This Rhodes College professor became the expert voice in Lil Nas X, ‘Old Town Road’ debate

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Lil Nas X and Billy Ray Cyrus win biggest musical event at the 53rd Annual CMA Awards.
Mike Fant, Nashville TennesseanFour years ago, when Rhodes College professor Charles Hughes published his book “Country Soul: Making Music and Making Race in the American South,” he had no idea that his academic history would become part of 2019’s hottest pop culture debate. “But then came Lil Nas X,” says Hughes, referring to the African American artist/rapper who scored the year’s biggest hit with “Old Town Road,” and kicked against the conventions of what has historically been considered country music.”Old Town Road,” originally released independently in late 2018, became an online sensation, then made its way onto the national country charts, where it got to No. 19 before Billboard disqualified it for not fitting the genre. The song would go on to top several other charts, including the Hot 100 for a record-breaking 19 weeks, eventually earning a diamond certification (10 million combined streaming and sales). Last month, the song and its video were nominated for three Grammy awards, including Record of the Year. “This guy emerged who would basically embody what I’m talking about in the book,” says Hughes. “He was proof that the questions of race and music, especially when it comes to black artists, those questions are still unbelievably potent. It all happened and crystallized around this monster hit that came out of nowhere.”As the controversy and success of the song grew, Hughes found himself being called on as an expert voice on the matter, quoted in articles about Lil Nas X and the debate about his place in country music everywhere from the New York Times and Los Angeles Times, to NPR, The Economist and the Huffington Post.“I wrote the book trying to understand the story we tell about black and white musical interaction, trying to understand the racial boundaries in country music and the way white involvement in soul music plays into that,” Hughes said. “But it’s pretty amazing how much that idea was in the cultural zeitgeist this year.”  Hughes spent most of his life fascinated by and exploring those questions. A native of Wausau, Wisconsin, and the only child of soul music-loving parents, his epiphany moment came while he was in high school and attended a concert by British singer-songwriter Nick Lowe. The opening act was Dan Penn and Spooner Oldham, two white musicians who had been key figures in the evolution of Southern soul in both Muscle Shoals, Alabama, and Memphis. MUSIC NEWS: Soul men Steve Cropper, Dan Penn, Don Bryant among the honored at Memphis Music Hall of Fame ceremony“Seeing these two white Southern guys do all these deep soul classics that they wrote or played on, it was like, ‘Wow, this shatters my notion of what race and music is about,’” Hughes said. “That was a real paradox — and that’s when that whole idea really clicked for me.” Hughes went on to the heralded Afro-American Studies program at the University of Wisconsin, where he ultimately got his Ph.D. in history. After a fellowship at the Smithsonian, he came to Rhodes in 2012, where he did his post-doctoral work. Following a one-year stint teaching at Oklahoma State University, he returned full time to Rhodes in 2015, as a professor of urban studies. He also now serves as the director of Lynne and Henry Turley Memphis Center.  Over the years, Hughes taught a number of musical/cultural courses including “Elvis Presley and America,” “Beale Street: Past, Present and Future,” “Music of the American South” and classes on soul music. “Music is in every course I teach, even if it’s not specifically a music class,” he said.  BLUFF CITY BICENTENNIAL: 200 Memphis music momentsHis years of interest in race, music and their commingling resulted in the publication of “Country Soul” in 2015.“My focus with the book was on Southern soul music — music made in Memphis, Muscle Shoals and Nashville. There were cities where there were soul scenes, deep soul music, being made by integrated groups of musicians. But I wrote the book trying to push back against the idea that we are post-racial and that the music is a sign of us getting over the old problems.”The furor of Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road,” and Billboard’s decision to remove the song from the country charts in 2019, “reflected the same history that I was trying to recount happening in the ’60s and ’70s,” Hughes said.  He sees the debate about Lil Nas X as part of a broader conversation dominating the national consciousness. “Since the very beginning of this genre called country music, there have always been arguments about who gets to be part of country music — and that’s always reflective of the arguments about who gets to be part of America, and our identity as Americans,” he said.“It’s not something that’s new or that I’m the first to observe. But we definitely are in a moment where our political debates are structured around the idea that there is a ‘real America’ — and country music has always played off those conceptions.” GRAMMY NOMINATIONS: Memphis and Mid-South acts nominated in blues, gospel categoriesHughes adds that African Americans, whether as fans or performers, “have always challenged the notions of what the boundary is in country music. Black performers have always transgressed and pushed against that. What’s so exciting about [Lil Nas X] is how he has challenged people’s conceptions.”Hughes hopes to challenge a few conceptions of his own with his next two projects. He’s signed a deal with University of Texas Press to publish a critical biography of the Geto Boys’ Bushwick Bill. The hardcore Houston rapper, who was born with dwarfism, died earlier this year, and Hughes’ book will appear as part of UT Press “Music Matters” series (following other titles on Karen Carpenter, The Ramones and Beach Boys, among others). For Hughes, Bushwick Bill remains not just one of rap’s greatest MCs, but also a kind of personal lodestar. “We share shortness,” notes Hughes, “and I was drawn to the way he talked about being a short person in the world. He does it in a way that is negotiating and embracing and talking about disability in outrageous and political and confrontational terms. Engaging with that is one thing that drew me to him.” Hughes’ other book project will be a “left turn,” as he describes it, a history of African Americans and professional wrestling in the United States, exploring their impact, roles and involvement in the squared circle and beyond. “It’s different in some ways from music or what I’ve written about in the past,” he says. “But again it’s not that far removed from what I’ve focused on: it’s the junction of pop culture and race and racial politics. That’s really what my focus always is.”  Read or Share this story: https://www.commercialappeal.com/story/news/2019/12/03/lil-nas-x-old-town-road-country-music-rhodes-college-charles-hughes/2508931001/

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