Last December, a nineteen-year-old SoundCloud rapper from Atlanta named Lil Nas X released a new track called “Old Town Road.” He tagged the song not as hip-hop, as he had done with his previous work, but as country. Its production featured a trap beat, sure, but so do plenty of songs on country radio. And it may have been more spoken than sung, but so are the talking blues and square dance calls that have been turning up in country music for approximately a century. Besides, its cowboy symbolism, Southern drawl, and banjo-driven instrumental track gave it an unmistakably country-and-western feel, even if the artist’s previous work didn’t belong to that category.
This unassuming novelty tune became a viral success on the video platform TikTok, eventually debuting simultaneously on the Billboard Hot 100, Hot Country Songs, and Hot R&B / Hip-Hop charts when it was released as a single in March 2019. But then Billboard intervened, removing it from the country charts. In a statement to Rolling Stone, the editors explained:
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.
Definitions of country music tend to focus on its thematic content—the American South, poverty, marital infidelity—or its prominent wordplay, or its typical narrative structure. But Billboard’s deviated from this template. Instead, it argued, the foremost quality is a musical one. It should sound like country music—whatever that means. In spite of citing the “elements” of country music as the determinative factor, the statement does not bother to specify what they are.
To be fair, these elements are hard to pin down. The countryness of country doesn’t reside in harmony: songs can have two chords, as do a number of classic Hank Williams tunes, or they can have thirty-two, like the jazz-derived compositions played by Western swing acts like Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys. It also can’t be reduced to its instruments, which are shared by various other genres—steel guitar, borrowed from Hawaiian music; the fiddle, common to European folk music; and, most ubiquitous of all, the electric guitar.
Given that plenty of country hits sound similar to “Old Town Road”—sometimes glaringly so, like Jason Aldean’s version of “Dirt Road Anthem,” which not only shares a core metaphor but also is based on a beat-driven instrumental with a rap vocal—it’s hard to take Billboard’s claim seriously. Critics widely recognized that a double standard was being applied to a black artist. As Dom Flemons, a scholar and performer of African American cowboy songs, told Rolling Stone, there seems to be little else but racial stereotyping to explain why “a song about country-ish themes with a slight country twang, with imagery that is country-based” ended up not being considered country music.
When the sonic aspects of country are discussed, twang is the word that almost invariably comes up—in 2009, George Strait put out an album called just that. Twang’s simultaneous immediacy and vagueness make it a keyword for understanding what country music sounds like. You may not necessarily know what it means, but, to paraphrase Supreme Court justice Potter Stewart on pornography, you know it when you hear it. What makes the sound so elusive is its autonomy from its era, or from the means by which it’s produced. Archivist Karen Linn has found the word used in relation to American popular music as far back as 1891, when a newspaper bemoaned the “half-barbaric twang” of the banjo. Yet the sound of country music is not part of an unbroken tradition but an ongoing evolution. Just as a candle and a lightbulb both produce light, modern country may twang, but it uses electricity to do so.
The most distinctive sound in country music, and its most peculiar contraption, is the pedal steel guitar, an instrument that lacks the long history of the banjo or fiddle. It is a twentieth-century invention—an electromechanical device. The pedal steel’s roots can be traced to Hawaiian music, which uses a lap steel guitar, allowing a musician to play seamless transitions between notes by sliding a metal bar across the strings. Over on the mainland, the instrument was modified by players and instrument builders in the 1940s, who set it on a stand, added pedals to create even more parameters for shifting between notes, and electrified it, passing it through an amplifier to be heard above a live band as a melodic solo instrument. The resulting stream of music can sound otherworldly, making the passage from one note to another either imperceptible or seismic, depending on the player’s intention.
In his 1972 essay “The Grain of the Voice,” Roland Barthes considers those in-between aspects of musical sound, particularly in the vocal performance of European art songs. Music dictated on a page does not capture the experience of music as it is heard, nor does written text capture the varieties of meaning and affect generated in speech. “The ‘grain’ is the body in the voice as it sings, the hand as it writes, the limb as it performs,” Barthes writes. It was applicable, too, to instrumental music, but not every singer, or every player, was capable of expressing it. A performance with grain conveyed something “beyond (or before) the meaning of the words”—or, we might add, the notes. At the same time, the grain is not unrelated to the words; it is “the encounter between a language and a voice.” The articulation of the words or notes has its own material presence, and requires a kind of virtuosity to make it audible. In country music in the mid-twentieth century, an electrical signal made the body’s presence more real, like a lump of flesh being given life in a science fiction laboratory. It allowed country musicians to play their instruments with a Southern accent.
The word twang, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, dates back to the sixteenth century. Almost immediately, it was used in a literal sense—“the resonant sound produced when a tense string is sharply plucked or suddenly released”—as well as a symbolic one, primarily applying to the “vocal imitation” of this tone. The first recorded usage, by playwright Nicholas Udall in his sixteenth-century comedy Ralph Roister Doister, has its characters twanging not only lutes but sonnets, creating a general state of “twangledom.” Robin Hood’s bow twangs frequently in Sherwood Forest, throughout various tellings of the tale. But regardless of its specific relation to the plucking of a string, the word is associated less with the physical motion than with the resulting sound. In the eighteenth century, in his epic poem The Dunciad, Alexander Pope used it to describe the cacophony of an unruly crowd: “So swells each windpipe; ass intones to ass. / Harmonic twang! of leather, horn, and brass.”
It also continued to retain a relationship to speech—often a derisive one. In 1658, The New World of English Words, or, a General Dictionary defined twang as “an ill sound in one’s Pronunciation.” In the centuries to come, it would be attributed variously to the Irish, the Flemish, and other groups that spoke established languages with nonstandard accents. Today, this sense of the word is commonly associated with various dialects of the American South. The derision remains, as though dialects were collections of mistakes rather than particular systems that have to be agreed on to be spoken and understood. The Southern dialect has other features—dropped g’s, double negatives, and so on. But it also has a quality that brings to mind the plucking of a string. This is a phenomenon called, in the linguistic terminology, a diphthong—the glide from one vowel sound to another. It makes the word itself onomatopoeic, forcing anyone referring to it to use it. Since country music is made mostly with strings and voices, it seems like an apt descriptor. But just as Southern accents can lead Northern snobs to dismiss the words being spoken, twang, in spite of its constant presence, is not necessarily the whole story.
Since cultural critics who address country music—myself included—tend to focus on its verbal content, you have to talk to musicians to get a sense of its sound. One such expert is guitarist and composer Jim Campilongo, who has treated the playing of country session musicians in the music’s golden age with the kind of perceptive admiration that the directors of French new wave cinema applied to early Hollywood. But despite being called “the sultan of twang” by The New Yorker, he considers the word twang “one-dimensional,” akin to describing Jimi Hendrix’s playing merely as “fuzzy.” It can lead listeners to make the same mistake he once had to correct in himself: hearing music of significant complexity and stopping at the surface, failing to notice the depths underlying every note.
Campilongo’s foray into country began one afternoon in the early 1980s, when he walked into Mill Valley Music, a record store near San Rafael, California, as he explained it to me in the record-lined living room of his Brooklyn apartment, where I myself have taken a few guitar lessons. He was barely out of his teens then, a budding guitarist who played a Fender Stratocaster, as did his favorite players, Jimi Hendrix and Eric Clapton. He was idly browsing the bins when one record caught his eye: Okie from Muskogee, the 1969 live album by Merle Haggard and the Strangers. This is that guy who hates hippies, he remembers thinking, seeing the singer posing cheerfully on the cover. The title track, a number one country single on its release, begins: “We don’t smoke marijuana in Muskogee.” Having grown up in the wake of the Bay Area countercultural movement, Campilongo figured the album was just about the opposite of the music he was into: the Beatles, Miles Davis, Muddy Waters. Country music, he thought at the time, was just that Hee Haw TV show bullshit he remembered from his childhood. But he decided he might as well buy the record—it cost only a dollar or two, and he could play it for his friends as a joke.
He was also fairly sure he knew how to play this kind of music. The first thing most aspiring lead guitarists learn is a minor pentatonic scale, which, with the addition of a dissonant passing note—the flatted fifth—becomes a blues scale. In rock music based on the blues, a guitarist can often get away with playing nothing else, for the whole song, on every song—an open secret that has made Clapton a wealthy man. It doesn’t always work quite as well in other styles, but there’s a trick: move your fingers down three frets and play the same scale, and you have the major pentatonic scale. This sweeter, more consonant sound is better suited to mellower kinds of music, and is even favored by blues players with a lighter touch. This, Campilongo thought, is all you have to do to play country.
But when he tried to learn how to play the songs on Okie from Muskogee, starting with the solo on “If I Had Left It Up to You,” a wistful ballad he had taken an unexpected liking to, the trick didn’t work. Roy Nichols, the virtuosic lead guitarist for the Strangers, was doing something much more complex. He was following the movement of the song’s harmony, adapting to the changing chords as gracefully as Haggard did with the lilt of his voice, but departing from the melody as imaginatively as a jazz improviser, with flurries of notes and twisting slurs. On top of that, there was a clearer sound, in stark contrast to the digitally enhanced guitar tones of the day that seemed to come “through a lens.” The sound felt “intimate,” Campilongo explained—you could hear not only the notes, but “the person behind it.” There was a human being producing the sounds that traveled from fingertips to strings to circuitry, then into the ears of the human listening.
Another favorite solo of his, on “No Hard Times,” with its chiming, cascading notes, sounded like it had to be played by two people at once—but it wasn’t; it was just Nichols. At the very least, Campilongo was forced to respect country music more than he used to. But it went further than that. The song’s themes—adult experiences of love and work—resonated with a young man reaching maturity. (Also, it turned out that Haggard could be a bit of a hippie himself, to the point that, by the 2000s, he openly advocated for the legalization of marijuana.) Campilongo soon moved on to Buck Owens, the same wisecracking hillbilly who had hosted Hee Haw, but who turned out to be rawer and realer than his TV persona had let on. His lead guitarist, Don Rich, was Roy Nichols’s most notable peer, and Owens himself was a capable and original player. He and his band, the Buckaroos, had introduced the rhythmic charge and amplified tones of rock and roll to the honky-tonk country template, preventing country from being fully absorbed by the middlebrow orchestrated pop it had leaned toward in the early ’60s.
Campilongo began showing up to record swap meets, on Sundays at the crack of dawn, to buy the most sought-after records right out of the trunks of vendors’ cars. Like any collector, he ended up with some clunkers, but the best of them were miracles: Johnny Paycheck’s gothic balladry for Little Darlin’, Chet Atkins’s impossibly intricate solo instrumentals, Speedy West and Jimmy Bryant’s breakneck hillbilly jazz. By 1987, he said, he had become “a horse with blinders on,” ignoring contemporary rock and dedicating himself to hearing, understanding, and performing country guitar accurately and authentically. By then, he had traded his Hendrix-inspired Strat for the instrument that preceded it: a Telecaster.
The Telecaster was the invention of Leo Fender, a radio repairman who did not know how to tune a guitar and could not play a note on any instrument. He had, by chance, begun to apply his obsession for engineering to building pedal steel guitars at his small shop in Fullerton, California, beginning in the 1940s. Working closely with musicians like Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys, Fender obsessively tried to improve his designs to suit the players’ needs. Eventually, he applied his tinkering to the traditional guitar itself, a development that is documented in Ian S. Port’s 2019 book The Birth of Loud: Leo Fender, Les Paul, and the Guitar-Pioneering Rivalry That Shaped Rock ’n’ Roll. As well as pedal steels, Fender built guitar amplifiers for early electric guitars, which at that point were little more than acoustic guitars with circuitry attached to their sound holes. This allowed forward-thinking musicians like Charlie Christian to elevate his guitar to a melodic instrument in swing bands. Rather than remaining in the background, the guitar could finally be heard over a horn section.
But hollow-bodied guitars had their limits, and Christian himself preferred playing with small groups, helping to catalyze the transition from swing to bebop. The existing technology presented problems for musicians now playing in bars and concert halls, where the sound of the band needed to fill large spaces and compete with crowd noise. At certain volumes, the tone being sent to the amplifier would exceed its frequency range, causing a hissing, distorted sound. Worse still, the acoustic chamber could send a signal bouncing back and forth in a loop, causing shrieks of feedback.
These properties, once a nuisance, have come to define the sound of an electric guitar, as any metalhead can tell you. But before they could be harnessed and pushed to their limits, an obstacle remained: the acoustic sound that emanated from a hollow guitar’s interior. As Port recounts, Fender would attend performances by groups like Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys, which included guitarists Junior Barnard and Eldon Shamblin, sometimes rushing to the stage to tinker with the equipment during the show. “That’s our friend Leo Fender, from Fender Electric,” Port quotes Wills as saying on one such occasion. “He’s the reason you can hear us tonight.”
Back at his workshop, Fender set himself the task of crafting an instrument that produced strictly an electrical signal, only articulated at full volume after being sent to the amplifier. The solution was borrowed from the pedal steel: eliminate the hollow vibrating body and use a solid board. In a way, though it was shaped and played like a guitar, this new instrument had much in common with the synthesizer, the earliest versions of which generated sound waves by means of vibrating steel parts in a magnetic field. Fender first called his instrument an Esquire; then, with the addition of a second pickup, a Broadcaster—until the Gretsch company insisted he change it to avoid confusion with its Broadkaster drum set. In 1951, in a nod to the transition from radio to television, it was rechristened the Telecaster, the name it is still known by today. It has never become obsolete.
Okie from Muskogee turning up in a Bay Area record store is an almost perfect encapsulation of the path of modern country music. Haggard and Owens had both been based in Bakersfield, California, not Nashville or Texas, the conventional homes of the genre. Country’s California presence had begun in the wake of the Dust Bowl, when migrants from Oklahoma and surrounding states moved west, bringing their Southern accents and string instruments with them.
Roy Nichols, Haggard’s lead guitarist, had gotten his start at fifteen, playing with Rose Maddox and the Maddox Brothers. He met Merle Haggard when they both played in Wynn Stewart’s band, which Buck Owens also passed through. The Telecaster retailed for $189.50 in 1951, but Owens obtained his first one from a bandmate for $35. It was soon met at the market by a more expensive competitor, crafted to resemble upmarket hollow-body guitars: the Gibson Les Paul. That was the instrument that would later initiate the screaming tones of modern rock, heard as early as 1965, when Eric Clapton plugged one into a Marshall amplifier with John Mayall’s Blues Breakers. But the relatively uncomplicated, unadorned Telecaster didn’t make that kind of sound. The effect of its interface was to magnify every aspect of the player’s interaction with it, as Jim Campilongo heard on Okie from Muskogee.
In the hands of Roy Nichols, Don Rich, and James Burton, the teenage prodigy who preceded Nichols on Haggard’s early records, that possibility was fully realized. The encounter between the player’s body and the instrument became part of the music, at a level more audible than had been possible with acoustic instruments. To maximize their expressive range, these guitarists and their contemporaries adopted techniques from the other instruments that characterized country music. In order to bend notes far enough to evoke the gliding tones of a pedal steel, Burton equipped his Telecaster with banjo strings, which are thinner and more pliable than standard guitar strings. Meanwhile, players like Jimmy Bryant, an early adopter of a prototype Telecaster, transmuted Appalachian fiddle tunes into structures as complex as those in modern jazz. The sonic qualities of country were converging onto one machine, recently invented for the purpose.
This technological innovation made it possible for country to keep up with rock and roll, which was getting faster and louder with each passing year. Buck Owens often cited Little Richard as one of his major influences, and covered songs by Chuck Berry, including “Johnny B. Goode.” Many listeners balked at this tendency, and in spite of his relentless success on the charts, Owens’s music was often consigned to the fringes in Nashville. He would later tell a Billboard reporter that he didn’t really care about the distinctions between styles. “I saw [‘Johnny B. Goode’] as being about a little boy playing a guitar sitting by a railroad track,” he explained. “That’s pretty country to me.”
By the late 1980s, things had changed since the first time Jim Campilongo heard Roy Nichols play. Though Stratocasters had become the most iconic electric guitar, and rock stars often played more expensive Gibsons, some players held fast to the belief that the Telecaster’s possibilities had not yet been exhausted. In 1986, Dwight Yoakam and Randy Travis both put out their debut albums, with the Telecasters of Pete Anderson and Brent Mason, respectively, at the forefront of their influential styles. They stripped country to its essentials, inspired by the Bakersfield sound and Western swing, and without conceding to crossing over to the pop charts. Mason would go on to play with Alan Jackson, Brooks and Dunn, and just about every other major country artist of the 1990s, consolidating the approaches of Nichols, Rich, and Burton into a fast-paced, concertedly twangy style that has become the industry standard. At the same time, Bill Frisell had been establishing a name for himself as a participant in the most cutting-edge jazz of the day, favoring Telecasters and eventually making a foray into country music himself.
Yet in spite of modern country’s California heritage, and its resurgence during this time—Yoakam notably relocated to Los Angeles after failing to find success in Nashville—Campilongo still didn’t feel like it was a local culture. Some of the older musicians who played country were guarded about it, declining to mentor younger players. But one local elder, a man named Doc West, was willing to offer some guidance. He told Jim about the existence of an organization called the Steel Guitar Record Club, advising him to visit a San Francisco pizzeria called Escape from New York Pizza and ask for Joe Goldmark. Goldmark made him a cassette tape full of instrumental country music to get him started, and Campilongo eventually collected every release from the Steel Guitar Record Club—he still owns the complete set.
Inspired by the pedal steel’s greatest players, like Buddy Emmons and Lloyd Green, Campilongo tried learning the instrument at one point, picking up a Sho-Bud Maverick, designed by Emmons himself. His efforts lasted about three weeks before he realized he could get good at either one instrument or the other, and he didn’t want to start from scratch. After playing backup in bands that never seemed to stay together, he finally decided to play what he really wanted to play: “country jazz without a singer, that no one could dance to.” He ended up forming his first country band, the 10 Gallon Cats, as a leader in the early ’90s, with Goldmark on pedal steel. He booked a gig before learning the songs, and immersed himself in transcribing his records.
Campilongo’s own music synthesizes the country style with his other influences in jazz and psychedelic rock, and when hearing him play today—most recently, on a live album taped during his ongoing residency at Manhattan’s Rockwood Music Hall—a single adjective fails to capture the result. He doesn’t just pluck and strum; he snaps and slaps the strings to produce whatever sound he’s after. He sometimes adjusts knobs and turns tuning pegs, mid-note, to alter the tone he started with. There are diphthongs, to be sure, but there is also an entire language being spoken. And language, like technology, never stops evolving.
As the furor over “Old Town Road” came to a crest, a new player entered the field. Nineties crossover star Billy Ray Cyrus, best known for his country and pop hit “Achy Breaky Heart” (and, unrelatedly, as the father of Miley Cyrus), offered to appear on a remix of the song. On Twitter, he invoked a country tradition:
Been watching everything going on with OTR. When I got thrown off the charts, Waylon Jennings said to me “Take this as a compliment” means you’re doing something great! Only Outlaws are outlawed. Welcome to the club!
The result is an inversion of the usual formula, where a pop song is remixed with a guest verse by a rapper. Here, the country singer appears with a featured verse on a rapper’s single. As of this writing, the remix is the number one single on the Hot 100, but it has not appeared on the country charts.
“All you need to write a country song,” the legendary Nashville songwriter Harlan Howard once said, “is three chords and the truth.” In fact, he probably said it more than once. It has certainly been repeated enough times that it serves as a de facto definition of the genre: simple, unpretentious, honest. It’s a graceful turn of phrase, typical of its quick-witted author, but it hardly suffices to encompass its subject. Country music is full of ambiguity, irony, and deception. The unreliable narrator of George Jones’s “She Thinks I Still Care” (to take one classic example), who swears he dialed his former lover’s number by mistake, hardly knows the truth about himself. In the late ’60s, Merle Haggard’s politics became more a litmus test for the listener than a direct expression of his own convictions.
A genre that questions itself to this extent does not comfortably fit within strict boundaries—it is the marketplace that has imposed them, dating back to the separation of “Folk Records” and “Race Records” on Billboard charts in the 1940s. In this context, it would be a mistake not to credit Lil Nas X with a shrewd strategy—he was following in footsteps left by the biggest shoes in country. Like Leo Fender, Bob Wills, Buck Owens, and their contemporaries, he created something new, with the most modern technology at his disposal. He offered it to the world and said, That’s pretty country to me. The history of country music shows that only a fool would try to prove him wrong.