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The ‘Old Town Road’ Goes on Forever

How the year’s biggest hit became a savage journey to the heart of the American dream

lil nas x, old town road, yeehaw

Christaan Felber for Rolling Stone

“Old Town Road” is so much more than a hit at this point — it’s like centuries of American music were all building up to these 113 seconds of genius. Lil Nas X’s yeehaw manifesto has been the great national obsession ever since it blew up in March, which feels like years ago. But it shows no signs of fading. Fresh off his Billy Ray Cyrus remix, Nas just dropped another with Young Thug and country child star Mason Ramsey. He just announced he wants to do one with Dolly Parton and Megan Thee Stallion. It’s time to face a question: What if Lil Nas X keeps releasing “Old Town Road” remixes forever? What if the song never fades away? What if it doesn’t agree to an orderly transfer of power? What if “horses in the bacc” is just the way we live now? What if we have entered a future zone where humans communicate exclusively through “Old Town Road” remixes?

“Old Town Road” might be the biggest debut single of all time, the year’s most popular tune, a history-making smash, the mass phenomenon of 2019. And yet it goes deeper than that. Every weird strain of American culture is in this song somewhere, as Lil Nas X rides his tractor all over our cliches of sexual and cultural identity. He just came out, on the last day of Pride Month. Has anyone in history ever come out while they had the Number One song? No. As Young Thug said last week, “That was a G’s move.”

This song taps into all the contradictions in U.S. music: a hip-hop redneck trap-country goth flex, mixing up Trent Reznor and Billy Ray Cyrus, sounding both futuristic and ancient. As the late great Hunter S. Thompson would say, it’s a savage journey to the heart of the American dream. It defines the yeehaw state of mind. At a moment of nationwide apocalypse, it’s a love letter to everything that used to be cool about this once-proud land, the final stand of the last great American jukebox hero. And if your local karaoke joint doesn’t have it yet, you can just sing it over the guitar riff from Staind’s nu-metal classic “It’s Been Awhile.”

People dismissed it as a novelty at first, but the “Old Town Road” saga just keeps getting crazier day by day. Billboard banned it from the country charts, but that turned out to be considerably bigger publicity than actually topping the country charts. Can you name three of 2019’s Number One country singles? No, you cannot. (Probably not even the five songs that have topped the country charts during Lil Nas X’s 15 weeks on top.) When Nas proposed a Mariah Carey remix, she gave it a thumbs-up by posting her Rolling Stone cover photo in a cowgirl hat and the caption “One Sweet Town Road.” Mariah posed for this RS cover a year before Nas was born. (In truth, “One Sweet Day” was nowhere near as big as “Despacito” or “Old Town Road” — its long run was a fluke of the Nineties’ chart stagnation, a time when Number One hits routinely parked there for months.) Mason Ramsey, still a lad of 12 years old, gave his prophetic vision of the future: “The year is 2043. I’m fully grown up with my own ranch and kids, and Lil Nas X is still releasing old-town remixes.”

It’s the perfect pop story: A teenage Dutch producer who’s never heard of Nine Inch Nails stumbles across a forgotten deep cut, samples it, puts a track on BeatStars, and sees it get leased for $30 by an Atlanta tweetdecker, a kid on the verge of turning 20. YoungKio and Lil Nas X have never met or even talked on the phone, yet together they created this cowboy-hatted Frankenstein’s monster.

The banjo sample comes from Trent Reznor’s 2008 “34 Ghost IV.” “I didn’t even know about the Nine Inch Nails sample at first,” Lil Nas X has said. “After I did find out about it, it was like, ‘Wow, so it’s rock, country, hip-hop all in the same room.’” This makes “Old Town Road” the first Number One hit ever for Mr. Big Time Hard Line Bad Luck Fist Fuck. Congratulations, Trent: All old-town roads lead to your empire of dirt.

Lil Nas X has already dropped his follow-up, “Panini,” a fantastic lament about fame, set to Nirvana’s “In Bloom.” “Panini” is truly the yeehaw In Utero — yet “Old Town Road” is still galloping away. The biggest stars in music have gone up against “Old Town Road” in a pop equivalent of the shootout at the OK Corral: Drake, Taylor Swift, Shawn Mendes, Camila Cabello, Billie Eilish, Ed Sheeran, and Justin Bieber. But nothing can stop the omnipresence of “Old Town Road.” Nas just debuted yet another video for it, where a cartoon Keanu Reeves helps Nas, Mason, and Thugger invade Area 51 and free the aliens. As Mason would put it, “If you ain’t got no giddy-up, giddy out of my way!”

It’s part of a cross-cultural call-and-response: from Beyoncé teaming up with the Dixie Chicks for “Daddy Lessons” to Cardi B flossing in her pink cowgirl gear to rock the Houston Rodeo. You can hear it in Kacey Musgraves’ instant-classic Coachella chant: “When I see yee, you say haw! I didn’t say fucking yee!” In the Calmatic-directed video, he rides his horses past Chris Rock, time-traveling from 1889 to today. (It was Nas’ first time ever on a horse.) He wins a drag race against Vince Staples, crashes a bingo game with Rico Nasty, shows off his boot-scootin’ skills with Billy Ray, gets Diplo to play a washboard solo. David Lynch tried to do this with Twin Peaks, but Lil Nas X is the madman who actually pulled it off.

“Old Town Road” is a new peak for the long, strange story of yeehaw culture and black-cowboy realness, going back to how Sonny Rollins rocked his Stetson under the yucca trees on Way Out West — the album cover that inspired Mel Brooks to make Blazing Saddles. Chuck Berry tried to rewrite the country hit “Ida Red,” turned it into “Maybellene,” and invented rock & roll. Sly Stone yodeled his way through “Spaced Cowboy.” The Gap Band defined rodeo chic in the Eighties with their 10-gallon hats and glitter vests. The Dirty South had its fixation on The Dukes of Hazzard — it culminated in the 1993 Miami bass smash “Dazzey Duks,” by Duice, who claimed their piece of the Boar’s Nest by getting Daisy Duke herself, Catherine Bach, to dance in their video. When Nelly blew up, the first thing he did was turn his “Ride Wit Me” video into a full-on Smokey and the Bandit remake.

Billy Ray Cyrus, Lil Nas X, Cardi B. Music artists Billy Ray Cyrus, from left, Lil Nas X, and Cardi B perform at HOT 97 Summer Jam 2019 at MetLife Stadium, in East Rutherford, New JerseyHOT 97 Summer Jam 2019, East Rutherford, USA - 02 Jun 2019

Billy Ray Cyrus, Lil Nas X, and Cardi B perform at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey. Photo credit: Scott Roth/Invision/AP/Shutterstock

Hip-hop has been a giddy-up zone ever since Cowboy joined Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five. (Some scholars even credit Cowboy as the MC who coined the phrase “hip-hop.”)  Just a couple of months before Lil Nas X was born, the Bone Thugs N Harmony posse topped the rap charts for eight weeks in 1999 with “Ghetto Cowboy,” where Krayzie Bone and Layzie Bone saddle up to a harmonica solo and a Kenny Rogers hook. They rob a bank with horse rustler Thug Queen, then celebrate with moonshine at the saloon.

Everybody wants in on the yeehaw mentality in the Lil Nas X era. Even Bruce Springsteen, who made the bizarre yet awesome decision to go West for his new album, riding down Old Town Thunder Road with his horses on the baccstreets. When His Bossness wants to ditch the ’69 Chevy for a pony ride, you know things are serious. (And it’s worth noting that the song that started Cyrus’ career, “Achy Breaky Heart,” was a straight-up cop of Bruce’s “Pink Cadillac,” the same song Natalie Cole turned into a Top 10 disco hit with a house remix.) It’s official: The highway’s jammed with broken heroes on a last-chance yeehaw drive.

It’s significant this is happening in 2019, when a cowboy hat suddenly doesn’t mean what it used to. It used to be that cowboy culture was right-wing turf, ever since a Hollywood Western B-movie star named Ronald Reagan. But these days, the commander of the racist right is a New Yorker with no Southern twang at all, and his soldiers’ favorite headgear is the red MAGA cap. Lil Nas X is stepping into a cultural void where the meaning of the cowboy hat is up for grabs — which means so are all the myths of American identity. One of the most bracing moments in any Eighties movie: Eddie Murphy in 48 Hours, invading a country bar and announcing, “Listen up, I don’t like white people. I hate rednecks. You people are rednecks. That means I’m enjoying this shit.” You can hear plenty of that in “Old Town Road.” For all the humor, it’s still a black teenager riding confidently where it’s dangerous for him to go.

It makes perfect sense that Nas gets his Nashville spurs from Billy Ray Cyrus. (Who ever thought Billy Ray would make better hip-hop records than Miley?) He also reached Number One with his first hit, “Achy Breaky Heart,” which set off the same debates over what counts as “real” country. To Nashville gatekeepers, Billy Ray was a poseur with a ponytail. He beefed with Travis Tritt, who accused him of turning country into an “ass-wiggling contest.” And like Trent Reznor, Billy Ray has a David Lynch connection, after punching out Justin Theroux in Mulholland Drive. But his “Old Town Road” verse is more authentically surreal than Lynch’s craziest dreams.

The most country touch Billy Ray adds is his instinctive (unconscious?) nostalgia, when he croons, “Wish I could roll on back to that Old Town Road” — Lil Nas X sings in the future tense, while Billy Ray looks to the past. “I think Lil Nas is a hero who came along when the world needed a hero,” Cyrus told Rolling Stone. “At a time when we’re so divided, he’s a light in the universe.” Could anyone disagree? With “Old Town Road,” Lil Nas X rounds up all the wild horses in American culture, and rides them till he can’t no more.

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