April 15, 2019

What makes "Old Town Road" sound Country?

On April 13, 2019, Lil Nas X scored his first number one hit with "Old Town Road." This would otherwise be unremarkable except for the fact that it's a trap/country crossover made by a rapper who got it to blow up on TikTok. It's a short song, less than two minutes long. Although it was released under the 'country' genre on iTunes and other services, Billboard removed it from its country charts, citing that it did not incorporate enough aspects of modern country music. This has proved to be controversial, prompting debates about what country is and how Billboard can measure a genre. The question of whether race played a role has also hung over the song's removal from the charts.

In the midst of the controversy about the song and its memetic rise to success, the song itself has been forgotten. But I found one aspect of it particularly interesting and country-ish: Lis Nas X puts on a Southern accent in the song. Specifically, he imitates the variety of Southern American English spoken by white Americans. He himself is from Atlanta, Georgia, and speaks a Southern variety of African American Vernacular English. Lis Nas X imitating a mostly-white Southern accent would not be notable under most circumstances. After all, Taylor Swift, from the mid-Atlantic northern state of Pennsylvania, put on a Southern accent when she did country music. But it's especially interesting because African American Vernacular English and Southern American English are very similar in many ways! Some of the features they have in common are:

  • Pin-pen merger: pronouncing "pin" and "pen" as "pin," instead of pronouncing both distinctly.
  • /aɪ/ monophthongization: words like "ride" with an /aɪ/ sound get pronounced with the monophthong /a/. This means "ride" sounds like something between "rad" and "rod." There is no 'ee' or 'ih' sound at the end of the vowel, unlike in General American English.
  • Use of negative concord. This means that if one part of a sentence is negated, the whole sentence must be negated to 'agree' with it. So "nobody can tell me anything" becomes "nobody can't tell me nothing."
  • Feel-fill merger: both "feel" and "fill" are pronounced "fill." In General American English, "feel" has the long vowel of "feet" and "fill" has the short vowel of "fit" - they do not rhyme.

And this is far from exhaustive. The similarities between these two dialects should not come as a shock, since African American Vernacular English and Southern American English developed side by side due to the concentration of slavery in the American South. African American Vernacular English developed among slaves in the South and was influenced by Southern American English. Southern American English might have had influence from African American Vernacular English (see Richard Bailey's "Speaking American: a History of English in the United States"). It is hard to disentangle who influenced whom in the past.

But despite that, the two dialects are distinct, and Lil Nas X makes use of those distinctions to put on a more "country" sounding voice.

  • Exaggerated rhoticity. Lil Nas X leans in hard on the "r"s, making them longer and more notable. Modern Southern American English is rhotic, while African American Vernacular English is non-rhotic - "r"s after vowels are not pronounced.
    • "Riding on a tractorrr, lean all in my bladderrr ... you can whip your porrrsche." - Old Town Road
    Compare this to how Lil Nas X pronounces "r"s:

    • "Droppin' shit way before Decemba. Be afraid, hope you do rememba." - Thanos
  • /eɪ/ lowered to [ɛɪ]. The way he says "baby" almost sounds like "bu-ee-by." Although the "ey" /eɪ/ sound can be lowered in African American Vernacular English, it is not as dramatic as in Southern American English. Moreover, Lil Nas X does not use the low "ey" sound in his own music, so it is definitely something he is using to imitate Southern American English.
    • "Cheated on my beh-y-by" - Old Town Road
    Compare this to how Lil Nas X pronounces "ey"s:

    • "Cake the beat, I'm just the right ice ... workin' late night." - Rookie
  • /æ/ is turning into a diphthong /ɛə/. This is part of the Southern Vowel Shift. He says "tractor" as "tre-a-ctor." Once again, although this sound can be found in African American English, Lil Nas X does not use it in his own music. He says "smack" with the monophthong [æ].
    • "I got the horses in the beack... hat is matte bleack... riding on my treactor, lean all in my bladder" - Old Town Road
    Compare this to how Lil Nas X pronounces "aa"s:

    • "Smokin' on crack, I am on fire like Jack." - Thanos

What is curious about this is that Lil Nas X is not the only one who uses these tactics to imitate Southern American English. R. Kelly, a singer who has more recently been in the news for sexual abuse, used similar tactics in the 8th part of his musical series "Trapped in the Closet," as well as another additional feature.

  • Exaggerated rhoticity.
    • "Darrrlin', where have you been? I've been wurr'd about you ... sweethearrrt." - Trapped in the Closet
  • Parts of the Southern shift that he himself does not use.
    • /ɛ/ 'eh' becomes 'eya' [ɛjɪ].
    • "Then he screams, 'Bridgette!' 'Yeyis?'" - Trapped in the Closet


    • /i/ 'ee' becomes 'ey' [ɪi].

    • "Take your time, I still got some claynin' ... You know what I mayn." - Trapped in the Closet
  • /eɪ/ is lowered. R. Kelly also centers it so it sounds like "uh-ee" [əɪ].
    • "Your fuyvrite, cherry ... tuyk your time, I still got some cleanin' ... 'muybe? muybe that time of the month?'" - Trapped in the Closet
  • /u/ fronting. Southern American English pushes the /u/ sound to the front of the mouth so "you" /ju/ sounds like "yew" [jʉ]. This is a feature that is not present in African American Vernacular English.
    • "Darlin', where have you been? I've been worried about yew." - Trapped in the Closet

Although Lil Nas X's "Old Town Road" may not have been country enough for Billboard, it follows a tradition of country singers adopting another accent to sound more country. It is also an interesting example of the ways that a speaker of one dialect tries to imitate another, similar dialect, by leaning in on the most distinctive aspects (and keeping the similar ones, like /aɪ/-monophthongization). Are you aware of any other examples of African American singers using these features to imitate Southern American English, in or outside of the country music genre? I've noticed that although rhoticity is exaggerated, another distinctive Southern American feature, fronting "oh" /oʊ/ to "uh-uu" [əʊ], is missing from these imitations.

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