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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 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.