Rench Speaks Out About Lil Nas X
“‘The whole endeavor of trying to maintain some sort of genre purity or resist its evolution and mingling is a ridiculous notion.”
Atlanta rapper Lil Nas X’s country trap song “Old Town Road” was pulled from Billboard‘s country charts in early April for reportedly deviating from the stylistic qualifications of the genre. Country singer Bill Ray Cyrus immediately stepped in to remix the tune and add his vocals to the track, which now sits at number one on the Billboard Hot 100.
The song’s ascent is a hot topic of discussion for Gangstagrass, the Brooklyn quintet who has pioneered bluegrass rap since 2006 and believes both country and rap music can peacefully coexist on multiple charts. As the band rolls into Atlanta’s City Winery on May 2 to perform its catalog of songs featuring banjo, fiddle, beats, and rhymes (including a theme from the FX Elmore Leonard-inspired outlaw series, Justified : “Long Hard Times to Come”), band leader Rench shares his thoughts about “Old Town Road” exclusively with Pure Pop for Now People.
My thoughts on Billboard removing “Old Town Road” by Lil Nas X
This controversy over Billboard removing “Old Country Road” from its country chart brings up some really interesting stuff that people should start to recognize about the music industry. Though the song was not explicitly removed because the artist is black, it was done with an appeal to what constitutes “modern country music.” Country music––and American music more broadly––has a long history of cultural mingling by musicians but segregation by the music industry. Let’s take a deep dive.
Try to stick with me here.
This is not about the quality of the music. I’ll be honest, I don’t like most of what’s on country radio and the country charts these days, so the issue here is not whether “Old Town Road” is a good song or not. This is about the claim that a song doesn’t “embrace” enough country music sounds, in an era in which many songs on the country charts have no banjo, fiddle, dobro, steel guitar, or mandolin, but do feature hip-hop drum samples and explicitly hip-hop-influenced vocal motifs. Instead of wondering how such sounds ended up on the country charts, the better question is: how did we get to this place where we have separate charts by genre while those genres themselves are bleeding into each other? And why is the country music chart so heavily dominated by white folks even as it incorporates more and more hip-hop elements? (Can’t stop the mingling; that’s just what music does.) I think to truly understand what’s at work here, we have to look back at the history.
American music from the start has been a hybrid enterprise, an evolving blend of cultures. The banjo’s roots are African, and it was slaves recreating this African instrument that introduced the banjo to our country. Music always spreads beyond social boundaries and in this case the banjo was taken up as well by whites, while the fiddle was quickly assimilated into early African-American string bands. (Can’t stop the mingling; that’s just what music does.)
On the one hand, you had the power of music as a universal language bringing together races and nationalities in song. On the other hand, you had a society in which the powerful institution of slavery fostered a belief in racial segregation. White performers found it profitable to play banjo music as a satire of African Americans, donning blackface as part of the wildly popular trend of minstrel performance at the dawn of the 20th century. As the banjo was assimilated into the dominant culture, and rich folks sponsored string-band festivals and competitions which excluded African Americans, the idea of American folk music was whitewashed from its multiracial origins.
Enter the technology to record and distribute records.
The reality across the south in the 1920s was that southern music was a thoroughly intertwined web of influences from European balladry, and spirituals were rapidly being adapted into new gospel forms by African Americans, Broadway tunes from Tin Pan Alley, and cultural inflections from many incoming immigrant cultures. The musicians for the most part were mixing it all within their repertoires as they learned styles from each other. (Can’t stop the mingling; that’s just what music does.) The new industry of distributing records was presented with the challenge of marketing these recordings of southern music to sell to a mass-market audience that was racially segregated.
What followed was a completely fabricated distinction, created by the record companies of the day, to present this multi-racial mingled music of the American South to segregated audiences by calling some records “hillbilly” music and some records “race” music. In some instances, it was literally the same recording, just repackaged under different names. No, I’m not kidding. The record companies bet on selling the most records to a segregated audience by pretending the music was racially different.
The Jim Crow system of laws and customs to maintain a racially separate underclass had its arcane and esoteric rules to prop up that separation, such as designating water fountains for white people only or for black people only even though they dispensed the same water. The music industry played its role in this system, offering essentially the same musical water via two separate channels. Over a number of decades this impression of southern music as having a “white” side (country music) and a “black” side (the blues) became thoroughly entrenched in the American psyche.
The water fountains may no longer be separate and the lunch counters may be unrestricted, but the system of musical classification and distribution that developed alongside Jim Crow lingers on. The country music industry continues to act as if many of its early superstars didn’t learn their vocal style from African Americans, and it debates the validity of its current superstars incorporating “black” influences as if that’s a new thing––as if the distinction wasn’t created artificially a hundred years ago.
Yet we keep trying to cram every popular release through an algorithm to place it within these phony boxes. And if it doesn’t fall enough into one box or the other? If it does more than just flirt with outside influences? I can tell you, from my two decades of experience producing country/hip-hop hybrids, it’s practically a non-starter for the industry. But let me also tell you, from a musician’s viewpoint, the whole endeavor of trying to maintain some sort of genre purity or resist its evolution and mingling is a ridiculous notion. We musicians are just awful at following rules and staying away from each other. There has never been a time that we weren’t trying to collaborate, taking inspiration from all the varied sounds and talents that cross our paths.
From the multi-racial string bands at the origin of American music that put banjos and fiddles together in the first place to the incorporation of the blues of the delta into Appalachian musicians’ repertoires, the list doesn’t stop. Legendary “soul” singer Solomon Burke was forced by promoters to sing his country-infused music wrapped in gauze bandages so the audience wouldn’t realize he was black (sidenote: I think Burke put out the best “country” album of 2006 with his record Nashville). Buck Owens and Bettye Swann sang a duet but their labels wouldn’t release it. The Swampers of Muscle Shoals––a pack of white dudes that laid down the backing tracks for many of the greatest soul albums of the 1960s––introduced Duane Allman to Wilson Pickett, unleashing southern rock in the process. Run-DMC sampled Aerosmith and then the two groups got down together. It should be no surprise that a trap artist in Atlanta decided to sing about “country” stuff––and no surprise that Billy Ray Cyrus was happy to jump on the track that Billboard didn’t consider “country” enough. This has always been happening. You can’t stop the mingling. Mingling is what music does.
So I for one welcome the inevitable fall of the idea of “white” country music and “black” blues music, and by extension many of our perceptions about the purity of genres––soul or rock and roll or hip-hop, etc. The cracks in the system are growing and being pried open further by the likes of Rhiannon Giddens and Dom Flemons, former members of the Carolina Chocolate Drops who came to the party to burst our preconceptions of genre and remind us that country or Americana or folk music had African Americans there from the start, we just stopped seeing them. From the other end, my bandmates in Gangstagrass remind the world that “hip-hop music is folk music” and uncover the immense common ground that has gone unseen.
Let the musicians tell you, music has always mingled! And the music industry should stop pretending otherwise.
For further reading, please watch Rhiannon Giddens’s keynote address to the International Bluegrass Music Association in 2017. And if you want to dive really deep, pick up a copy of the book Segregating Sound by Karl Hagstrom Miller.
And yes, we are down with the Yeehaw Agenda. Let’s do this.
Photo of Gangstagrass by Jeff Fasano.
Rench’s essay published with permission from Bloom Effect Media.