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A History of Hick-Hop: The 27-Year-Old Story of Country Rap

From Bellamy Brothers to Colt Ford, Nelly to Ludacris, a chronological look at country’s infusion of rap

Colt Ford and Florida Georgia line backstage at the 2013 American Country Awards

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There's just no ignoring the hick-hop phenomenon. It's spawned a reality show, viral videos and a thriving fringe scene, along with the traditional measure of country success — chart-topping singles. This current trend was preceded by over half a century of talking-blues-style recordings: Western swinger Tex Williams's "Smoke! Smoke! Smoke! (That Cigarette)"; fiddling Southern-rocker Charlie Daniels' "The Devil Went Down to Georgia"; funky picker-narrator Jerry Reed's "When You're Hot, You're Hot" and Johnny Cash's "A Boy Named Sue"; to name just a few.

But Cash and Co. weren't technically rapping. Animated, syncopated sing-talking was their way of putting storytelling ballads across with panache. The tradition of rhythmic country recitations primed such outsized personalities as Toby Keith, Trace Adkins and Big & Rich to begin drawing on hip-hop influence. The country-rap aesthetic crystallized once a network of music makers from Georgia — home to the Southern rap capital of Atlanta — made their presence felt in Nashville. Soon, country-leaning mainstream rappers migrated to the country format and a new generation of fans came up on twang, rock and Tupac. Here are the milestones of the movement, in timeline form. By Jewly Hight

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Bellamy Brothers’ ‘Country Rap’ (1987)

David and Howard Bellamy came to country with a proclivity for incorporating far-flung stylistic sensibilities. They dabbled in reggae early in the Eighties, then reached Number 31 on Billboard’s Country Singles chart in 1987 with "Country Rap." It was clear from the song's hook that the brothers meant it as rap rap: "We got fatback/That's a fact/If you don't know, that's a country rap." They chanted their agrarian-themed lyrics in a sly, slack cadence over a seamless, funky groove, and even made what sounded like an oblique reference to "Theme From Shaft." Listen here.

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Neal McCoy’s ‘Hillbilly Rap’ (1996)

This was a capital "n" Novelty even among country novelty songs. "Hillbilly Rap" kicked off, curiously enough, with a couple of calypso-lite lines from Harry Belafonte's "Banana Boat Song." From there, it veered into a Beastie Boys-ish, rock guitar riff, over which McCoy rapped "The Ballad of Jed Clampett" (stuttering "b-b-b-bubblin' crude," no less), before finally arriving at a direct quote of the Sugarhill Gang's "Rapper's Delight." When performing it live, McCoy still makes a big show of trading his cowboy hat for a sideways ball cap and doing an energetic caricature of hip-hop dance moves. 

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Kid Rock’s ‘Cowboy’ (August 1999)

Kid Rock has made his connection to country plenty explicit over the last decade, presenting himself as an artist in the blue-collar, Rust Belt tradition of Bob Seger. Officially, Rock's country association started with "Picture," his charting duet with Sheryl Crow. Years before, he'd released the mainstream rap-(roots) rock single "Cowboy," pairing quasi-outlaw imagery with a twangy guitar figure and crunchy, country-fried chording. His former DJ, Uncle Kracker, soon followed suit with the guitar-heavy single "Yeah Yeah Yeah," so it was no surprise when Kracker too eventually wound up aiming his music at a country audience. 

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Toby Keith’s ‘I Wanna Talk About Me’ (August 2001)

The fact that Toby Keith had already ventured into rhythmic recitation territory with "Getcha Some" was what convinced Country Music Hall of Fame songwriter Bobby Braddock to pitch him a spoken satire of loquacious women titled "I Wanna Talk About Me." Once Keith decided to cut it, the rhythmic flexibility of his phrasing verged on a hip-hop-style flow, and the single sat at Number One for five weeks. He sure looked like he was rapping in the music video's close-up shots. Keith later signed Trailer Choir, a rather gimmicky trio that sometimes rapped, to his Show Dog label. Watch Keith get all tongue-waggy here

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Bubba Sparxxx’s ‘Ugly’ (August 2001)

The same month that Keith released his track to country radio, Bubba Sparxxx put out his debut single "Ugly," landing on the pop, R&B/hip-hop and rap charts. Its lean, electronic, Timbaland-produced beat had a coolly citified quality, while Sparxxx played up his countriness with hard-drawled lines about the "dirty" South "gettin' ugly" and a video that put a gleefully Southern gothic spin on working-class rural life. Once hick-hop blew up, Sparxxx rightfully bragged that he was one of the first to rep for "the generation of people that love TuPac and Hank" in his track "Country Folks," which featured a guest rap from Colt Ford. That Sparxxx is currently on Ford's outsider country label Average Joes makes sense, considering that Sparxxx had been produced early on by Joes head honcho Shannon Houchins in their native Georgia. Check out Sparxxx's "Ugly" side here.

Big Kenny, Gretchen Wilson, John Rich

NASHVILLE, TN - JUNE 11: Big Kenny, Gretchen Wilson, and John Rich perform on the stage at LP Field at the 2011 CMA Music Festival on June 11, 2011 in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by Frederick Breedon IV/Getty Images)

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The Founding of the MuzikMafia (October 2001)

What started as a weekly showcase at a downtown Nashville club morphed into a splashily eclectic collective of performers whose ultimate ringleaders, "Big" Kenny Alphin and John Rich, espoused utopian ideals — e.g. "country music without prejudice." They simultaneously established a commercial pipeline through which their duo, Big & Rich, defiant traditionalist Gretchen Wilson, country rapper Cowboy Troy and other acts could gain traction in the country marketplace. The conscious diversity of the MuzikMafia spanned race and genre, not only in the case of Cowboy Troy, who's African-American, but soul-pop songwriter Mista D and sometime-associates like George Clinton. In a recent New York Times feature, Rich said of their vision, "It was science fiction 10 years ago, and now it's reality."    

Nappy Roots

Nappy Roots during MTV/VMA Pre-Party with Nappy Roots at Jimmy's Upton Cafe in New York City, New York, United States. (Photo by Mychal Watts/WireImage)

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Nappy Roots’ ‘Po Folks’ (2002)

The Kentucky hip-hop group's biggest single registered on the pop, R&B/hip-hop and rap charts with a message of resilience framed in scenes of rural poverty, and a down-home soul hook sung by Anthony Hamilton over a minimalistic country-blues guitar figure and a laid-back beat. From every angle, it was as thorough an embodiment of countrified expression as you'll find, though the act was solely identified with the hip-hop format at the time. After parting ways with Atlantic and self-releasing a few albums, Nappy Roots was briefly signed to Average Joes' urban imprint AVJ. Watch "Po Folks" here.

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Big & Rich’s ‘Save a Horse (Ride a Cowboy)’ (April 2004)

Big & Rich's second single was the one that really solidified the impression of them as a country duo taking some of its cues from hip-hop. The way they sung-spoke their vocals an octave apart came close to rapping, and the big talk about cash, cars and sexual exploits in the lyrics came even closer. If it wasn't already clear that they saw this as outlandish stuff, the video drove it home with a parade: Big & Rich rode on horseback and in a Cadillac, Gretchen Wilson drove a tractor, Cowboy Troy strutted ahead of a marching band and female dancers vamped in pinstripe suit jackets and little else. 

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Nelly’s ‘Over and Over’ (September 2004)

Nelly had his initial breakthrough with the southern-accented album Country Grammar, and went on to become a go-to crossover collaborator for country acts. First he brought in Tim McGraw to croon the brooding hook of "Over and Over" and appear in the song's split-screen music video. A decade later, Nelly guested on a bona fide blockbuster remix of Florida Georgia Line's "Cruise." He's not an isolated crossover case. Also around that time, pop-savvy Atlanta rapper B.o.B tapped Taylor Swift to sing on his single "Both of Us." 

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Cowboy Troy’s ‘I Play Chicken With the Train’ (2005)

Cowboy Troy's debut single confronted the idiosyncrasy of his image as a black, rapping, country hat act: "People say it's impossible/not probable/too radical/But I've already been on the CMAs/Hell, Tim McGraw said he liked the change/and he likes the way my hick-hop sounds." Troy may well have been the first to self-identify as a hick-hop performer. He faced an uphill battle at the intersection of genre, race and culture, and "I Play Chicken With the Train" didn't do much for his bid to be taken seriously as an artist. If he was a performer before his time then, he made a more timely reappearance this spring with an album boasting features from Bubba Sparxxx and Big Smo. 

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Trace Adkins’ ‘Honky Tonk Badonkadonk’ (October 2005)

Trace Adkins had already enjoyed some success with brash, rhythmic recitations like "Chrome," but "Honky Tonk Badonkadonk" was his first explicit embrace of a hip-hop idiom. Songwriters Jamey Johnson, Randy Houser and Dallas Davidson employed "Badonkadonk" — a posterior descriptor straight out of black, hip-hop culture — as a joke. The original album version of the song had Southern rock muscle, then a dance remix gave it a second life commercially. Davidson, who's from Georgia, has gone on to co-write plenty of other hip-hop-influenced country hits, including Blake Shelton's "Boys 'Round Here" and Luke Bryan's "Country Girl (Shake It for Me)" and "That’s My Kind of Night." Watch the 'Badonkadonk" video here.

Average Joe's partners Colt Ford and Shannon Houchins

Average Joe's Entertainment

The Founding of Average Joes Entertainment (2008)

Producer Shannon Houchins got his start on staff with Jermaine Dupri's Atlanta-based hip-hop and R&B label So So Def. It wasn't until the Aughts that Houchins shifted his focus to the country marketplace, partnering with Colt Ford to launch the independent label Average Joes in Nashville and putting out albums by Ford and other gritty, low-gloss hick-hop acts and country singers, like the Lacs, Moonshine Bandits and Lenny Cooper. Though the label's artists have received little country radio airplay, they've drawn a sizable and significantly more rural and working-class audience by describing features of modern rural life in proud detail, staging concerts at mud bogs and buying a stake in the mud racing  Mega Truck Series.

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Colt Ford’s Debut Album (2008)

Another Georgia native, and a former pro golfer, Colt Ford had musical history with Shannon Houchins and Jermaine Dupri. Ride Through the Country was Ford's first album under his stage name, and no doubt the first and only project to bring together Dupri, Atlanta-based rapper Bone Crusher, Jamey Johnson and Nineties honky-tonk balladeer John Michael Montgomery. Ford represented a new breed of artist — a country rapper dedicated to pursuing a rural audience outside the traditional channels, with a genuine hip-hop background and a strong identification with rhythmic country recitations of the past (signaled by his cover of C.W. McCall's Seventies talking-trucker anthem "Convoy"). Ford was quickly invited to guest on remixes of Montgomery Gentry and Joe Nichols songs, and has since shown up on tracks by Chase Rice, Jerrod Niemann, Tyler Farr and a slew of artists on his label.

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‘Justified’ Premieres With Gangstagrass Theme Song (2010)

Despite the fact that Gangstagrass hails from New York City, the group's blend of pre-bluegrass string band accompaniment, baggy beats and world-weary rapping — an Emmy-nominated, 31-second excerpt of it, to be exact —became associated with hardscrabble Harlan Country, Kentucky, in the minds of millions of viewers watching FX's crime drama, Justified. The pairing of the theme song and the rural aesthetic of Justified no doubt helped spread the notion that this was the contemporary hybrid sound of the southern backwoods. 

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Luke Bryan’s ‘Country Girl (Shake It for Me)’ (March 2011)

Georgia-bred Luke Bryan wrote this hit with Dallas Davidson, and it's another example of a lyric motif (begging women for a bootylicious dance display) borrowed from hip-hop (think: "Let me see your tootsie roll" or "Back that azz up"). Bryan's since found chart success with other rap-influenced party songs, like "That's My Kind of Night" and "This Is How We Roll," the latter a collaboration with Florida Georgia Line. He deserves credit for being the one male country megastar game enough to reciprocate, with a grin, when he requests rump shaking from the ladies. Here's the video that started it all. 

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Jason Aldean’s ‘Dirt Road Anthem’ (April 2011)

The song's authors, Brantley Gilbert and Colt Ford, had already released their own versions of the rural nostalgia tune "Dirt Road Anthem," each featuring the other's vocal contributions, when Jason Aldean put his own out as a single. Aldean not only sang the chorus hook, but rapped the verses too, getting an assist from Ludacris on the remix. As a proven arena headliner and hitmaker making his inaugural venture into this territory (he'd return with "1994"), Aldean became the first act to take a true hick-hop song to the top of the country chart. 

Struggle

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Struggle’s ‘Outlaw S–t’ (November 2011)

Here's a bold-faced symbol of generational shifts: Struggle the rapper is Waylon Jennings' grandson, and the younger Jennings nabbed the hook of "Outlaw Shit" from his uncle Shooter Jennings' latter-day remake of his granddad's song, "Don't You Think This Outlaw Bit's Done Got Out of Hand." The other profile-booster on this track was the fiercely working-class, Southern rapper Yelawolf, who mellowed his typically aggressive vocal attack to match Struggle's broody flow and the sobering subject matter — feeling trapped in a cycle of poverty and crime, with mouths to feed. Listen to what Struggle did with Jennings' song here.

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Florida Georgia Line’s ‘Cruise’ Remix (April 2013)

With "Cruise," Florida Georgia Line became the first new country act to blow up with a hip-hop-influenced debut single. Even before Nelly hopped on the remixed version, the slippery cadences of the phrasing and the brash swagger in the lyrics' invitation for a leggy young woman to climb up in a tricked-out truck felt decidedly rap-schooled. Terrestrial country radio is notoriously conservative when it comes to playing unproven acts with unproven sounds, so it was satellite airplay that first fueled the fire for FGL, a scenario that's repeated itself with kindred acts like Chase Rice and Cole Swindell. Still, it was the appearance of Nelly who helped set "Cruise" ablaze.

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Brad Paisley’s ‘Accidental Racist’ (April 2013)

When Brad Paisley released Wheelhouse, "Accidental Racist" became the album cut heard round the world. Not since Cowboy Troy had a country act attempted to address the racial implications of cultural stereotypes and genres rubbing up against each other. Though Paisley had always done well with rock critics, he and his featured guest L.L. Cool J still expressed surprise at the intensity of the attention the song received from media outlets that seldom covered country. A hick-hop collab on the album that received far less attention? The sample-stocked "Outstanding in Our Field," the result of Kanye West and Jay Z producer Mike Dean reaching out to Paisley to collaborate on a track. 

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Blake Shelton’s ‘Boys ‘Round Here’ Video (May 2013)

Given that Blake Shelton had cut the song "I Wanna Talk About Me" before it was offered to Toby Keith, and that Shelton drifted close to hip-hop when he teamed with Trace Adkins on "Hillbilly Bone," it wasn't a big surprise to hear him go all-in with the macho backwoods boasting of "Boys 'Round Here," complete with a featherweight programmed beat and a chanted refrain about chewing tobacco. The music video played out the rap-to-country crossover narrative in reverse. At the beginning, Shelton, riding in a jacked-up pick-up, exchanged nods with African-American men in a lowriding Cadillac. Before it was over, those same men had crashed Shelton's barn dance, and brought their Dougie-dancing skills with them. 

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Laura Bell Bundy’s ‘Two Step’ (July 2013)

Mainstream country and hip-hop are both largely boys clubs right now, so it's no surprise that female performers working from a hick-hop angle are few and far between. Young singer-rapper Sarah Ross has appeared on a couple of Average Joes’ Mud Digger compilations and former Blake Shelton Voice mentee and current Big Machine signee RaeLynn has demonstrated her feel for hip-hop in songs like "Boyfriend." But the biggest splash so far was made by RaeLynn's label mate Laura Bell Bundy and her song "Two Step," a club single for independent women, featuring Colt Ford. Bundy's small production company produced the video, which included a choreographed, hip-shaking line dance, something else that set her apart from her stationary, spectating male peers. 

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Jerrod Niemann’s ‘Drink to That All Night’ (October 2013)

Country's seen its share of loops and programmed beats in recent years, especially on remixes. But that hasn't necessarily been the case with Auto-Tune, the robotic-sounding vocal effect made famous by T-Pain. Jerrod Niemann used it all over the verses of his country club banger "Drink to That All Night," and scored the second country Number One of his career. That's one feature of the track that remained unchanged when Pitbull was hired to do a pop remix. Here's the video for Niemann's original version.

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Buck 22’s ‘Achy Breaky 2’ (February 2014)

One thing that can be said for "Achy Breaky 2” is nobody saw this YouTube video coming. Over two decades after Billy Ray Cyrus was crowned sex symbol of a line dance craze, a rapper going by Buck 22 — who turned out to be Damon Elliott, the hip-hop-producing son of Dionne Warwick and jazz drummer Bill Elliott — convinced Cyrus to sing his familiar hook over a bass-heavy, sci-fi track. Even more amazing, he got BRC to go along with gratuitous references to his daughter acting out, and to do all this surrounded by twerking women in barely-there alien costumes. Following that brief bust of attention, Buck 22 aimed a more by-the-books single called "Country Pride" at country radio.     

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Big Smo’s Reality Show (June, 2014)

After ABC's Nashville became popular by mixing soap opera storylines with stylized portraits of the modern country music industry, it was only a matter of time before the parade of country-music reality shows kicked off. A&E first tested the waters with the non-starter Crazy Hearts: Nashville, before premiering a show focused on likable country rapper Big Smo the same month he released his major label debut, Kuntry Livin’. During the pilot episode, Smo made his style sound like a no-brainer: "It's country music, with a twist of Southern rock & roll, delivered in a rap form."