Lil Nas X’s ‘Old Town Road’ Is a Game-Changer Nashville Can’t Ignore (Guest Column)

Why Lil Nas X's 'Old Town
Eric Lagg / Courtesy of Sony Music

When Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road” became a viral sensation with its mixture of country and trap styles, it struck  more than a chord with guest columnists Jingle Jared and Jelly Roll. It represented the acceptance and fulfillment of a crossing of genres they’ve been working to make happen in Nashville for years. “Old Town Road” was yanked off the Billboard country chart after making a debut appearance, yet that only seemed to increase its notoriety and popularity, and Billy Ray Cyrus upped the ante by agreeing to appear on a remix.

Jingle Jared (aka Jared Gutstadt), a successful songwriter across genres and the founder of the creative music agency Jingle Punks, and Jelly Roll, a Nashville-based proponent of rootsy hip-hop and one of Jared’s collaborators, wrote for Varietyabout the frustrations and hopes renewed by the success of “Old Town Road.”

JELLY ROLL: “Old Town Road” is a f—ing incredible record. This song has a lot in common with country top 40. There are some big 808s in there, but those are the same 808s they use on Sam Hunt’s entire f—ing debut album! Lil Nas X’s song sounded just like Sam Hunt’s “Break Up In A Small Town” to me, and that went f—ing No. 1 on every country chart.

Country music has always been this way. They want to curate and control what the consumer hears as country. So, I don’t understand if this is just some other shit going on. Let’s be honest here: This might be a bigger issue than just music.

JINGLE JARED: We, as music listeners, all have a very strong opinions about genres that define our experience. But country and hip-hop in many ways are the same culture. I always said that from my point of view, the lifted truck of country is the Rolls Ghost of hip-hop, and the poppin’ bottles of rap have always been the cracking Miller or Buds in the summer sun in country. They are ways to express a sentiment of aspiration.

It is important to point out that country/hip-hop intersection has existed for a while. Look at Nelly working with Tim McGraw — country getting a hip-hop lift — or just look at Nelly’s “Country Grammar,” an album that was way ahead of its time. This is the blueprint for Lil Nas X —or maybe this just naturally happens when artists grow up influenced by all the sounds around them. The intersectionality is absolutely undeniable.

I work with folks on both sides of Nashville — the mainstream and the Jelly Rolls. A few years ago, when I stumbled upon the idea to bring Timbaland to Nashville, I saw the ability for these two worlds to work together in a way that didn’t sound like a bad Florida Georgia Line remix. When I spoke to Timbaland about his musical roots he said he grew up in the sticks of Virginia watching the same programs and bumping the same music that many country artists grew up on. I distinctly remember him and Brad Paisley immediately bonding over “Hee Haw” and, with that, they hit it off instantly. They were both, in that moment, as country as cornbread.

JELLY ROLL: When Jingle Jared first came to Nashville, the first thing I did was warn him how f—ed up Music Row was. Listen, I grew up in Nashville. Music Row has always controlled the market space for country music, and they do not let any outsiders in. But Music Row is underestimating the genius of the consumer. They think they are dealing with a bunch of dumb rednecks who aren’t smart enough to pick their own music, so they’re curating it for them. But they couldn’t be more wrong. The ‘70s outlaw movement was complete proof of that, and the way Texas country is so big right now is just more proof of that. I’m so sick of these mother—ers sitting behind a desk saying shit is country or shit isn’t country that have never actually been in the f—ing country. Music Row has been f—ing country up for the last 20 or 30 years and somebody has to create a change. I’m so encouraged by Lil Nas X’s story. Listeners vote with their streams, and as of right now he is more country than most.

JINGLE JARED: I don’t think it even matters if someone is on a specific chart now. The idea of disruption is that when you look at other artists who fall into this weird category of getting discovered on the internet, people like Bhad Bhabie or Lil Hank or Nas X, labels can’t do what social media is doing.

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JELLY ROLL: When I was in high school, there is no way for you to be a fan of country music and rock music. In our generation, you had to be one or the other. You wore a shirt and it was a Tim McGraw shirt or some sort of a rock dude or hip-hop dude and you were labeled being that kind of person. You didn’t have the right to listen to anything else. Those days are dead, man. My daughter’s playlist might go from Post Malone to Taylor Swift to Arianna Grande to 21 Savage, back to back. That shit wasn’t happening when we were young.

JINGLE JARED: But I understand that genres are important, and I applaud Billy Ray Cyrus for stepping up and getting into the corner of Lil Nas X, whether it is a cheap promotional stunt (God bless any and all cheap promotional stunts!) or him having an instinctual understanding of what country is, or him just stepping in saying this is the correct thing to do. I think Billy Ray often gets a bad rap. His “Achy Breaky Heart” shattered the glass ceiling of how far a country song could go. Hell, my family did that dance during the bar mitzvah era in North York, Ontario. That is a long way for country to travel.

JELLY ROLL: See that’s what I’m talking about! Billy Ray Cyrus is a real Nashville guy. Miley, Trace and Noah were all raised in Tennessee, and this is the shit that can be expected from that family. We proudly represent the Cyrus family, and they proudly represent Nashville.

Imagine if hip-hop treated Post Malone the same way country music is treating Lil Nas X when Post Malone first dropped “White Iverson,” which was a hip-hop record. It couldn’t be any more hip-hop than “White Iverson.” A little-known fact: six months before he dropped that song, he covered himself singing a Bob Dylan song on YouTube. That didn’t take off, and then six months later: “White Iverson.” And he said, “I am not a hip-hop artist; I just make music.” And it didn’t matter. It went viral, with or without the gatekeepers, and he was instantly accepted.

JINGLE JARED: One of the best experiences of my entire career has been working  with Jelly Roll, a pioneer of the crossover country-hop space (also known by the cringe-worthy title hick-hop). He is the unofficial mayor of the other side of Nashville. When you come to town, everybody claims to know him: Country artists swear by him and rappers love him. Yet country music seems to have closed the door on Jelly Roll’s ability to play in that space. This could be the moment of truly transformative disruption we’ve waited for.

JELLY ROLL: I have “Whiskey Sessions 2” on the way. It’s got a country-rock-hip-hop flair, and of course country will reject us just like they rejected Lil Nas X. Just like they rejected Post. F— ‘em.

Lil Nas X for president!

Jingle Jared (Gutstadt), beyond founding Jingle Punks, has written for or with artists including Brad Paisley, Ty Dolla Sign, Dierks Bentley, Lil Wayne, Poo Bear, Big K.R.I.T., Lynyrd Skynyrd, Timbaland,T Bone Burnett and most Recently collaborated with Bob Dylan on music for his upcoming musical podcast ‘Bear and a Banjo’.
Jelly Roll came to Jingle Jared’s attention when he appeared in a  Jimmy Fallon  monologue because Waffle House was threatening to sue him over the title of his mixtape “Weed, Whiskey and Waffle House.” This Friday, they release an album they have been putting together for five years, Jelly Roll’s “Whiskey Sessions 2,” which includes features by Travis Barker and Ingram Hill’s J.R. Moore.