In the space of just a few weeks, Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road” has already enjoyed multiple lives, transforming from a goofy TikTok craze to a left-field hit to a rallying cry for those who want to eliminate the barriers between genres.
Now the single has reached a new plateau with help from a Billy Ray Cyrus remix, living on as a gargantuan, Drake-eclipsing hit. “Old Town Road” is streaming at a fiendish rate on every service, and it’s currently streaking upwards in three prominent radio formats — pop, “urban” and rhythmic. A four-format hit is basically unheard of, but “Old Town Road” is close to that unicorn status as well. The single was played 122 times at country radio last week, and it has earned the support of prominent gatekeepers in the genre like Bobby Bones, who runs a nationally syndicated country radio show, and John Marks, who programs Spotify’s country playlists.
“Old Town Road” is a hyper-modern phenomenon, but the song’s current ubiquity also stems from something more old-fashioned: a jolt of controversy. Lil Nas X’s track initially earned the rare distinction of appearing on both Billboard‘s country singles chart and its R&B/hip-hop singles chart. Then it was dropped from the country ranking on the grounds that the sound of the song didn’t qualify it as country.
That appears to have given “Old Town Road” a major boost. “It was a fun little TikTok novelty thing that we didn’t think was gonna go all the way,” says Will Calder, who handles programming for WPYO, a pop radio station in Orlando. “The second it got pulled off the country chart, it got the steam it needed to really become mass appeal. People who aren’t really familiar with the memes are now hearing this thing.” That’s thanks in part to stations like WPYO, which is playing Lil Nas X’s single 70 times a week.
Those in programming positions at radio and streaming services mostly found out about Lil Nas X through one of two routes. DJ Riddler, a pop program director for Radio Now in Houston and in Indianapolis, and Joe Mack, who handles programming at WHBQ, a pop station in Memphis, both caught wind of the track when their respective young daughters showed them TikTok memes.
Gina Gray, program director for the Top 40 station WERO in Greenville, North Carolina, also heard “Old Town Road” thanks to her “two young nephews who are YouTube fanatics.” “The youngest was just singing the hook,” Gray explains. “He’s like, ‘Aunt Gina, [WERO] needs to be playing this!'” At the time, however, she refused to engage with the track. “We were a little afraid of it,” she says.
For those not connected with TikTok kids, it was the controversy around “Old Town Road” that made it impossible to miss. “I’d never heard Lil Nas X’s name until all the chart kerfuffle started happening,” says Marks, who serves as Global Senior Editor for Country Music at Spotify. The same goes for Johnny Chiang, Director of Operations for the Houston country station KKBQ. Following the chart argument, Chiang says, “I got a couple of listener emails that said, ‘You better not play this.’ That’s when I found out about [‘Old Town Road’].”
“They always say there’s no such thing as bad press,” adds DJ Riddler.
Now “Old Town Road” is well-positioned to mean different things to different constituencies. For pop and rhythmic radio, which still have wide reach but aren’t as nimble and immediate as streaming services, Lil Nas X offers a chance to tap into and amplify a viral groundswell. Gray says that playing “Old Town Road” “keeps us relevant, keeps us hip, gives us a grasp of that [young] audience.” Calder makes a similar point: “It’s turned into a big record here in Orlando for clubs that cater to college kids. When this comes on, the kids go insane.”
Meanwhile, for country gatekeepers, the controversy around Lil Nas X’s genre classification has created an opening for strategic counter-programming. By moving quickly to add a verse to the “Old Town Road” remix, the singer Billy Ray Cyrus looks like a bold iconoclast — “What a way to troll everyone,” Bones says admiringly — and gets his first ever Number One hit to boot.
“I don’t like people telling anyone what art is,” says country radio personality Bobby Bones.
Cyrus has some unofficial allies. The biggest supporter of “Old Town Road” at country radio has been Bones, who has a nationally syndicated morning show that he says plays “in 120 markets in the morning, all through Canada in the evening.” “When you get into that whole conversation about is something country, then I start to be a little obnoxious about it,” Bones says. “I don’t like people telling anyone what art is.”
Spinning “Old Town Road” allows Bones to strike a public blow against country radio convention. “We need progressive thinkers in all types of music,” he says. But he also believes he has the blessing of country’s silent majority. “People want to be angry to be heard, but it’s always a very vocal minority that sets the rules, and I don’t allow that,” Bones adds. “We feel like if we’re getting seven people yelling at us about something, that’s what is normal. But it’s the 10,000 people consuming it without saying anything that’s really the normal.” The bulk of Lil Nas X’s country spins comes from stations that run Bones’ show.
Much like Bones, Marks at Spotify “had an objection” when he heard “Old Town Road” had been eliminated from the country chart. “How country music is defined is not about a chart position or what executives determine what is or is not a country song,” he says. “When I saw [Lil Nas X’s chart removal], there were elements of that to me that weren’t correct. The definition of country is as broad as you want to make it, and I wanted to give the song appropriate space in some good playlists where we could get a true audience read on the song.”
Marks is now programming “Old Town Road” on two of Spotify’s prominent country playlists, Wild Country and New Boots. Streaming and radio serve distinct audiences, but he’s finding that country streamers are willing to engage with “Old Town Road.” “It’s being listened to, saved, repeated,” Marks says of Lil Nas X’s single. “The metrics are pretty solid.”
And proving that some things never change, all the backlash to the initial backlash has only served to extend the shelf life of “Old Town Road.” “Before the remix dropped, I was thinking, maybe we got a good six weeks of this,” DJ Riddler says. “Now people are saying this might be the song of the summer.”