I could feel the thick, sludgy mud pushing up hard under my fingernails. I was clawing, struggling to pull my body over a slippery, ten-foot, nearly vertical rock ledge, next to four muck-soaked women, as a huge crowd pumped with moonshine and lord knows what else cheered on. I gripped down onto a tiny slice of protruding rock—I was so close, but my arms, which roughly contain the same amount of muscle as a Slim Jim, shook in resistance. My fingers gave way to my weight and I slid down the rock, knocking my tooth into the cold stone and scraping my thigh until I landed in the mud. I pressed my dirt-coated fingers to my tooth to make sure it was still there, then got up and tried again. It looked like a scene from a post-apocalyptic horror flick, or an incredibly specific and wildly problematic porno, but it was neither. It was “America's wildest & craziest Country party,” the Redneck Rave.
Last weekend, approximately 2,000 self-proclaimed rednecks descended upon the Blue Holler Offroad Park in Mammoth Cave, KY, a small town in a dry county about 100 miles south of Louisville known for having the longest cave system in the world. In those caves, as well as on the rough trails and muddy camps, attendees raged for four days, chugging from unmarked jars, hooking up in “cave orgies,” dancing on stripper poles mounted to trucks, writhing in the mud pit, doing donuts in off-roading vehicles, and blasting...Dido. OK, that was one dude who was clearly going through some shit. The event, which promised “MUD, MUSIC & MAYHEM,” was started six years ago in a cornfield by country rap artist Who TF Is Justin Time?, or simply Justin Time, a 33-year-old from Avon, Indiana.
“I had no idea what the hell I was doing, and I had a buddy say, ‘Hey man, if you dig a fuckin’ mud pit, people will show up and they’ll come break their shit,’” Time told me through a mouth full of shiny silver grills. “I said, ‘people actually pay for that?’”
The answer, turns out, was hell yeah they fuckin’ do!
“We did our first one and like a thousand people showed up, and then we did another one two weeks later and a few more thousand people showed up,” he said. “And I was like, ‘fuck, man. I’m onto something!’ I stopped working at Arby’s, I’ll tell you that much, man!” What started as a dirty rager in a cornfield has now amassed fans from all over, sometimes travelling hundreds of miles (the Facebook page has about 750k followers).
Time, whose real name is Justin Stowers, is a slim, towering guy, with arms freckled in tattoos, a thick faded blonde beard, and a sunny warmth about him, speaking excitedly, with a lot of “fuckin’s” and “yes, ma’am’s” peppered in, adding sweetness and spice to his Southern drawl. It was clear he’s a bit of an everyman god within this world. He easily draws a crowd, standing in thick mud and hootin’ it up, with a gun holstered to his hip. I silently pray he never has to use it, especially considering the chaos that erupted at the last Redneck Rave.
“We like to have a good time! We just do it on a four wheeler instead of in a nightclub.”
Just four months ago, in June, at the very same off-roading park, the Redneck Rave made global news. One headline read: “‘Redneck Rave’ Descends Into Throat Slashing, Impalements, and Mass Arrests.” Indeed, all those things happened, plus a woman got choked unconscious and another person lost a chunk of finger. All in all, 14 people were arrested in June. I asked Time about the events of the last Rave, and if things tend to get rowdy. “A little bit, ma’am,” he said. “I call it a controlled chaos. Anybody that comes out here knows what they’re getting themselves into. They sign a waiver at the front gate.” Even so, when fights break out, Time told me it’s most often amongst friends “and it's always pretty much over a piece of pussy.” It usually ends with a handshake.
Many attendees had a defiant pride in self-identifying as rednecks—some of them felt diminished by stereotypes and misconceptions from other parts of the country. “People assume rednecks are white trash,” said Shawn Paris, a 32-year-old country rap artist and general contractor from Charlotte, North Carolina. “Country is not a monetary thing; it’s a way of life. Hollywood views it as, if you’re in the country as you’re broke, you’ve got three teeth, you’re mad at the world, and you fuck your sister in Alabama. That’s not us, man. We like to have a good time! We just do it on a four wheeler instead of in a nightclub.”
Time says that safety is a top priority, and assured me that everyone has to wear a helmet and seat belt while they’re whipping ass around the park in their toys. How you land during other activities that weekend, however, is between you, your god, and possibly your dentist. But making everyone feel welcome, and looking out for each other, is part of the Redneck Rave’s ethos.
“You can fuckin’ go over to that fuckin’ truck right there and say ‘Hey I wanna ride,’ and they’ll welcome you with open arms,” he said. “If you’re a good person, it kind of rubs off on the next person, and rubs off on that person, and that person.”
Fender Hat, a 38-year-old from Milford, Ohio, who works in flood restoration (if your house gets flooded, he’s there to un-flood it) was charged with keeping the good vibes going. Donning a large homemade Guzzler Helmet that also served as a beer bong, made out of the front of a dirt bike and a plastic funnel—a real feat of engineering—and wielding a shot ski (that would be a ski on which he’d plastered shot glasses) like a staff, Fender Hat led the party like a Redneck Gandalf.
Anytime things got even a teensy bit rowdy, Fender Hat was right there to holler “Redneck Rave shit!,” the festival’s official slogan. You see a big-ass off-road vehicle with a blow-up alien inside that has “Show ur boobs” scrawled on it? “REDNECK RAVE SHIT!” A guy dressed as a Bald Eagle waving an American flag? “REDNECK RAVE SHIT!” A four-wheeler blasting up a hill and tumbling down like a mouse that’d suddenly gone catatonic? “MOTHERFUCKIN’ REDNECK RAVE SHIT, BABY!”
“We just make sure everybody is having a good time, and put a smile on people’s faces,” Fender Hat told me. “Everybody’s out here just trying to be as wild as they can be, and free, and have no restrictions on what they do, other than wearing a helmet and their seatbelts.”
For the few days before I stepped my Muck Boots (special mud boots) onto the festival grounds, I was a bit nervous, as were many of my loved ones. Several anxiously expressed concern and requested that I not get impaled, and I promised I’d do my best even though that seems like something that doesn’t happen on purpose. If anything was going to roughly enter and exit my body though, it would be the Possum Peckers (grilled hot dogs on a stick) they sell on the grounds. I packed some baby wipes in my backpack just in case.
As our photographer Stacy and I drove onto the grounds in her minivan, we were cheerily greeted by a woman wearing a T-shirt that read “I’m married to an asshole” and a shirtless child covered in a thick layer of dirt riding an ATV. He waved and we waved back. Flags emblazoned with “Fuck Joe Biden” rippled in the thick Southern air, along with one of Donald Trump as Rambo and several Confederate and “Don’t Tread on Me” flags. I knew this was a likelihood at an event called a Redneck Rave, but, as a Mexican woman, I still felt a little uneasy. Generally speaking, I avoid anyone that supports Donald Trump unless I’m related to them and have no choice. The trepidation was exacerbated by nausea as Stacy’s van slid around, struggling to gain traction in the paste-like muck. We held on tight as she swerved the steering wheel into a parking spot.
We made our way up to the main area with a big mud pit. A young redhead slithered in, sensuously posing for pictures inside the brown water while three children rolled around near her like happy slugs in the grime. Facing them was a long row of off-roading vehicles lined up in a crescent shape. Time stood there, surveying his wet and wild kingdom. The crowd would be getting an exclusive: He and his friend and frequent collaborator Big Murph, a tattooed, cuddly bear of a man, would film a music video for his newest song “Mud That MFer.” Lyrics include: Gettin’ muddy, fuck the pavement / Never had to do no fakin’ / Made the news across the nation / Now everybody’s redneck ravin’.
A crowd stood behind Time and Big Murph as they rapped and bounced for the camera, sipping from their jars of ‘shine. Catching the beat proved to be a lot tougher for the extras, however, so a friend of Time’s stepped in to help. “Come on, white people!” cajoled out DJ Seefoe, a 33-year-old DJ, barber, and childhood friend of Time’s from Cove City, North Carolina, and one of a few Black people I saw in attendance. He wore a bright orange shirt that read “Wakanda Kamp” on the front and “End Racism” on the back.
“Come on, Seefoe, you know we ain’t got no rhythm,” responded an older white man with a laugh. Seefoe and Fender Hat did their best to get the crowd on beat, moving their arms up and down, then Paris came and broke a guitar in the center as everyone cheered. But, of course, you can’t “mud this motherfucker” without mud. Big Murph hopped in the mud pit, Time tossed him a jar of the good stuff for extra flair, and then the mud honeys came in to dance alongside Big Murph. Much to the dismay of Gloria Estefan and the Miami Sound Machine, the rhythm continued to not get them, but Fender Hat stepped in once more with his shot ski full of Jack Daniels and floated it over.
“If you come here and you’re on some fuck shit, you might get your ass beat.”
While partying hard was an obvious draw, the Redneck Rave’s true core tenet is community. Over and over, people told me about the comfort they felt knowing they could let loose from the troubles of their regular life and be sure everyone would be looking after them. Whether their off-roader got stuck in the sludge, or they lost a shoe in the pit, someone would come through. Throughout the day, people, even in passing, checked in on me. They offered rides and shots of moonshine, took my trash to their camp when I had an empty bottle and didn’t know what to do with it, gave me a bag of Walking Tacos (a bag of Fritos topped with beans, cheese, meat, and other stuff), and helped me wash out a bloody cut on my knee.
“I’m 100 percent a city boy,” Time told me. “I was adopted by all these beautiful people. One of the things that I love about it is the family-ness and camaraderie. If somebody broke down on the fuckin’ trail people will go out of their way to make sure they help them. It’s a you can’t leave a soul behind, kind of thing.” Still, that’s probably a bit easier for a white guy who’s got more charm than a field of four-leaf clovers.
“I’m here to bridge the gap,” DJ Seefoe told me, his exquisite gold grills and a “Black Lives Matter” chain catching the sun as he sipped from a can of Cayman Jack margarita. While he admitted to some initial skepticism about the Redneck Rave, he decided he needed to be there every year and use it to fight division. “A person can’t be publicly racist out here because they’ll get beat up,” he told me. “I represent this shit. I’m here. I ain’t no redneck, but you don’t gotta be a redneck to be at the Redneck Rave.”
“The title Redneck Rave, a lot of Black people, they might not feel welcome, especially with the political parties feuding,” Seefoe told me. “It was a lot of uproar with the Trump presidency vs. the Biden presidency. It was separation in our country. What I realize was a lot of people never had a conversation with a Black person. So when we’re at a campfire and I’m telling them about my side of life, then it’s like ‘damn.’ That’s why I come. I don’t miss no Raves.” Every Rave he attends, Seefoe makes sure to wear a T-shirt that lets everyone know what he’s about, and he gets plenty of support. I saw a bunch of folks rocking rubber wristbands stamped with “end racism.”
“It’s a you can’t leave a soul behind, kind of thing.”
Time made it clear that “if you come here and you’re on some fuck shit, you might get your ass beat.” He wasn’t the only one sounding off that very warning. “If you’re racist, I wanna fight you,” Paris, the Charlotte country rapper, told me. “My thing is, as an independent citizen, as a conservative, as a liberal, anything, you need to be educated in what you’re arguing or you’re just ignorant. You are the problem.”
Fender Hat echoed that sentiment. “You come here, everybody fits in because it’s one big giant family. We don’t stand for any [racism]. It doesn’t matter who you are, we accept everyone and anyone.”
Generally, politics and sociopolitical beliefs are tacitly put aside, even if someone is wearing a Confederate flag-print jacket or has a Trump flag on their truck. They’re there to party, and make a point to be good neighbors. “I feel like politics is politics,” said Seefoe. “It is what it is. When I break [racism] down to them though, they’re like ‘damn you right, Seefoe.’ The same people that got ‘Fuck Biden’ flags on their stuff, they’re just following a movement. When they see me, those same people cook me breakfast, lunch, and dinner.”
After catching nonstop strays of mud and watching everyone delight in the chaotic revelry, I decided it was time to really get into communing with these rowdy country folks. Seefoe kindly arranged for two gentlemen to drive us down the rough path to 1K Hill. The trail was treacherous, to say the least. My brain felt like it was slamming into the walls of my skull as we bounced hard on the terrain. Our drivers bumped Ludacris’ “My Chick Bad” and “Crank That (Soulja Boy)” by Soulja Boy—if you’re gonna incur a neck injury, might as well be while Supermanning that hoe.
When we reached 1K Hill, the scene was pure Appalachia Spring Break. A dude in white Crocs and stained tube socks was casually hanging by a bottle of brown liquor and a two-liter of Coca-Cola that multiple people drank from. Everyone was gathered for one of the main events—an off-roader race up a huge, 75-degree stone hill to win $1,000. Looking up at it, it seemed impossible. Only one team gave it a shot, pumping the gas and blasting up the hill with deafening force as the crowd cheered wildly. Then, halfway up, gravity, that cruel mistress, did its thing and the car went tires up, tumbling down. “And we have a winner!” called out Fender Hat from his megaphone. When the passenger emerged, pulled out from the wreckage by a group of men, he pumped his fist in the air in triumph.
It wasn’t just cars that climbed the hill for glory and a cash prize. Fender Hat walked around collecting money from anyone wanting to reward one of five men who would attempt to scale the steep, grit-covered hill. I threw in $20, because if I’m going to watch a man with wraparound sunglasses on his backwards trucker cap climb a stone mount, I should probably pay for the entertainment value. The men took off, struggling to get their boots to catch any friction on the ten-foot wall of rock. One man broke away, finding a sneaky climbing spot on the side and made a mad dash to the top.
It was the women’s turn next. I looked up at the looming hill, then at the ruddy faces around me belly laughing, and something within me stirred—was it my competitiveness, or sheer stupidity that was calling me to climb that hill? I’ll seek therapy to find out, but I knew at that moment I had to do it. When I let Fender Hat and Time know I’d be participating, Time got on the megaphone and alerted the crowd. “Ho-leee shit!” he said. “The goddamn media is running the race!” I was swarmed by a couple people, including Seefoe, who had some genuinely understandable questions: “What the hell?” “What’re you doing?” “You crazy or something?”
I might be! But Casi and Cara Vest, sisters from Henryville, ID, knew better. I had spoken to them before the races, and I asked how they felt out there as two women amongst all the boys. “Empowering, honestly,” Casi told me. “People look at you like, are you really out here getting muddy? And we’re like, hell yeah!”
“We’re 100 lbs. soaking wet,” added Cara, “and we’re out here doing the damn thing like these men.”
As I sprinted toward that rock, Cara and Casi running alongside me, it briefly felt for a higher purpose. Then I banged my tooth in that stone and skinned my thigh sliding down the rock in defeat. (“You signed a waiver, baby!” Time later reminded me when I shared my injuries.) As I walked away from that rock—blood starting to soak through the mud on my knee and thigh, and my tooth tingling from nearly getting knocked out of my head—I felt like I accomplished something. Casi (the eventual winner of the race) and Cara gave me a hug. Time shook my hand with a laugh; a guy showed me his tattoo that said “It is what it is” after I showed him mine that says “Why not.” Seefoe asked if I was from Florida, doing whatever math in his head to make my willingness to do some country-ass shit make sense. I really don’t have an answer, and my leg still hurts like hell, but it was all worth it. It’s Redneck Rave shit, baby!