This article appeared in the November issue of VICE magazine.
I drove to the back of a brand-new apartment complex in East Nashville that shared real estate with a vegan bistro and a climbing gym. It's the sort of gentrifier's paradise that's become the subject of contempt in a southern town devoted to preserving its past. This side of Nashville is home to country music's counterculture, a reputation that's attracting out-of-towners who threaten to dilute the local charm.
I was there to convince Yelawolf, whose new album, Trial by Fire, is due out this fall, to sit down for an interview. He's a skinny white rapper with an affinity for denim, wide-brimmed hats, and tattoos, one of which is inked across his hairline and reads slumerican, a word he coined as a way of trying to reclaim terms like "white trash." His management expressed that he didn't want to be associated with any "redneck rap" because Yelawolf, whose real name is Michael Wayne Atha, has been trying to distance himself from the fringe artists in the maligned country-rap genre.
Country rap doesn't get much radio play, and few of its artists are household names, but it's managed to amass an enormous underground following. Since the genre began to crystalize in the early 2000s, country rappers have sold millions of records, regularly drawn thousands of fans to outdoor concerts in small towns, and lined CD shelves at rural Walmarts.
Often mockingly referred to as "hick-hop," country rap is a hybrid of its two namesakes, genres that at first blush are polar opposites. Country audiences are older, buy more physical music, still listen to traditional radio, and are typically from rural communities. Hip-hop fans skew younger and get their music online, streaming or downloading millions of albums a day from sites like Spotify and Datpiff. Ask fans the simple question, "What music do you listen to?," and depending on what part of the US you're in, you're likely to hear "anything but rap" or "anything but country."
But country and rap have more in common than most realize. After recording a collaboration with country artist Tim McGraw called "Over and Over," St. Louis rapper Nelly explained why the marriage could succeed: "Hip-hop and country… they come out of poverty-stricken communities, so putting those together, it's gonna work—it just has to be done right." That's the major problem: It's so rarely done right. Look no further than the half-song, half-viral joke "Accidental Racist," a Brad Paisley duet with LL Cool J, who raps a cringe-inducing verse about his willingness to forget the chains of slavery if white people can forgive him for liking gold chains. With examples like this in mind, people regularly write off hick-hop as a lowbrow gimmick that conflates two genres that shouldn't share studio time.
Yelawolf is not a country rapper but instead a hip-hop artist who stands out in a crowded field by infusing his music with southern rock and stories about rural America. It's not for everyone—imagine Eminem with an Alabama drawl and a taste for nu metal and Lynyrd Skynyrd, and you'll have a pretty good idea of his sound. But in the years since his 2010 breakthrough mixtape, Trunk Muzik, he's avoided many of the criticisms typically made of white rappers and managed to woo both the media elite and hip-hop royalty alike, landing the cover of the Fader and getting signed to Eminem's Shady Records. He once told Hot 97's Ebro that country rap is "done poorly because there's not enough people on the country side that understand enough about hip-hop to do it right. There's not enough people on the hip-hop side that know enough about country to do it right."
Hick-hop often uses glossy, digitized fiddles and steel pedals while trafficking in clichés about Chevy trucks and southern whiskey. Yelawolf, too, raps about Chevy trucks (on literally five iterations of a song called "Box Chevy") and booze (he loves Jack Daniels, which I experienced firsthand). But in his more ambitious songs, his lyrics spin southern gothic narratives with big hooks substantial enough to work as stand-alone country tracks. On "Bible Belt," a song off his first independent album, Creek Water, he raps about his home in the Deep South, describing a storm in the plains and the equally turbulent social climate: "Welcome to my land, my home: Bama / Where the clouds turn green / Where the Klan marches up and down the small streets / Where cops look for excitement / Where the oak trees split and burn from the blue lightning."
Yelawolf moved around a lot as a child, often spending time in the Nashville suburb of Antioch. He was born in 1979 in Gadsden, Alabama, a place that was once the center of commerce and manufacturing in the state, but by the 80s had been named one of the "seven worst cities to live in the United States" by a Rand McNally article. His mom became pregnant with him when she was 15. According to Yelawolf, she was a "rock star" (by which he meant that she drank like one). His upbringing inspired his brand, Slumerica. On "Whiskey in a Bottle," he raps, "Slumerican means: Slum American breed, gutter raised with worldwide dreams."
When I walked into his two-story condo, he was sitting on the couch, clutching a half-empty bottle of Jack Daniels and blasting Waylon Jennings through his Apple TV. There was a girl with him wearing a combination of denim and buckskin. The apartment itself was decorated with a mix of American pop art and Yelawolf memorabilia, including items from his Slumerican brand, like a black credenza with three gold-plated lightning bolts for legs. You can own this very piece of furniture through Yelawolf's online store, Ball Mart, for the not-so-slummy price of $10,000.
The other guests there that night included members of his Slumerican label, a who's who of white Nashville rappers. One was Bubba Mathis, formerly Bubba Sparxxx, who's probably best known for his song "Miss New Booty," the Unofficial Middle School Dance Grind Session Theme Song of 2005. Even before Yelawolf started singing twangy rock verses on rap songs, Bubba brought his drawl and dialect to records like Ugly. The accompanying video for the Timbaland-produced track looks like the nightmare you'd have after a double screening of Deliverance and Varsity Blues, replete with hog wrestling, tractor racing, and backwoods bar dancing. On another track called "Country Folks," Bubba staked his claim as a harbinger of hick-hop, saying he spoke for "a generation of people that love Tupac and Hank [Williams]. We banging it in the boondocks."
Another white rapper named Struggle Jennings arrived shortly after I did, while his grandfather Waylon's music still played out of Yelawolf's speakers. Struggle had gained notoriety for rapping over unreleased Waylon Jennings masters, including a song called "Outlaw Shit" that features Yelawolf. To purists in the Country Establishment, repackaging Waylon's music in a rap song was blasphemy. Struggle thinks differently. According to him, he and his cohorts are carrying on in the tradition of the outlaw country movement that his grandfather, Waylon, joined in the 1970s. But where Waylon broke from the formulaic Nashville sound by stripping the orchestration out of his music and incorporating elements of rock (as well as unapologetically doing copious amounts of drugs), Struggle instead brings in hip-hop. Even if you believe that Struggle is simply piggybacking on his grandfather's legacy in Nashville, it's impossible to deny that he grew up on his music. He came of age in the 90s, and that means he was probably raised on hip-hop as well. So it's hard to imagine what else Struggle would have produced.
Hick-hop reignites the long, enduring debate about the place for white people in hip-hop but adds a complicated twist.
Taken together, the rappers at Yelawolf's represented a group that was trying to do something new in a genre that, while hugely popular on a grassroots level, has received mostly scorn from critics.
And even Yelawolf and his coterie haven't entirely escaped that scorn. One of the few publications less keen on Yelawolf's work in recent years was our own. In 2012, a VICE writer published an article suggesting that Yelawolf had used Illuminati mind control to convince hipsters that he was cool. It also made fun of his haircut, which, at the time, was a mullet Mohawk. When praise did finally arrive after his album Love Story, it came in the form of a backhanded compliment with a headline that read, "Yelawolf Has Returned from the Wilderness of Suck." I wasn't aware of any of this the night I showed up at his apartment.
Yelawolf, however, had not forgotten.
Two days earlier, in an attempt to get to know the fringe world of country rap—the part Yelawolf's management had told me he was so eager to distance himself from—I visited the headquarters of Mikel Knight, the self-proclaimed "country-rap king." I was there to find out how Knight—a white country rapper who wears a Stetson and cowboy boots and hardly performs or releases music—had in four years developed a direct-sales business that he claims has sold 2 million of his albums in places like gas stations and Walmart parking lots.
The general manager of this operation, FAT Thomi, is a music-industry veteran who once ran hip-hop promotions for Arista Records. He explained what he believed to be Knight's appeal: "About seven years ago, I came to the realization that black rappers were going to be a thing of the past… I followed trends. And I watched more and more white rappers… I wanted somebody that was white 'cause it was unique, and it was still fresh and new to the industry." Although his forecast was flawed, FAT Thomi, who is black, stuck to his guns, and when he discovered Knight, he believed he had come across the artist he'd been searching for. "When I heard him and I heard his story, I believed it was the biggest thing in music 'cause he was putting the two biggest genres together yet to be put together."
Hick-hop reignites the long, enduring debate about the place for white people in hip-hop but adds a complicated twist. While Yelawolf, Struggle, and Bubba Mathis bring rural sensibilities to hip-hop, Mikel Knight removes the music from its bearings and fits it into a country mold, in effect making rap more palatable for a southern white audience. In FAT Thomi's words, "Mikel recognized the fact that maybe Billy from Sparta can't really relate to what Lil Wayne is saying. People identify with what they are comfortable with. So I think, yes, there's an element that says country people will accept someone in a cowboy hat and cowboy boots rapping before they would accept somebody with gold teeth and baseball caps." Knight found this out through his own research, telling me: "I would go to every country bar, and I would say, 'Hi, what's your format here?' And the DJ or manager would say, or the owner would say, 'Oh, it's a country bar,' and I'd say, 'Well, what about after 12?' And he goes, 'Oh, yeah, we play that rap crap.'"
Colt Ford couldn't be further from what we've come to expect from a contemporary rapper. He's a portly, white, self-described "redneck" from Athens, Georgia, with a horseshoe mustache and ruddy complexion who used to be a professional golfer.
Making music based on a marketing gimmick can yield mixed results. While Knight calls himself a pioneer who brought rap to country bars, some of the lyrics in his song sound better suited for a T-shirt you'd buy at a beachfront shop in Daytona. On "We Don't Give a Truck," he raps, "You ain't gotta like how I wear my pants / You ain't gotta like my rebel flag / You ain't gotta like my tat / But you can kiss my country ass."
Born Jason Cross, Knight grew up without a father and was living on his own by 15. He served multiple prison sentences for charges ranging from domestic assault to attempted robbery. On his final stint, Cross found God, who, he says, gave him the idea for the Maverick Dirt Road Street Team (MDRST). Operating out of a massive warehouse facility on the outskirts of Nashville, the MDRST employs around 40 guys at any given time. The team drives into small-town America in a fleet of buses wrapped in photos of Knight. Its singular goal is to sell CDs of Knight's music.
Beneath a Confederate flag inscribed with the phrase heritage not hate at Knight's compound, I met the guys who make up the MDRST. Knight calls them "second-chancers." Many of them share his own backstory: no father, left home young, troubles with the law. One peddler had abandoned his kids to go on the road with the MDRST in hopes of launching his own country-rap career. Another said he met the devil in a Walmart parking lot a week before and overdosed on a speedball. He claims to have died for several minutes before being revived by paramedics. Within a week, he was back on the road hawking CDs. The crew wakes up at 6 AM, prays together, does morning calisthenics, and goes out for 14-hour days to push Knight's music. The days can be so grueling that, in 2014, two street-team members died in a car accident allegedly caused by driver fatigue.
In a gravel lot between a diner and a Shell gas station in Henderson, Tennessee, I tried my hand at selling CDs. I made my first sale to an elderly woman driving a white Ford Escort, flagging her down as she drove in to refill her tank. She lived deep in the mountains and didn't have much money on her, but she told me she had two daughters who might like the music, so she'd give it a shot. Over the day, we sold CDs to people who were struggling to make a buck in a small town. In many ways, the people buying the CDs were no different from those selling them.
Knight is riding a wave of popularity that reached critical mass in 2011, when Jason Aldean—a lily-white pop act in a cowboy hat and boots who had never rapped in his life—released a cover of a country-rap song called "Dirt Road Anthem." In a mix of a straight-ahead country hook ("Yeah, I'm chilling on a dirt road / Laid back swervin' like I'm George Jones") alternated with rapped verses, he waxed poetic about dirt roads and pickup trucks in a black-and-white video that looked like a romantic scene from an episode of Friday Night Lights. "Dirt Road Anthem" exploded and became the biggest country song of the year. It also helped usher in the "bro-country" era, where artists like Florida Georgia Line blindly borrowed from hip-hop and EDM, and singers covered diverse topics like beer and trucks. It appeared that "hick-hop" had gone mainstream.
The strangest part of the "Dirt Road Anthem" phenomenon was that it was a word-for-word cover of a song written and originally performed by a guy whose birth name is Jason Farris Brown, but who's more commonly known by his almost impossibly American pseudonym: Colt Ford.
Colt Ford couldn't be further from what we've come to expect from a contemporary rapper. He's a portly, white, self-described "redneck" from Athens, Georgia, with a horseshoe mustache and ruddy complexion who used to be a professional golfer. In spite of his image, his label, Average Joe's Entertainment, has cornered the country-rap market without ever being embraced by either mainstream country or mainstream hip-hop.
Both sides of the aisle responded to Ford's early work with vitriol. Country purists were up in arms for what they saw as someone disrespecting the traditions of a sacred craft, with one blogger named Kyle Coroneos going as far as blacklisting anyone who had collaborated with him. Hip-hop fans thought it was exploitative to resell rap in whiteface, especially because this time the foundation of the genre seemed to have been uprooted. Instead of bringing southern slang to a rap audience, as artists like OutKast had done, they were appropriating rap and adapting it for a country crowd. A song like "Answer to No One," in which Ford proudly raps that he's a "shotgun toter, Republican voter," runs counter to hip-hop's roots as black-protest music, especially when it became the campaign anthem for Rick Perry. This is the same Rick Perry whose Texas hunting ranch was infamously called "Niggerhead." Now his name was being evoked in a rap song in which Ford changed his original lyrics, "Hank Junior supporter / let's protect our border" to "Rick Perry supporter / let's protect our border."
While symbols like the Confederate flag, cowboy hats, whiskey, and trucks are as common in country rap as they are in Yelawolf's music, the songs he writes tend to offer a more nuanced portrayal of what it's like to be poor and white in America.
Ford mocked the righteousness of the response to his brand of fusion with an irreverent track called "Hip-Hop in a Honky Tonk," where he rapped sarcastically that Hank Williams would be rolling over in his grave if he caught wind of rap invading the hallowed dive bars of Nashville. He teamed up with Shannon Houchins, a rap-industry veteran who'd formerly worked with Bubba Mathis, and together, they found a way to bypass the typical industry gatekeepers who criticized what they were doing and took country rap directly to fans.
In 2011, Houchins got a call from a guy who owned a "mud park" called Pleasant View 4x4 in Nichols, South Carolina. Houchins grew up in rural Georgia in a house with a sand pit that he'd tear up with three-wheelers and ultimately the much safer four-wheeleer, but he had never heard of a mud park.
The guy from Nichols was offering more money than Ford had ever been paid for a show. So they decided to go, and when they arrived, they found an empty field normally used to race ATVs and monster trucks through mud-filled ravines. Off in the distance was a makeshift stage, equipped with a PA system.
As the day went on, the field filled up with revelers who had driven more than 100 miles for the concert. People tailgated out of pickups. Trucks ripped through trenches, slinging sludge at those fans who weren't already diving into mud puddles of their own volition. Big wheelers got lodged in mucky ditches, and onlookers guzzled mason jars of moonshine. At the time, Ford would normally sell around $800 worth of merchandise in a night, but there, in the middle of South Carolina, he pulled in more than $12,000. In the end, 4,700 people showed up to a show in a town with a population of fewer than 400.
Houchins went back to Nashville to scour the internet for anything that sounded even remotely like a mud park and started making phone calls. "At first," he told me, "I had 26 places on my list. Now, I have 600."
Yelawolf is proud of his southern roots. In "Whiskey in a Bottle," the same song where he defines "Slumerican," he goads, "Call me a redneck, I just tattooed it." He's done exactly that, tattooing the word red in large red block letters above his collarbone. The night we were at his place, he was wearing a denim vest with a Confederate flag stitched on the back. He vehemently defended the symbol in an Instagram post from 2015—since deleted—saying, "Ain't no way I'm letting some ones ignorance tear me from my roots .. you fucking fuck boys can save it with this anti Dixie SHIT !! .. You media succubus in fashion and news are taking full advantage of yourself's business […] We love our small towns and we love our folks […] I saw the GROWTH and the POWER !! NOT THE DEMISE!!!" This was not long after the massacre at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, where a flag-toting white supremacist killed nine churchgoing black Americans.
And yet, while symbols like the Confederate flag, cowboy hats, whiskey, and trucks are as common in country rap as they are in Yelawolf's music, the songs he writes tend to offer a more nuanced portrayal of what it's like to be poor and white in America. "I grew up deep in the gutter / Raised by wolves, church steeples, and a single white mother," he says on "To Whom It May Concern." Written after the significant backlash he faced over his flag defense, the song is an open letter to his critics. He raps in his signature shrill staccato, "I took it upon myself to adopt all of these outcasts / I took the American and the Confederate flag / Threw it in my back pocket, I even went and got tats / And carried them like a shield for the shit that once held me back." For nearly eight minutes with no chorus, Yelawolf explains how growing up where and how he did meant "that all these years we'd been / The brunt of the jokes, America made it clear that we were backwards, wrong / Behind, and segregated." But in a rare, placid moment, he finally relents: "Black American culture is in the thread of my veins / It's rock 'n' roll till I die, I'm just a rebel in shame / Yes, I apologize for me and anybody with that flag / Honestly, any proud southerner is sad."
This amount of introspection and self-awareness—of the origins of his music as a black American art form, and of the conflicted nature of the white working-class anger that's dominated this election cycle—is hard to find in most country rap. The fact that he's made an earnest attempt to express any of it goes a long way toward explaining why he's trying to distance himself from the genre and why he resents being tarred with the same brush as Colt Ford and Mikel Knight.
It also helps explain what happened next at his apartment. Only a few sentences into my interview pitch, Yelawolf took over and tore into me. Citing the four-year-old VICE article that made fun of his appearance, he called the website exploitative, railed on us for being "kindergarten journalists," and repeatedly called me a "nerd." Sometimes the girl he was with would pop out from behind him to hurl some insults as well. Meanwhile, Struggle Jennings and Bubba Mathis sat nearby, quietly sipping their drinks.
The only reprieve came whenever he stopped to take a shot of Jack Daniels, each time encouraging me to join him. Just when it seemed that we'd made some headway, he put his arm around me. He moved closer, took on a more conciliatory tone, and spoke in a loud whisper, so as to be heard over yet another Waylon Jennings track blaring in the background. He said that if I wanted to write a story about him, he'd have to be the only artist I interviewed. I told him I couldn't do that.
"Why," he asked.
"Because I've already spoken to other people," I said.
"Like Mikel Knight…"
Then he licked my face, told me to fuck off, and went upstairs and passed out.
Zach Goldbaum is the host of Noisey, a TV show that takes its audience around the world to meet artists and people in the most compelling, and sometimes controversial, music scenes. This article appeared in the November issue of VICE magazine.