Culture  /  Q&A

‘Old Town Road’ and the History of Black Cowboys in America

A songwriter-historian weighs in on the controversy over Lil Nas X’s country-trap hit.

When folk-singer Dom Flemons began delving into the cultural history of African-Americans in the West a few years ago, he conceived the subject as a quirky passion project. “At first it was just casual research,” he says. “But when I found out one in four cowboys in the West were African-American cowboys, that sent me on a trajectory to figure something out: Why don’t I hear more about black cowboys in contemporary culture?”

The end result of Flemons’ curiosity was Black Cowboys, released last spring, a deeply historically-minded album of Western songs that traces the forgotten cultural history and musical lineages of black cowboys in the American West.

Less than a year later, Flemons has been flummoxed and delighted to find that the type of history he was mining for his project has found itself at the very center of the pop mainstream, with artists like Solange and Cardi B presenting an aestheticized version of black cowboy culture to a wide audience in recent months. More recently, Flemons has been closely following the story of Lil Nas X, whose country-trap blockbuster hit “Old Town Road,” which incorporates visual, lyrical and musical Western mythology, has stirred controversy since its release. Today, Lil Nas X released a remix of the song with country-crossover singer Billy Ray Cyrus, who says he “loved the song the first time I heard it.”

“To see that mainstream stars are picking up on this idea, I think it’s fantastic,” Flemons tells Rolling Stone. “It acknowledges a huge demographic of the population. My job has always just been to have the history in place, so if someone wants to say, ‘ Black cowboys didn’t exist,’ someone can [point to my work] and say, ‘No, they did. Here, read about it.’”

Rolling Stone recently spoke with Flemons about “Old Town Road,” the yee-haw agenda, the cultural history of black cowboys, and the musical history of black country music.

View on Rolling Stone