At this point “Old Town Road” has won it’s fight, if only for Lil Nas X personally. Billy Ray Cyrus was an unlikely ally to the cause, but proved an effective one, and the fact that his 90s arena country doesn’t line up with cowboy styles perhaps made it more powerful that he offered to do a verse on there. “Musical Event of the Year” is a weird category to even have, but “Old Town Road” didn’t fit into any other category. Lil Nas X and Trent Reznor got CMAs and that’s what matters. His successor seems to be BRELAND with “My Truck” which leans more into country with a banjo riff offering a drone over the trap beat. Very excited to see successors propping up because the previous attempts to make this country hip-hop thing work have had a promise that is now being realized.
Country and R&B have a long history of trading styles. Even past the genesis of country and blues, whose separation is mostly a convenient storytelling device, country kept it’s eye on R&B. Early rock artists like Ike Turner and Chuck Berry got folks with country backgrounds, namely Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis, to get into this “Rockabilly” thing. The 60s Countrypolitan sounds are little more than Nashville’s answer to the Atlantic R&B sounds of the 50s, and Atlantic’s star Ray Charles recorded a country double album as that crossover started. Common cultural themes exist too, as Leadbelly lived the outlaw life Merle Haggard would make truly famous. I wouldn’t consider Johnny Cash the “original American gangsta,” but Snoop Dogg said he was, and I cannot argue with Snoop about a G Thang.
Of course hip-hop makes black music go in the opposite direction as country. While NWA was getting letters from the FBI asking them to stop, Garth Brooks was making Arena Country huge. Finding a way to add the new rhythmic basis of hip-hop to country would’ve been tricky anyway, but the direction country went in was the opposite of it and the sheer number of clueless white people trying to rap in the 80s made it worse. Vanilla Ice was the poster child of this, although that obscures nonsense like Rappin Rodney Dangerfield (although there is some alternate universe where he collaborates with Grandmaster Flash and “The Message” punctuates it’s plea for recognition of the suffering in the crack epidemic with Rodney muttering about “no respect.”)
Attempts were made in the 2000s to get these genres together, though. Americana started borrowing rhythmic styles of rap divorced from arrangement in the late 90s. I love that The Dead South’s breakthrough hit has a trap beat, although I hate a 57 year old white man noticed it before I did. Buck 65, a Canadian white rapper, pivoted from the avant-garde hip hop of his 90s work in 2003 with Talkin’ Honkey Blues which was both a more conventional approach to rap, but absolutely the Canadian cowboy image of Colter Wall years later. “Wicked and Weird” is one of my favorite songs of the 2000s, because it really is wicked and WEIRD.
Hip hop has been based in a lifestyle born out of a country where just over 80% of all of us live in cities. Their flavor of outlaw doesn’t involve too much travel, cause the cost of gas will take a huge cut from your hustle. Work close to home. But city life is feeling both unsustainable and inescapable, as rising cost of living and stagnant wages give little disposable income or enough savings to leave. Broader than this country pivot within hip hop, images of Artemis in a bath in the forest with her nymphs have inspired cottagecore lesbians to yearn for a hut in the forest where they can grow plants and live with their girlfriends in peace. A march of black cowboys in Houston has an older precedent than Blazing Saddles, as the mobility of cowboy lifestyles made freedmen flee the Jim Crow South to become cowboys in the 1870s. The commonality between country and rap was hardly inevitable, but in this social, political, and economic climate it’s more compelling than ever, and now I’m just wondering why Springsteen’s Western Stars at no point had a guy offering a girl escape from her dead end life on a different kind of mustang.
Elizabeth von Teig is a musician and author living in Brighton, Massachusetts. Her expertise is classic rock, folk punk, and the blues.
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