Before “Old Town Road”: The Evolution of Country Rap Tunes
From classic country rap tunes to Lil Nas X's viral sensation "Old Town Road," here is the evolution of country rap music.
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When friends ask what I think about the Kardashians, my usual response is that I just don’t think about them. Whatever level of consciousness is below that, is where Billy Ray Cyrus resided in my mind—until the end of March 2019. No offense, Billy Ray C. But with the changing seasons come changing allegiances, and now BRC has re-emerged, looking like The Undertaker and positioning himself as a heroic ally. He came to the rescue of viral sensation Lil Nas X by hopping on the remix to his infectious, wrangler-on-the-booty anthem “Old Town Road.”
In a tweet, Billy mentioned Lil Nas' name in the same breath as country legend Waylon Jennings, and now I can only think what they would have talked about if Waylon was still alive to meet Lil Nas. Some people have said that the song mocks country music, but couldn’t the same be said about a lot of what passes for country these days? To quote Waylon, “Are you sure Hank done it this way?” But to be clear, I’m mainly a fan of the song for the very important reason that I’m not a cop. If you don’t like this song, you’re either a badge-and-gun-wearing officer for the fun police, or you’re an informant for them, but either way it’s not looking good for you.
Where Billy’s daughter Miley was rejected by many as a culture vulture, Billy won favor by staying true to himself and coming to the aid of a young rapper who had recently joined the ranks of black artists like Ray Charles and Beyoncé in being rejected by the country music establishment. While Charles and Beyoncé were, like Lil Nas, undercut by what certainly walks and smells like racism, neither of them were in the conversation for works that have elements of rap music. And that’s what makes Lil Nas’ situation unique. At a time when the current sound of Nashville pop is more influenced by rap music than it’s ever been, a song that impressively synthesizes the two genres was removed from the country charts.
This fiasco, and the emergence of the amazing Yee-Haw Agenda Instagram page, got me thinking about the origins of country rap. And here’s the thing: It started in Texas. But what are we talking about when we say “country rap”? We’re talking about songs that feel like country rap tunes. It’s tough to describe, but country rap tunes are more than the sum of their parts, and you know it when you hear it. Also, you know it when Pimp C is yelling it at you through your headphones. It doesn’t sound formulaic, like some country singer had the brilliant idea to rap over one of their songs (country artists, if you’re in the studio right now reading this, please delete the rap vocals you just laid down). Some would say it’s just UGK and that’s it, but I want to look at everyone who tried it. So, let’s run through the history of the middle section of the rap-country Venn diagram, and figure out what counts as “country rap tunes” and what doesn’t.
In 1999, Port Arthur, Texas’ own underworld rap heroes, UGK, released a single titled “Belts to Match” that would later end up on their 2002 Side Hustles compilation album. On the outro, Pimp draws a line in the sand, uttering the phrase “country rap tunes” for the first time and introducing the world to his thesis as an artist:
Down here we ain't makin' hip hop songs, know what I'm sayin'
We makin' country rap tunes, so, uh, separate us from the rest
But the sonic origins of UGK’s country rap tunes go back even further. Their 1994 track, “It’s Supposed To Bubble,” is driven by a guitar riff that’s equal parts Freddie King’s Texas Cannonball blues and Jerry Reed’s Nashville country, complete with a saloon-style piano solo that carries the song until it fades out. The music video version even includes a shout out to Whodini, pioneers of Yeehaw fashion.
When we say “country rap tunes,” I would argue that this song is the blueprint. And, though Pimp is no longer with us, Bun has carried on Pimp C’s country rap tunes mantra by performing at the rodeo with both Beyoncé and Leon Bridges. He also appeared in a music video by Texas country singer Rich O’Toole and contributed a christening intro to O’Toole’s American Kid album.
Over the years, other songs have tried to marry the two genres. Let’s take a look at who made those songs and how successful they were in their endeavors. Here is the evolution of country rap tunes over the years: