The remix of Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road” featuring Billy Ray Cyrus gave new meaning to “song of the summer” — it held the No. 1 spot for pretty much all of the warm weather months, from April until Aug. 19 when Billie Eilish’s “Bad Guy” put an end to its record-breaking 19-week reign on the Hot 100.
But on Monday afternoon, Lil Nas X’s co-managers at Maverick, Adam Leber (pictured at right) and Gee Roberson, still hadn’t heard the week 20 verdict in their chic Beverly Hills offices. “No. 1: Did we get it this week?” Leber asks. “Or did we lose it?
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“I don’t know,” Roberson confesses, whipping out his phone. “I’ve gotta check now. But I would say regardless of chart positioning and numbers and what have you, this song is timeless. We are going through the motions of a classic in the present day.”
“I mean, it’s week 20 and we’re trying to find out whether we’re still No. 1 or No. 2,” Leber says with a laugh. “It’s been a crazy run.”
Other stats are equally impressive. Over 20 weeks, “Old Town Road” has racked up more than 282 million YouTube views, 612 million streams on Spotify and is approaching 360,000 spins on radio, according to Mediabase, half of those plays on Top 40.
These seasoned industry power players — Roberson represented Nicki Minaj for most of her career (the two split in June); Leber manages Miley and Noah Cryus and their dad and serves as music supervisor on HBO’s “Euphoria” — are quick to give their 19-year-old client full credit. “What we’ve learned working with Lil Nas is he’s the master of his own destiny,” Leber says. After all, he seemingly manifested this remix: “Twitter, please help me get Billy Ray Cyrus on this,” he wrote on Dec. 4 — the day after releasing the original independently. But it was the social video sharing app TikTok that helped it gain popularity and led to Nas’ deal with Columbia Records in March when the song blew up — and Billboard booted it off its Hot Country chart just as it was about to reach the summit.
“Billboard deemed it, you know, not country enough,” recalls Leber. “I knew it was going to explode when the country chart didn’t accept it and it went from No. 19 to taken off,” Roberson says. “To me that was a vital tipping point.” Adds Leber: “When that happened it became one of the biggest conversations in music at that time.”
And that was before Cyrus came into the picture. “I got a call from [Columbia Records chairman and CEO] Ron Perry inquiring about whether Billy Ray would jump on the song,” says Leber. “My initial thought was: Billy Ray makes no sense for this. But it makes all the sense in the world: Billy Ray was a rebel in Nashville and an outlaw of country music — he was almost ex-communicated for having such a big hit with ‘Achy Breaky Heart.’ So if you think about it, 30 years later Nas actually has a very similar story, right?”
At least the Cyrus clan thought so. Leber says his first call was actually to Billy Ray’s wife, Tish. “I knew she would get it, so I sent her the song and she called me back literally three minutes later and she was with Billy Ray,” Leber recalls. “It wasn’t even a conversation — they both got it. That whole process of the call from Ron to me to Tish to Billy Ray was done in the span of an hour. And they went in the recording studio later that day and banged it out. The truth is Billy Ray smashed his verse and I think that’s what sort of catapulted it.”
“I agree,” says Roberson. “It’s like the perfect ingredients to the stew. Just for Nas to have that presence of mind to go there — that’s what I think about. What 19-year-old kid would say, ‘Oh I want Billy Ray on the record?’ That says it all.”(Read more about the lyrics in Variety‘s recent interview with co-writer Jozzy.)
“It was so unexpected,” offers Leber. “You almost couldn’t wrap your head around it.” But aside from the novelty value, this pairing took on a symbolic power that helped their remix to transcend music genres, radio formats and racial divides, among other barriers. “When the world saw Billy Ray support this young African-American kid who was being treated unfairly, it resonated with people — and became a cultural phenomenon.”
As an added bonus for Cyrus, he now has cred in the hip-hop community: “The Billy Ray version was the sole focus of urban stations that started adding it on their own and going hard,” said Roberson. “It’s a level of respect that they have for Billy Ray. That’s what it boils down to.”