “Old Town Road” is much more a country song than say, Dan + Shay’s bland megahit “Tequila.” Among those who have not so subtly pointed this out are Keith Urban, who covered “Old Town Road” on his custom ganjo.
Country radio plays African American artists such as Kane Brown and Darius Rucker. And country fans’ obvious love of hip-hop — you’ll hear plenty of the genre as you wait for Kenny Chesney to take the stage — has been catered to by acts like Tim McGraw, who has duetted with Nelly, or Big & Rich, whose crew includes rapper Cowboy Troy.
And acts like Sam Hunt, in particular, comfortably blend country and hip-hop into a natural-sounding blend. But programmers have remained stubborn in keeping Lil Nas off the radio. The line is drawn, apparently, when it comes to playing country rap music whose principal creator is a rapper.
None of this, however, has stopped the rise of “Old Town Road,” which has now spent four consecutive weeks atop the Billboard Hot 100 pop chart, as it waits to (probably) be knocked off by used-to-be country star Taylor Swift’s maddeningly sugary “Me!” So we have the ridiculous situation of a country-rap song that is atop both the Billboard pop chart and the R&B/hip-hop chart, but nowhere to be found on the country chart.
Here’s the positive part: The “Old Town Road” kerfuffle has focused attention on the long history of African Americans in country music, and the realization that the lineage of the music is not so lily white as its been portrayed to be.
On the contrary, African American contributions to country music are foundational. The banjo traveled from West Africa to the Caribbean and North America in the hands of slaves. Hank Williams received a musical education from a bluesman named Rufus “Tee-Tot” Payne. Muddy Waters listened to the Grand Ole Opry while toiling on Stovall’s Plantation.
The music’s roots are racially intermingled. The success of the newly reissued Ray Charles‘ Modern Sounds in Country & Western in the 1960s as well as big stars like Charlie Pride and Solomon Burke and little-known worthies like Stoney Edwards and DeFord Bailey all play a part.
Current artists making historical connections in their music include R&B oddball Swamp Dogg, who has a country LP in the works, plus Carolina Chocolate Drops Rhiannon Giddens and Dom Flemons, the latter of whom is playing at the Philadelphia Folk Festival in August.