You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Blake Shelton Takes a Shot at ‘Old Town Road’ in New Single

Where some see a genre or culture war at play, reps insist Shelton and Trace Adkins are just having a harmless laugh over Lil Nas X's ubiquity.

Blake Shelton and Trace Adkins have just released a duet, “Hell Right,” that seems to have a beef with “Old Town Road.” But is it a light-hearted, maybe even affectionate slam — or should anyone read culture-war significance into the two country stars expressing a preference for Hank Williams Jr. over Lil Nas X, the breakout sensation of the year?

The eyebrow-raising passage has Shelton singing, “Then the girl from the small town took off the ‘Old Town,’ put on a little Hank Jr.,” followed by a clearly relieved Adkins intoning: “Thank God.”

To some listeners, that’s just Shelton and Adkins pitting real country, as represented by Williams Jr., against fake country, in the form of Lil Nas X’s country-trap hybrid. Others have wondered about the optics of bringing up Lil Nas X, one of the few black stars in history to have a substantial hit with a country (or at least country-adjacent) song, in an unfavorable comparison to, of all people, Williams Jr., who for decades has been practically a poster boy for the Confederate flag and pro-Confederacy sentiments.

Among those expressing concern over the juxtaposition was David Cantwell, a country music author and historian whose books include an acclaimed Merle Haggard biography (and who wrote about Hank Jr.’s complicated legacy for the New Yorker). “On the new Blake Shelton single, saying ‘Hell Right’ to someone taking off ‘Old Town Road’ and putting on something else is, in this moment, a dick move,” Cantwell tweeted. “OK, whatever. But taking off Lil Nas in favor of Hank Jr. will be predictably, understandably read as a racist dick move. WTF Blake?” Other country music journalists and observers chimed in in agreement with Cantwell’s take.

A spokesperson for Shelton insists no disrespect toward Lil Nas X was intended in the new song: “It’s absolutely not throwing any kind of shade at Lil Nas X at all. Blake says this literally has nothing to do with anything at all except how much the song is played. It could have been ‘Achy Breaky Heart’ or any other (overplayed) song.” Speaking of Billy Ray Cyrus, who did a duet with Lil Nas X on a remix of “Old Town Road”: “Blake talked to Billy Ray,” said the spokesperson, “and he thought it was funny.”

Reps for Adkins did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Lil Nas X is having a particularly good week: He’s on the cover of Time magazine alongside the headline “It’s His Country,” and the song set the record for most weeks at No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 even before it got to its current 19-weeks-straight mark. Its reception in the mainstream country community has been mixed. Fans have largely embraced “Old Town Road,” with younger country fans clearly having a taste for hip-hop sounds. Music Row has cast an indifferent, if not necessarily antagonistic, eye on the song’s success. In preliminary balloting for the upcoming CMA Awards, “Old Town Road” failed to make the second ballot in any division except the “musical event” category, where it remains to be seen whether it’ll make the final five when nominations are announced in September.

The potential awkwardness of the Lil Nas X/Hank Jr. juxtaposition is heightened by past controversies involving the use of Confederate flag imagery or advocacy by all the performers involved. Shelton defended the “rebel flag flying” in his hit “Kiss My Country Ass,” and Adkins once apologized after wearing a Confederate flag earpiece on a TV appearance, vowing not to do so again. Neither star’s use of the flag compares to that of Williams Jr., who’s famous for selling flag merch at his shows, and who sang “If the South would have won (the Civil War), we would have it made” in one of his signature hits (long before having his NFL theme song knocked off the air after calling President Obama an America-hating Muslim and comparing him to Hitler). It was kerfuffles like those that led Brad Paisley to address his own past use of the Confederate flag in his song “The Accidental Racist,” which itself became a magnet for controversy.

Regardless of whether any such connotations occurred to Shelton or Adkins (or songwriters Thomas Hardy, David Garcia and Brett Tyler), the lyrics are still being widely perceived as, at the very least, a slam against the genre-crossing “Old Town Road.” But Shelton’s spokesperson insists even that is an overreach for what is intended as a kiddingly affectionate reference, pointing out that the female characters in the song are playing the ubiquitous Lil Nas X tune before opting to replace him with Hank Jr.

In a tweet prior to the new single’s release, Shelton prophesied that “Hell Right” would be divisive, although the Lil Nas X lyrical reference didn’t seem to factor into the prediction. “Oh and my apologies ahead of time to a few of the ‘purest’ bloggers of country music because this ones really gonna make you cry,” Shelton tweeted. “That’s MY apology. Trace doesn’t give a shit…. Hell Right.”

Popular on Variety

More Music

  • Atmosphere71st Annual Primetime Emmy Awards, Show,

    Emmy Viewers Not 'Feelin' Good' About Bizarre Music Choices

    It was known ahead of time that the Emmy Awards planned to dispense with a traditional orchestra or pit band for the walk-up and bumper music. What wasn’t anticipated was that the music choices were being outsourced to a bar mitzvah DJ in Des Moines. Or, very possibly, it was a local who had found [...]

  • Born to Be Live: 'Easy Rider'

    Born to Be Live: 'Easy Rider' Gets a Concert/Screening Premiere at Radio City

    In a year full of major 50th anniversary commemorations — from Woodstock to the moon landing — why not one for “Easy Rider,” Dennis Hopper’s hippie-biker flick that was released on July 14, 1969? That was the idea when a rep for Peter Fonda, who starred in the film as the laid-back Captain America, reached out [...]

  • Rob Thomas Sammy Hagar

    Sammy Hagar Joins Rob Thomas for 'Smooth' Performance (Watch)

    Who do you call when your pal Carlos Santana has plans on a Friday night? If you’re Rob Thomas, you recruit another famous friend, rocker Sammy Hagar, who turned up to help the singer close out the latest show of his Chip Tooth Smile tour with a performance of “Smooth” at the Fox Performing Arts [...]

  • US record producer The-Dream arrives for

    Top Music Publishers Come Together for Songs of Hope Honors

    The 15th annual Songs of Hope honors united songwriters, music industry insiders and more than a few preeminent doctors at producer Alex Da Kid’s Sherman Oaks compound on Thursday night. Jimmy Jam returned to host the event, which served as a fundraiser for the ever-vital City of Hope medical treatment center as well as a [...]

  • Monkees/Badfinger/Nazz Supergroup Takes Beatles' 'White Album'

    Monkees/Badfinger/Nazz Supergroup Gets Back to '68 by Touring Beatles' 'White Album'

    The 50th anniversary re-release of 1969’s “Abbey Road” may be just days away, but that doesn’t mean Beatles fans have been there and done that when it comes to celebrating ’68. Todd Rundgren, the Monkees’ Mickey Dolenz, Badfinger’s Joey Molland and several other name musicians of a certain vintage are teaming up to go out [...]

  • Rob Cowan, Greg Silverman'The Conjuring 2'

    Greg Silverman’s Stampede, School of Rock Team for Unscripted Series (EXCLUSIVE)

    Former president of Warner Bros. Pictures Greg Silverman is partnering with School of Rock through his content creation company Stampede. The collaboration with the music school will create exclusive content, starting with the development of an unscripted series.  School of Rock operates a network of performance-based education franchises that offer students of all ages guidance [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content