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LIL NAS X AND THE
“ROAD” TO GLORY

On 4/13/19, the genre-bending “Old Town Road” zoomed from #15 to #1. It was an inevitable landing spot for the ubiquitous single that began its history-making run across the pop-cultural landscape. Just the year before, Montero Lamar Hill, 19, was sleeping on his sister’s couch in Atlanta after dropping out of college to pursue a career in music. Newly rechristened Lil Nas X, he suddenly had the hottest song in the nation, breaking a one-week U.S. streaming record with 143 million streams.

Yet it was the conspicuous arrival of “Old Town Road” on the Country radio charts that would ignite a debate over what is and isn’t country music.

Back in late 2018, Lil Nas X had purchased the track for “Old Town Road” from then-unknown producer YoungKio’s online beat store for $30. The trap instrumental, which sampled Nine Inch Nails’ “34 Ghosts IV,” sounded like it was lifted straight from the score of some dystopian Western flick. “Cowboy hat from Gucci/ Wrangler on my booty,” LNX sang in a Southern drawl so exaggerated it bordered on parody. The struggling artist unveiled “Old Town Road” on SoundCloud, shrewdly labeling it “country” in the metadata.

But it wasn’t until he started posting a relentless barrage of memes promoting his left-field concoction on YouTube and his Twitter account that something clicked.

The song became a viral sensation on TikTok, inspiring the popular “Yee Haw Challenge” (kids dressed up in their everyday clothes are magically transformed into cowboys after sipping on “Yee-Yee” juice as “Old Town Road” plays in the background). The punchline? Lil Nas X, now a Columbia Records artist, had a legit hit on his hands. Pop-radio stations instantly pounced on “Old Town Road.” Country radio, however, virtually ignored the song—though a few outliers, like The Bobby Bones Show and Radio Disney Country, defied the gatekeepers.

“‘Old Town Road’ didn’t fit into traditional country formats,” recalls Phil Guerini, former VP of Music Strategy for Disney Channels Worldwide and GM of the Radio Disney Network. “It was like fitting a square peg into a round hole. But for us at Radio Disney Country, that was never a consideration. ‘Old Town Road’ was consistently developing with the audience, and we had an audience-first format.”

Yet just as Lil Nas X scored a #19 debut at Country radio, Billboard removed “Old Town Road” from its rankings, determining that the song “does not embrace enough elements of today’s country music to chart in its current version.” There were claims that the decision was racially motivated. Suddenly, the largely white country-music establishment found itself having a long-overdue discussion about what was, at best, the industry’s racial blind spot—and at worst, outright racism. A few voices in the country world pushed back.

“The inclusion of ‘Old Town Road’ in country was a big-market manipulation that was able to be perpetrated on country because the genre’s leadership is asleep at the wheel,” responded rear-guard blog Saving Country Music in a 3/27/19 editorial.

The song’s unlikely star was more philosophical. “Initially I was, like, ‘I think I’m being discriminated against,’” Lil Nas told NPR in 2019. “But then, as I went on to think about it, I felt like it was more of a purist situation, like, ‘We want this to stay this way.’ And even though they have a lot of changes going on with country [music]—like a lot of pop-country and even the [songs] with trap influence—maybe this was [them saying], ‘Hey, we let some stuff fly, but this was too far.’”

Of course you know the rest of the story. Country rebel Billy Ray Cyrus jumps on the remix of “Old Town Road” and the #1 hit becomes a global phenomenon, reigning atop the chart for 19 consecutive weeks. Lil Nas X wins the 2020 Grammy Awards for Best Pop Duo/Group Performance and Best Music Video and performs with Cyrus on the BET Awards. The culturally unifying statement is met with resounding praise.

Since then, “Old Town Road” has become the first song in RIAA history to go 15-times platinum. Lil Nas X, who came out in 2019, has embraced his role as a button-pushing, controversy-inflaming LGBTQ+ icon. But Guerini, today CEO of the Jonas Group, still remembers him as a refreshingly green kid just trying to understand what all the fuss was about.

“Radio Disney was the first radio station Lil Nas X ever visited,” notes Guerini. “He came in with just his backpack, and he was somewhat flipped out. I reflect very fondly on that time. I couldn’t be more happy for Nas and what the song represented at the moment—but also what it continues to represent.”
 

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