‘Old Town Road’ and the History of Black Cowboys in America
When folk-singer Dom Flemons began delving into the cultural history of African-Americans in the West a few years ago, he conceived the subject as a quirky passion project. “At first it was just casual research,” he says. “But when I found out one in four cowboys in the West were African-American cowboys, that sent me on a trajectory to figure something out: Why don’t I hear more about black cowboys in contemporary culture?”
The end result of Flemons’ curiosity was Black Cowboys, released last spring, a deeply historically-minded album of Western songs that traces the forgotten cultural history and musical lineages of black cowboys in the American West.
Less than a year later, Flemons has been flummoxed and delighted to find that the type of history he was mining for his project has found itself at the very center of the pop mainstream, with artists like Solange and Cardi B presenting an aestheticized version of black cowboy culture to a wide audience in recent months. More recently, Flemons has been closely following the story of Lil Nas X, whose country-trap blockbuster hit “Old Town Road,” which incorporates visual, lyrical and musical Western mythology, has stirred controversy since its release. Today, Lil Nas X released a remix of the song with country-crossover singer Billy Ray Cyrus, who says he “loved the song the first time I heard it.”
“To see that mainstream stars are picking up on this idea, I think it’s fantastic,” Flemons tells Rolling Stone. “It acknowledges a huge demographic of the population. My job has always just been to have the history in place, so if someone wants to say, ‘ Black cowboys didn’t exist,’ someone can [point to my work] and say, ‘No, they did. Here, read about it.’”
Rolling Stone recently spoke with Flemons about “Old Town Road,” the yee-haw agenda, the cultural history of black cowboys, and the musical history of black country music.
What was your first reaction when you heard “Old Town Road”?
My first reaction was, “Okay, this is a little hip-hop novelty country number where he’s referencing black cowboys in the cultural sense.” I didn’t necessarily think much about the song in and of itself. But when I saw [other artists] — Solange, and then even Kevin Hart, who in his recent Netflix special mentions black cowboys — I began thinking about how this is really a larger trend of African-Americans wanting to re-embrace the idea of black cowboys. Because the West is two things: The West is the real West, which is what I focus on in my album, but the West is also the West of the imagination.
I created my last album as a way to contextualize one aspect of the Lil Nas X story, because it’s really three stories wrapped up into one. Those three stories are country music as a genre; the story of African-Americans’ role in country music; and then the third one is black cowboys as a cultural phenomenon. When it comes to black people, almost everyone has some sort of black cowboy story within their family history. There is a history of black culture, or black Western culture, which includes people that migrated out West from the South. There are a lot of people who can relate to that story. My reaction to everything that’s going on has been, “Great, I’m glad I’ve helped give people the template, so if anyone needs to go back and reference black cowboy history, then they’re set.”
How are those three stories related?
The first part of the story, black cowboys, is an important cultural history that we have to embrace. A lot of things that have happened in African-American culture were relegated to the past, because they weren’t written down. The second part of this story is country music as a genre. In the 21st century, we don’t think about genres in strict categorical terms in the way they did when they created these genres, and this is causing a disconnect. You would think an African-American who writes a song about country-ish themes with a slight country twang, with imagery that is country-based, would be country music. But when you look back to the roots of country music, one of the things that happened that we’re still trying to get around or side step is that country music was created alongside race records in the early 20th century as a means of hyper-focusing record-buying audiences.
The third story, then, is African-Americans’ role in country and Western music. Even though country music looks very white in the foreground, when you delve deeper into the history you find a whole prehistory of African-American musicians working with these white country pioneers. You have the soul country era, with Ray Charles and Solomon Burke. You have Charley Pride, and in the more modern era, people like Darius Rucker and Kane Brown. All of this is why this one song, this one minute and fifty-nine second song, has caused so much controversy.
You would think an African-American who writes a song about country-ish themes with a slight country twang, with imagery that is country-based, would be country music.
Were you surprised that Billboard removed “Old Town Road” from its country charts?
I did see that, and I really didn’t think that they should have done that. It gives the public a strange perception. The explanation was that it wasn’t country enough, and that’s something that people I don’t think will accept at this moment. There are too many dogs in the fight in regards to American society right now, where I just don’t think that flies with people. At the same time, I’ve been on the bluegrass charts for the past 50 weeks at Billboard. A lot of people are making it into a thing where Billboard has a race problem. I don’t think it’s really a race problem as much as a philosophical issue that’s going on with the definition of the genre. I think that’s where the story lies more than this particular rapper, this particular song. We really need to sit and analyze things like: Why is country white? Why is the blues black? We really need to spend some time with that. Lil Nas X, he can do anything he wants, but why can’t he have a big country hit? This isn’t a black versus white thing, it’s more acknowledging that we’re more the same than different. I think that the social backdrop is clouding people’s minds to that idea. And yet, we’re a country that’s obsessed with the white guy who can sound black, but the black guy who can sound white, that’s a tougher situation.
Did you see that Billy Ray Cyrus is appearing on a remix of the song?
It doesn’t surprise me, because Billy brings up this philosophical issue of what happens when someone pushes the boundaries of what country music is built on past a certain point. I heard Keith Urban’s last album, and it was very hip-hop influenced. This is an ongoing debate that’s been going on since they created these genres, and it’s a constantly evolving conversation. I’m glad it’s coming up again now.
Apart from “Old Town Road,” what do you make of the recent aestheticization of black cowboy mythology and visuals in pop culture?
My whole project was built around the idea of teasing out the parts of African-American culture that are related to cowboys. So when I see the yeehaw movement, I’m just glad that my project can give a historical outlet to call upon. Country music is a genre, and black cowboys are a cultural phenomenon. Those are two things that people can differentiate. And it can be a little tricky to put those two things together, but that’s really where the argument lies: Black cowboys are completely valid, and whether you’re a fan of “Old Town Road” or not is an aesthetic question. But the fact that [Lil Nas X] is repping black cowboys, and people like Solange are repping black cowboys, it’s just wonderful.
How does this relate to your own family history?
When you read most black history, the migration is always going from the Deep South to places like Chicago. My grandparents’ story is the story of going from East Texas and Arkansas to Flagstaff, Arizona, following saw mill work. For me, that’s a very visceral piece of history that connects to Western culture. They weren’t necessarily cowboys, but they worked with cattle. They were from the Deep South and moved out West. So for me, there’s a connecting point, culturally, that has made me understand my grandparents a lot better. What I’m seeing with Solange and all these folks is the same thing: “Black cowboys: I’m going to go to my grandpa’s house, because he’s a cowboy, and I never thought of that as a cool thing before.” In pop culture, black cowboys aren’t the first thing that come to mind, because it’s nostalgic, and it’s based in the country, and the root of black pop music is not countrified. In general, the depiction of African-American culture is a depiction of a culture being forward-moving and urban, compared to being countrified.
Did you ever imagine your work laying the underpinnings for such a cultural moment?
I really didn’t know how long it would take for something like this to manifest. The fact that this happened so quickly is very exciting.