The Sunday Magazine: Old Town Road by Lil Nas X featuring Billy Ray Cyrus

Of the many changes I’ve seen in popular music none has made me smile more than that for the single “Old Town Road” by rapper Lil Nas X with Billy Ray Cyrus. It is the no doubt song of the summer for 2019. It has reigned atop the Billboard Hot 100 chart for a record seventeen weeks, and counting. That success is a story of how music has changed for young artists now.

The song began coming together in Lil Nas X’s mind at the end of last year. It started with purchasing the beat from producer Young Kio for $30. That line was built upon a snippet from Nine Inch Nails’ song “34 Ghosts IV”. At this point Lil Nas X introduced the song as a solo by creating the #Yeehaw challenge encouraging fans to submit videos of themselves as a cowboy or cowgirl with the song as a soundtrack. It is the seed of a pop hit much like the way Carly Ray Jepsen’s “Call Me Maybe” became a hit when teams lip synched to it.

I wasn’t aware of any of that. I became aware of it when Billy Ray Cyrus joined in for an April 2019 remix. I downloaded that version and it has been my summer soundtrack ever since. Mr. Cyrus adds in his own twangy verse which is part of the appeal to me. When the rap star talks about “ridin’ on a tractor” while the country star is “ridin’ down Rodeo in my Maserati sports car” there is a clever twist being applied here.  It is a catchy earworm of a song with singable lyrics that made me want to wear a cowboy hat to the beach.

One final part of the creative genesis of this song is that Lil Nas X came out as gay during Pride Month in June. That makes “Old Town Road” a country rap song by a gay hip-hop artist and a straight country singer. If that doesn’t represent America well “you can’t tell me nothin’”

Mark Behnke

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