Graham: 'Old Town Road' rides into the history books

How an unknown rapper teamed with a washed-up country star and created a sensation

Adam Graham
The Detroit News
Billy Ray Cyrus, left, and Lil Nas X perform "Old Town Road" at the BET Awards on Sunday, June 23, 2019, at the Microsoft Theater in Los Angeles.

The success of Lil Nas X's "Old Town Road" is so insanely improbable that in order to comprehend it, you have to take a step back and look at what's going on. 

Let's say that on New Year's Eve I would have pulled you aside and told you that this coming year, an unknown rapper would team up with Miley Cyrus' dad on a track that sampled Nine Inch Nails, and the song would go on to enjoy a record-smashing run at No. 1 on the pop charts. Hopefully you would have forcefully removed the champagne bottle from my grip and called me an Uber.

But here we are, and here's "Old Town Road." The country-trap ditty about finding freedom by escaping the everyday grind — clocking in at under two minutes for the original, just over two and-a-half minutes for the Billy Ray Cyrus-featuring remix — has been No. 1 on Billboard's Hot 100 list for 15 weeks. When the new chart is released Monday, it looks to repeat yet again, which would tie it for the longest run at No. 1 in Billboard history.

Only two other songs — Mariah Carey and Boyz II Men's "One Sweet Day" in 1995 and 1996, and Luis Fonsi, Daddy Yankee and Justin Bieber's "Despacito" in 2017 — have ruled the Hot 100 for 16 weeks. Lil Nas X and his growing posse of remix pals, which now includes Young Thug and viral yodeling Walmart kid, Mason Ramsey, look to not only join them but eclipse them, possibly making "Old Town Road" not only the biggest hit in Hot 100 history, but also its most unlikely. 

How did we get here? There are many determining factors. "Old Town Road" is a thoroughly 2019 hit, a genre-straddling lark built on memes, virality and modern streaming consumption models. It might only make sense today, if you can even say it makes sense today. 

It began with a controversy. "Old Town Road," which is built on a sample of Nine Inch Nails' "34 Ghosts IV," a track from NIN's 2008 "Ghosts I-IV' instrumental album, first gained popularity in late 2018 and early 2109 on the video sharing app TikTok. When it began impacting the Billboard charts in the springtime, Billboard abruptly removed it from its Hot Counry Songs chart, arguing the song "does not embrace enough elements of today’s country music" to qualify for the chart.

Critics of the decision saw that delineation as inherently racist — Lil Nas X is black — and cited country music's history of ignoring artists such as Ray Charles. Mainstream media picked up the story, and the attention helped "Old Town Road" leapfrog the country charts altogether and rocket to No. 1 on the Hot 100, where it landed the second week of April. Lil Nas X added Billy Ray Cyrus to the song's official remix, as if to prove a point about "Old Town Road's" country cred, kitsch value and outsider status. 

Billy Ray in tow, "Old Town Road" exploded in popularity. As it began amassing weeks at No. 1, it blocked chart titans such as Ed Sheeran, Taylor Swift and Justin Bieber from claiming the top spot. Its closest competition has been Billie Eilish's "bad guy," which has been sitting patiently at No. 2 for five non-consecutive weeks, waiting for its opportunity to pounce. (Last week, Bieber hopped on a remix of "bad guy," a calculated attempt to hijack the No. 1 position; Monday's chart will reveal if it worked.) 

"Old Town Road's" success is attributable to several factors. Its length is both optimal for repeated listens and brief enough to not wear out its welcome. The lyrics are so easy to learn the song became a smash with elementary schoolers; in May, Lil Nas X performed it for a group of screaming schoolchildren in a clip that went mega-viral. (In a few years, those kids will chuckle when they learn the meaning of that "lean all in my bladder" line.) 

In these divisive times, "Old Town Road" has united listeners across boundaries of race, sex, age and class. It's that fun, and even this far into its run, it still doesn't feel exhausted or played out. Maybe it's because the rest of the world is on fire, but there's something that's still amusing about "Old Town Road" and its yee-haw, urban cowboy aesthetic. It's a novelty song whose novelty is waning but has yet to wear off.  

Lil Nas X, who turned 20 the week the song hit No. 1, has been there to shepherd the song through its success. He has an amusing, quick-witted online presence, gleaned from his past on Twitter as a creator of viral content, and he shares "Old Town Road" memes daily. (He's a former tweetdecker, someone who games the online system in order to manipulate metrics, and a term that should make anyone over age 30 feel cold and alone.) 

The rapper, who came out as gay the last week of June, released his debut EP, "7," last month. But he knows "Old Town Road" is his meal ticket, and eating is never likely to get this good again. "I act like im ok but deep down inside i wanna release another old town road remix," he tweeted on July 12.

He just may. This week, he teased remixes with Mariah Carey and Dolly Parton, and there's no telling where "Old Town Road" might ultimately lead. Even if it falls from No. 1, we're going to be living with it forever, the same way "Macarena" still comes around every once in a while.

"Old Town Road" is now a part of our fabric, a weird snapshot in time, a postcard to the future signed 2019. So get used to it. This horse still has legs.