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Mason Ramsey: Inside the Curious Fame of ‘Lil Hank Williams’

The 11-year-old yodeled his way to the Opry, Coachella and the charts, but is Ramsey going to be a “country Bieber” or just a passing meme?

Mason RamseyMason Ramsey

Mason Ramsey launched an unexpected country music career after a video of the 11-year-old yodeling in a Walmart went viral.

NIck Swift

Mason Ramsey stops dribbling a basketball to tell me something. “I’m not so good during the summer,” he says, “because that’s when all my superpowers go away.”

It’s the first of at least a dozen instances during the recent hour or so spent with the 11-year-old when I am overcome by what is both the most obvious, the least interesting, and yet perhaps the most true thing one can say about Mason Ramsey: he is a child.

Yes, Mason — who over the past six months has become a social media sensation-turned emerging country music star after a video of him singing Hank Williams’ “Lovesick Blues” in a Southern Illinois Walmart went mega-viral earlier this year — is very much a boy: prone to melodrama, full of wonder, attention-seeking, bratty, deeply curious, excitable. He prefers video games to speaking with adults. He asks lots of questions. He loves basketball shoes (“been wanting a pair of KD’s for a long time,” he tells me). He hates losing as much as he loves winning, which he does — thanks to his impressively sharp pump-fake/right-hand layup — precisely three times in a row during our hour-long one-on-one basketball hangout on a rainy July morning in Manhattan. Mason insisted on playing full-court.

Mason loves playing basketball. In fact, he says his signature showbiz move — in which he does a 360 degree spin and then points and shoots his fingers at his fans while winking — was inspired by combining Steph Curry’s 360 spin with Shaquille O’Neal’s finger-pointing motion.

So if there’s anything at all that’s bummed Mason out about the way in which his life has been upturned, it’s that he hasn’t been able to play nearly as much basketball as he’d like.

I ask Mason what he means when he says his superpowers go away.

“I used to be the Number One scorer in 5th grade. I used to, yeah. I could always shoot deep. But now, he says, “I have no one to play with.”

Mason looks up and takes a three-pointer, his first of the day. The first shot is way off, the next two attempts much closer.

The fourth is a swish.

On March 24th, Dana Tanner, a teacher’s assistant in Harrisburg, Illinois, was shopping with her husband in her hometown Walmart when she heard a familiar sound.

“I was probably two or three aisles over when I heard him singing,” says Tanner, a longtime fan of classic country music who had seen Mason Ramsey perform several times over the years at local festivals and small-town talent competitions in the region.

Tanner roamed the aisles of the Walmart before she came across Mason, dressed up in tight-fitting blue jeans, a red bowtie, leather boots, and a white dress shirt, doing by then what had become his well-established routine of singing Hank Williams songs in public for anyone willing to listen.

Tanner asked Mason’s grandmother if she could record the video, and later that day she posted it to Facebook.

“Best trip to Wal-Mart thanks to this young man. Mason Ramsey aka Lil Hank…” she wrote. The next morning, she received a phone call from a relative in Texas.

“Do you realize your video has gone viral?” he asked her.

“This was not the first time I had recorded him singing and posted it, but it was the right time, I guess,” says Tanner.

Within just two days, Tanner had received an offer to license her video to ViralHog, a viral video promotion and distribution company that scours the Internet for emerging viral videos and pitches them to a list of distribution partners.

In just a week’s time, Tanner’s video of Mason singing “Lovesick Blues” had  amassed more than 11 million  views.

When L.A.-based music manager Dan Awad first saw the video of Mason in early April, he remarked to his business partner Danny Kang, “Dude, this is like the next Johnny Cash.”

Kang and Awad had no experience in country music, but one of their artists, Whethan, an up-and-coming electronic producer and DJ, was performing at Coachella in less than two weeks, and they had an idea.

“We needed a big moment for him,” says Kang, who reached out to Mason’s family and offered to fly them to Coachella, all expenses paid, if Mason agreed to appear during Whethan’s set and re-create the increasingly-viral meme of him yodeling along to Hank Williams in front of the Coachella crowd.

The Ramseys were reluctant. The family had become inundated with requests and offers in the past week, and they were overwhelmed. It was less than two weeks after the video surfaced online and Mason had already appeared on Ellen, received a scholarship from Walmart, and been offered an opportunity to fulfill a dream he and his family had ever since he was three years old: a chance to appear on the Grand Ole Opry.

Coachella, on the other hand, meant nothing to the family. Neither Mason nor his grandparents had any idea what it was. Mason’s family did know however, that they needed to be in Nashville on Saturday, April 14th, where Ramsey was slated to make his Opry debut. Whethan was performing 2,000 miles away and the Ramseys were concerned about making it to Nashville in time. They had already turned down an offer for Mason to appear during Post Malone’s Saturday evening performance because it would directly conflict with the Opry. But after a three-hour phone call with Kang and Awad, the family decided to make the trip.

As soon as the Ramseys arrived in California, Mason began charming everyone around him.

“We completely, literally, had our mind blown,” says Kang. “It was incredible to watch an 11-year-old who was that smart and funny, just ridiculous. He had that star power. As soon as we met him, and everyone else started meeting him, everyone was like, ‘Oh my god, this is a country music Bieber.”

The Ramseys met with Awad and Kang, who eventually introduced them to execs like Ian Cripps, VP of A&R at Atlantic Records, known in country circles for signing both Sturgill Simpson and helping jump-start Dave Cobb’s Low Country Sound imprint in recent years.

The Ramseys agreed to start working with Atlantic and Big Loud Records, signing a high-profile deal with the label, with Awad and Kang as their managers.

“The most important thing we told the family was how important it was that we needed to put out a song in the next two weeks, or it’s going to go away because people will just look at it as a gimmick,” says Awad. “But if we put out a good song, then that legitimizes him.”

And, so, two days after that meeting in California, and one day after earning a standing ovation during his Opry debut, Mason was entering a studio in Nashville for the first time to record what would become his debut single. “Famous” is a tender mid-tempo ballad that, despite being a love song sung by a preteen, proved to be a relatively well-fitting, oddly-moving commentary on newfound attention and alienation.

When the song was released the following month, it debuted in the Top Five of Billboard’s Hot Country Songs Chart and shortly after became both the highest-selling country single on iTunes and the most-streamed country song on Spotify for that week.

Before long, “Famous” had amassed millions more Spotify streams than any number of iconic country music singles, from Merle Haggard’s “Okie From Muskogee” to Reba McEntire’s “Fancy” to Hank Williams’ original recording of “Lovesick Blues.”

But despite his increasing social media presence and record-breaking streaming numbers, Ramsey’s own life and backstory still remain relatively unknown.

“The thing is that nobody knows Mason’s story yet,” says Kang, “and it’s a pretty remarkable one.”

Mason Ramsey lives in Golconda, Illinois, a town of 700 on the Ohio River in Southern Illinois known as the “Deer Capital of Illinois.”

“Not Mayberry, but not far from it,” is how Vince Hoffard, a local journalist who wrote the first in-depth story on Mason in 2017, describes the town.

“It’s a real country music stronghold,” Hoffard says of the region. Golconda, located in Pope County, is much closer to Nashville than to Chicago, and the region has bred a slew of country artists over the years, from Nineties pop-country favorite David Lee Murphy to current A-list songwriter Kendell Marvel.

Mason was raised by his grandfather Ernie, who worked as a general contractor and handyman, and his grandmother, Francis, who worked at the local sheriff’s office. Mason’s idiosyncratic musical influences can be traced directly to his being raised by his grandparents, who instilled in him their love of Forties and Fifties classic country from birth.

By the time Mason could walk, he was already singing for crowds. Before he had enrolled in kindergarten, he was performing in front of paid audiences. Old footage shows Mason, age 4, doing his best to enunciate the words to his idol Hank Williams’ “I Saw the Light” during the 2011 Kentucky Opry Talent Search competition.

Early last year, the first of a series of videos of Ramsey taking his Hank Sr. tribute act to the aisles of the box store went viral. First, it was Mason, small enough to sit inside a shopping cart, singing “Hey Good Lookin’” at a Walmart in Paducah, Kentucky. Days later, he was filmed singing “Jambalaya” from another shopping cart in Clarksville, Tennessee.

Those videos gave Mason enough local notoriety to earn an invitation to perform at the annual Hank Williams Tribute Festival in the birthplace of his idol in Georgiana, Alabama, in 2017.

“He seemed to realize that this was a very special opportunity,” says Jett Williams, daughter of Hank Williams, who met Ramsey and his family at the festival.

From a very young age, Mason Ramsey wanted to be a star. “This is a kid who was going to be destined for this either way,” says Seth England, Partner in Nashville’s Big Loud, which represents Florida Georgia Line and signed Mason to the join deal with Atlantic and their label arm, Big Loud Records.

Adds Tanner, who’s since become a close friend of the family, “He’s doing all the things that he wanted to do. Nobody ever expected it to happen this soon.”

But no amount of early attention and drive for big-time success could have prepared Mason and his grandparents for what was to come.

In April, Mason Ramsey became America’s meme of choice. The “Walmart Yodeling Boy,” as he became known, was a delightfully anachronistic and wildly magnetic meme that served as an almost burlesque rendering of Middle America: a dapper young boy outfitted with a huge belt-buckle and red bow-tie yodeling in the empty, echo-filled aisles of a small-town Walmart.

Yodeling was only a very small, highly specific part of his Hank Williams musical repertoire, but the Internet wanted Mason to yodel, more and more, and so Mason yodeled. He got on an airplane for the first time with his grandparents and traveled to Los Angeles, to New York, yodeling just about everywhere he went: in television studios, corporate media offices, on red carpets, at music festivals and radio stations. Meanwhile, back in their L.A. office, Awad and Kang, Mason’s new managers, started turning down nearly six-figure offers to promote various brands on social media.

The phenomenon of Mason Ramsey in 2018 is a curious clashing of the old and the new, a mix of digital-age viral star and old-world country-music child performer.

Subsequent viral EDM “yodel boy” remixes ensued. Mason began appearing in photos with Shawn Mendes and exchanging praise on Twitter with Lil Yachty. He popped up in wildly popular social media accounts, yodeling along with Instagram influencers and eating Fruit By the Foot in sponsored posts on prominent meme accounts.

For the portion of the country that didn’t listen to country music, the Walmart Yodeling Boy served as a useful, caricatured rendering of rural America, despite the fact that Mason was singing a type of country music that hadn’t been played on commercial country radio in a half-century. “This 10-Year-Old Boy Yodeling in a Walmart Aisle Just Made Country Music Cool Again,” read one early Buzzfeed headline.

All the while, Mason rapidly accumulated one of the single largest social media followings in country music, thanks to the behind-the-scenes work of his digital-savvy management team.

“We have relationships with all the biggest social accounts, all the Fuckjerrys and Barstool Sports and Worldstars, and all that, and we never had a chance to really utilize them and give them something that was going to explode,” says Kang. “So once we got our hands on Mason and finally controlled the situation after Coachella, we were able to basically just douse the whole situation with jet fuel.”

Within months, Ramsey amassed more followers on Instagram than Tim McGraw, Maren Morris, Kenny Chesney, Florida Georgia Line, the Dixie Chicks and Sam Hunt.

As such, the phenomenon of Mason Ramsey in 2018 is a curious clashing of the old and the new, a mix of digital-age viral star and old-world country-music child performer. His career, still in its infancy, is a blending of the old Nashville showbiz model that has funneled child stars through its ranks since the Fifties and the distinctly 2018 approach to viral marketing that stresses the primacy of social media influencers and Instagram “moments.”

“Mason is very talented, and seems very comfortable with his new fame and loving what he does,” says Brenda Lee, one of the first-ever country music child stars who, like Mason, recorded Hank Williams’ “Jambalaya.” She too was 11 at the time, in 1956.

Sixty years later after Brenda Lee became one of pop and country’s first-ever bona fide child stars, Mason Ramsey is poised to become the first-ever purely social-media-born star in country music, a genre that has been much slower, compared to Top 40 and hip-hop, to prioritize digital and social media-first approaches to marketing and promotion.

“It’s completely new territory,” says Awad. “Especially in country music, there’s never been anyone like this.”

If “Famous,” a slick mid-tempo pop ballad, sounds more like a well-oiled product of the modern-day Nashville machine than the traditional Hank Williams-inspired honky-tonk Mason had become famous for, it’s because it was. The song had long ago been written by a team of Music Row pros, including Florida Georgia Line’s Tyler Hubbard, when Seth England sent a demo of the song to Ramsey and his team the day Ramsey entered the studio for the first time.

That Mason has been immediately thrown into the traditional mold for up-and-coming singers in mainstream country says more about country music’s single-minded approach to mainstream artist development than it does about the peculiar phenomenon of Mason Ramsey. His singular rise to viral fame forces the question of what happens when a genre’s traditional origins (in this case, country & western yodeling) are so emphatically at odds with its contemporary commercial iteration that those historical origins, when they resurface, can best, and perhaps only, be understood as a meme.

That exact question is on stark display on Famous, Ramsey’s debut EP released earlier this summer. The six-song collection merges Ramsey’s background in mid-century classic country with radio-friendly pop-leaning commercial country: comprising three classic Hank Williams covers and three Music Row originals that Ramsey chose to record after sampling a collection of roughly a hundred demo recordings. His debut LP is tentatively slated for release later this year.

There is reason to believe that harsh split in musical styles represents a divide between Mason’s grandparents, devout Christians steeped in gospel and mid-century country music, and his new label and Nashville management company, who have given every indication that their plan is to develop Mason into a commercial modern country singer.

England says that that divide came up when Mason decided to record the Famous track “Yo Da Lady Who,” a novelty number that transforms his musical background in yodeling into a humorous pun. As soon as Mason, who loves the modern country-pop of Bebe Rexha and Florida Georgia Line as well as Hank Williams, heard the song, he knew he wanted to record it.

“He got up and started dancing around,” recalls England, who adds that several people close to Mason questioned the decision to have an 11-year-old sing a song that contained lyrics like, “put the boom, boom, boom in my body.”

“There were some family members that were like, ‘Are you sure?’”

Everyone in the music business is acutely aware of the dangers and pitfalls surrounding child entertainers. “Having a child putting themselves out there creatively in the music business is an obvious and glaring challenge and an opportunity to mess up if it’s done wrong,” says England. “We’ve all seen examples of when it’s done wrong.”

“It’s probably the number one thing on my mind at all times; we’re very aware of it,” says Awad. “I’ve spoken to friends, and asked them, ‘Is this even right to do?’”

But if there’s one thing everyone who’s met Mason agrees on, it’s that no one has a more supportive, better-intentioned family.

Hoffard, who’s known the family for years as a country music journalist in Southern Illinois, says Mason’s childhood performances were always a result of him asking his grandparents to let him perform, and never the other way around.

“I know the types of parents who have pageant kids. Mason was definitely not that,” he says. “He did it because he loved to do it, and you could tell when you sat down and talked to him, how much he loved the music.”

“With his family, you could see the concern they had for this young man who was all of a sudden getting notoriety and going out on stage,” says Jett Williams, suggesting that Mason’s grandparents have been exceedingly careful in shaping how their grandson approaches his musical career long before the rest of the world even knew who he was.

In the spring, when Ramsey was traveling all across the country appearing at music festivals and daytime television shows and Nashville recording studios, his family ensured that he complied with the Illinois state law that required Ramsey to attend one in every five days of public school in order to avoid expulsion and graduate the 5th grade.

In recent months, the Ramseys have done everything they can to keep Mason grounded, allowing for time for Mason to play and be a kid, even when he’s spending weeks at a time away from home. He does not yet have his own cellphone, and is given access to a phone to see select pieces of information about him, but, more often, simply to play Pokemon Go.

“We try to keep him in his hometown with his family as much as possible to keep him grounded,” adds Awad.

This fall, Mason will be home-schooled by his aunt and uncle Ramsey as he embarks on an extensive national tour opening for fellow Big Loud artist Chris Lane. On that tour, Ramsey will undertake the traditional country music radio tour, visiting radio stations in person in hopes of making a good enough impression that the programmers and DJs will eventually start playing Ramsey’s music on mainstream country radio.

The people working with him insist the plan is to develop Mason into a career-long country artist that is “in it for the long haul,” according to England. “We’re not really in the business of signing social media stars to record deals. We’re in the business of signing artists that we think can have a long-term career.”

Mason isn’t ambivalent about whether or not he wants to make country music his living. He is happy that he’s not returning to school in the fall, and if things go as planned, he’d love to eventually move to Nashville.

“He’s told me that so many times,” says England. “I said, ‘Why do you want to move to Nashville?’ And he’s like, ‘I want to come up here every day and write songs in your building.’ Mason is just like, ‘This is the coolest summer camp you could ever put in front me, this is what I want.’ We want to develop his own voice for a long time to come.

Our three-game series has wrapped up, and Mason and I are shooting around. Mason’s publicist wanders over.

“Mason, why don’t you yodel for Jonathan?” she says.

He casually complies, before barely missing an outside jump shot.

In a few minutes, he needs to head to his next scheduled appointment to film a video for another publication. The previous day, Mason was escorted through a screaming mass of fans waiting for his arrival at the MTV studios in Times Square. Footage shows Mason wearing sunglasses nervously walking, head bent down, from his black SUV to the television studio, trying to avoid paparazzi and dozens of screaming onlookers.

It’s been a hectic few days in New York for Mason, and his family says as much. They’re all looking forward to a much-needed vacation the following day, when they will go to Florida and Mason will swim in the ocean for the first time in his life.

But for the moment, Mason doesn’t want to stop playing. He is now sitting on a bench, reminiscing about his 5th grade basketball season for the Pope County Pirates the way a grizzled elder might wax nostalgic about their long-faded glory days.

After telling Mason how much fun I had playing with him, he looks at me and says, “It wasn’t fun. It was awesome.”

“Wanna play again?” he then asks, just moments before he has to head to his next commitment.

I tell Mason that I do, but that I don’t think we have enough time to play another game because he needs to get going pretty soon.

“I don’t wanna get going,” he says.

Why not?

“Cause I like basketball.”

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