- This episode of "Say it Loud" is brought to you by the yeehaw agenda.
(country music) - Yeah.
(hip-hop music) ♪ Uh!
♪ - [Evelyn] If you haven't been under a rock for most of 2019, then you've probably heard "Old Town Road" by Lil Nas X on every major music outlet.
The latest stats for the song, triple platinum in the U.S., the longest number one rating on The Billboard Hot 100, and streamed over 1.3 billion times from January to June.
- Blow up is an understatement.
I can't lie, I was over it, but it personally got good for me again when I watched him perform it in front of kids at school.
♪ I'm gonna ride until I can't no more♪ ♪ I got my horses in the back ♪ Hallease is always for carefree, happy childrens.
- Another interesting thing to note is that "Old Town Road" simultaneously charted three different genres, Billboard Hot 100, Hot Country songs, and Hot R&B / Hip-Hop songs, before it was quietly removed from the country chart by Billboard.
- Billboard stated, "Upon further review it was determined "that "Old Town Road" by Lil Nas X "does not currently merit inclusion "on Billboard's country charts.
"When determining genres, a few factors are examined, "but first and foremost is musical composition.
"While "Old Town Road" incorporates references "to country and cowboy imagery, "it does not embrace enough elements "of today's country music "to chart in its current version."
- All right.
- Let's do this.
- Country music.
What is it?
- Got you.
A form of popular music originating in rural, southern United States.
It is traditionally a mixture of ballads and dance tunes played characteristically on fiddle, guitar, steel guitar, drums and keyboard.
- So all the instruments?
- Yea, I guess so, okay.
So, in the case of "Old Town Road" - Yeah.
- is it a popular song?
- I think it's quite popular.
- I would say so myself.
- Is Lil Nas X from the south?
- Yeah, I think he's from Georgia.
- All right - Yeah he's from Georgia.
- Isn't Keith Urban from like - Oh, he's from Australia.
- Yeah - Right?
- Oh, you know and Shania Twain, she - Canadian - Yeah, but they didn't like her.
- They didn't like her at first.
- They didn't like her.
- But she's an icon, all right.
Is it a dance tune?
- Let's cut back to the kids.
♪ I got my horses in the back ♪ I think it's a dance tune, yeah.
- And did he use instruments?
- I think he uses instruments.
- Okay, yeah I'd say that.
And then the whole cowboy aesthetic, I think it was - Big time cowboy, yeah.
- This feels Like it checks all the boxes.
- It does.
What happened with "Old Town Road" isn't a unique experience.
In fact, with the help of our researcher, Nadia, we found that while artists themselves, love to collaborate and crossover, the businesses that have run music since the beginning of recorded sound have always preferred things to be a little more defined.
- So let's talk about it.
Who gets to decide who's included in a genre and how does this affect what we view as Black or White music?
- [Evelyn] To discuss this further, we got to chat with Blanco Brown, a singer, songwriter, and producer who pulls influence from a variety of different genres.
- I'm inspired and still am inspired by Outkast, and Johnny Cash, Tim McGraw, Aretha Franklin, Donny Hathaway, Sam Cooke.
One thing I never thought would ever happen is my dream became reality when I met Tim McGraw in Australia.
We did a cover tune of "Don't Take the Girl" and that was the song that made me fall in love with country music.
You know what I'm saying?
I had heard Tim McGraw so many times and you know, we covered a stream back then when I was a kid.
There wasn't no YouTube to go to at that.
I heard it when I was on the radio, but I feel like that song made these moments.
It made me feel like story telling was the way of the world for me.
- Before there was ever a music industry, with labels to please and charts to top, there had to be a way to listen to recorded music.
So, shout out to one of the most famous inventors who ever lived for making that possible.
- The phonograph was invented in 1877 by Thomas Edison.
Much like streaming services today, for better or worse, it changed the whole game.
- To clarify, he wasn't the first to invent something that could play back music, his device was just the most reliable.
And the sound quality, while revolutionary to be sure, was still trash.
(scratchy muffled music) - Ooh, ooh no.
- Okay, Edison, phonograph, music industry?
- I mean before, you could only charge to see somebody live, but now - Fire mix tapes - More like, just mass production of music.
For example, Columbia Records, the oldest surviving brand name in the recorded sound business, was founded in 1888 as Columbia Phonograph Company.
- And, where there's money to be made, artists don't really end up making most of it.
- If, and it's a big if, Black artists were ever paid back then, it was likely a flat fee as opposed to receiving the royalties from the recording.
- For example, the 1923 hit "Down Hearted Blues" by Bessie Smith, sold more than 780,000 copies in the first year, generating $156,000 for Columbia Records.
But by the end of her whole career with that label, she received about $28,000, a mere fraction of what artists make today, even when mathing for inflation.
- "Down Hearted Blues" was recorded by Ralph Peer, an industry pioneer who worked at Columbia Records, and who also said about recording artists, "You don't want to figure out "how much these people might earn and then give it to them, "because then they would have no incentive to keep working."
Ralph Peer is important because he had a hand in shaping the industry.
He was a talent scout, sound engineer, music publisher, and credited with creating the first blues and country recordings.
- Ralph Peer also worked with Okeh Records to define race records as "music specifically created "by African Americans for African Americans" while poor southern, white music was labeled hillbilly.
- It had nothing to do with the actual music.
It was all about the creator and desired consumer of the end product.
- People would try to make you out to be what benefits them.
And I had people try to make me out just to be a song writer, just to be a vocal producer, just to be a producer, just to be an engineer, just to be a vocal coach, and that's one of the, it was a lot of justs and I just wasn't settling for it.
You know what I'm saying?
- In the book "Segregating Sound", Karl Hagstrom Miller coins the term "the musical color line," which he uses to describe how record labels categorized music based more along race lines than the genre specifications.
- In it, he states that "artists themselves didn't make these distinctions.
"Black and white folks played folk music, ballads, ragtime, "minstrel songs, Broadway hits."
- Once artists are effectively put in a box, and that separation is reinforced over the decades, we begin to associate our identities with certain types of music.
Growing up, you may or may not have associated your Blackness with certain genres of music over others.
- What was on middle school Hallease's Walkman?
First generation iPod?
Did you have a Zune?
Even though I could diddy-bop with the best of them, I still got picked on for enjoying bands like "System of A Down," or, you know, feeling seen when listening to Linkin Park.
Yes, I had a "Hot Topic" phase, and I wore toe socks, with rolled up black JNCO jeans, and carried a chain wallet.
It was an aesthetic and I will not apologize, okay?
- Because of what Ralph Peer and the crew set in motion in the 20s and 30s, 13 year old Hallease was made fun of for listening to "White music."
- You can't just put things in one box.
Country music has R&B elements, like R&B has country elements.
It's all one and the same.
Music is music, and these days we playlist everything and just throw a whole bunch of different sounds under one umbrella.
That's what music is about.
It's about the culture and a lifestyle, waking up everyday and hitting play.
All you gotta do is hit play.
- Sociology Professor George H. Lewis said that "In country music, like in other cultural endeavors "taste is a social construct that changes over time."
Even within the country music world, folks can't agree.
- Is Bluegrass country?
What about pop country?
Remember when purists hated Shania Twain?
- Oh yeah - And that song "Meant to Be", definitely used to trap me and was nominated for Top Country Song at the Billboard Music Awards.
- We'll link some resources about the fiddle and how everybody was playing that bad boy, long before the suits came along and magically decided that there was a difference between this guy and this guy.
- So a kid from an Atlanta, Georgia suburb, makes a song called "Old Town Road."
He's inspired by rapper Young Thug who two years prior released a song with country music-esque themes.
- [Hallease] The song blows up.
He gets a Wrangler jeans endorsement deal.
Folks proceed to boycott the denim.
And in a surprising turn of events, Billy Ray Cyrus takes the kid under his wing and hops on the remix.
- And if it's not country with Billy Ray on the track, then I don't know what to tell y'all.
- Like we mentioned earlier, artists themselves have a variety of influences.
That's what culture is.
Okay, we're back.
- All right, let's settle this once and for all.
- Cowboy hats.
- That's an aesthetic we owe to 1930s Hollywood and a Philadelphia based company called Stetson.
- Never eat shredded wheat.
Okay, that's a no.
- Ooh, girl, that's West African.
It was brought over by slavery.
Okay, the washboard.
♪ Also West African ♪ Girl, the fiddle.
- A.K.A the violin.
Western Europe, during the Middle Ages.
All right, steel guitar?
- That ones a little complicated.
Okay, some records show it was invented by Hawaiian musicians in the late 1800s - Hawaii.
- Migrated to the states after World War One, and was played first in the south by Black musicians like Blind Lemon Jefferson and Bukka White.
Then integrated into country by Frank Hutchison and Jimmy Rogers, who is sometimes called a White man gone Black.
- So is that a check mark or?
Many country favs of yesteryear mention the direct influence Black southern music had on their style.
Jimmie Rodgers incorporated African American rhythmic structures, slide guitar techniques borrowed from the blues, and had Louis Armstrong on cornet.
♪ Yodel-aye-Ee aye-ee yodel-aye-ee ♪ - Henry Thomas, a Black singer who recorded 23 sides for Okeh's race records in the 1920s, also authored several songs that were made classic "hillbilly hits" by Uncle Dave Macon and Grand Ole Opry star, Lew Childre.
- [Evelyn] Hank Williams learned a bunch from Rufus Payne, a Black street musician in Georgiana, Alabama where together they played for spare change outside bars in the 1930s.
Bill Monroe learned to play the guitar from Black Kentucky fiddler and guitarist, Arnold Shultz, and I had no idea who any of these people were before doing research for this episode.
So imagine how many more collaborations, both official and unofficial, exist.
- [Hallease] Ray Charles dropped his country album in 1962, even though it was widely understood by then that he was a rhythm and blues player.
The Black Keys, a rock band from Akron, Ohio, released a Hip-Hop album called "Black Rock" in 2009.
It combined well-known artists like Pharoahe Monch, Q-Tip, Mos Def, Ludacris.
It was lit.
- The Black Keys are hella soulful anyway, so it wasn't even much of a stretch.
And remember the time Beyonce incorporated her own multicultural southern roots to create a country song called "Daddy Lessons" and then famously performed back up to her own song at the CMAs with The Dixie Chicks, who had been covering it while on their own tour anyway, because surprise, surprise, they're fans of Beyonce and identified with the song.
- Music is a language we all share.
There's a Ray Charles quote that says, "There's only two kinds of music "as far as I'm concerned, good and bad."
I could be listening to Whitney Houston's version of "I Will Always Love You" or the original by Dolly Parton.
Both hit me right here, okay?
- We're not saying genres don't exist, or have value when differentiating sounds.
We are saying that what we think about genres and who has access to them is not random.
In the case of country music, it's by design, separating folks by race and region, something artists themselves did not care to do.
- Ownership, compensation, access, ideas of authenticity, don't have much to do with the actual music as much as the music business.
There are so many genres and the lines between them are often very blurry.
- There are four official remixes to Lil Nas X's "Old Town Road."
Billy Ray Cyrus' vocals put the song back on the country charts.
There's a Diplo remix, giving you that electronic dance vibe.
- Don't forget the version with Young Thug and Mason Ramsey.
Yes, that little boy yodeling in WalMart.
- And to top it all off, there's a Seoul Town Road, as in Seoul, South Korea.
RM of BTS.
KPOP fans know what those letters mean.
- Technology is a powerful tool.
It shapes culture.
The phonograph made it possible for people to enjoy their favorite songs, over and over again.
It ushered in record labels, which then created rules about genres in order to sell more records.
Which in turn changed how we all identified with music and made certain music White or Black.
- And now the internet and streaming services are making our world a bit smaller and increasing the speed at which we learn about each other and get inspired to make a song about the horses in the back.
- I make music with purpose and stories, like, and I make stuff that I know people listen to and don't even see the deeper meaning in it until you really sit back and listen to it again, again and again and you be like, whoa, that's what he's talking about.
I just hope everybody listen with an open heart, open mind and get the true messages and the essence within them.
I wrote "The Git Up," which I knew was a light, verbal song, but I knew it would have a deeper meaning.
The song don't say anything deep.
But it's doing the deepest work in the world right now.
It's making people smile.
It's taking people out of depression.
I had people that lost their grandmothers and kids inbox me and say "This song changed my life, it uplifted me" and there's not one deep lyric in it.
So, that shows you enough that the music is about just having purpose in it.
- Lil Nas X isn't doing anything new.
If anything, he's sticking to what music is at it's core, a weird amalgamation of a collective history that we all share.
- [Evelyn] So tell us, would you define "Old Town Road" as country?
Does this conversation translate seamlessly to, I don't know, Post Malone?
- Follow us on social media @sayitloudpbs.
Share it with your friend who still bumps Shania Twain, maybe?
- [Together] Bye.
(upbeat music) (clanging chimes) (digital tones ringing)