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Rhymes From the Backwoods: The Rise of Country Rap

“Hick-hop” is thriving despite little to no help from the mainstream music industry. Inside a scene full of big dreams and complicated politics

country rap lactember festival

At Georgia's Lactember Fest, the world's biggest celebration of country rap, we explore a scene full of big dreams and complicated politics.

Raymond McCrea Jones for Rolling Stone

Just south of Blackshear, Georgia, down a bumpy dirt road, the Moccasin Creek Off-Road Park spreads across 500 acres of wooded countryside. On a Thursday in late September, RVs, pickup trucks and trailers loaded with all manner of all-terrain vehicles wait to enter the park for the sixth annual Lactember Fest, quite possibly the world’s biggest celebration of country rap.

Nearly 7,000 people will make their way to this dusty patch of Southeast Georgia this weekend to ride four-wheelers through the mud, dodge fire ants, drink Bud Light and listen to live sets by artists like Bottleneck, Moonshine Bandits, Big Smo and the festival’s patrons, the Lacs.

The park has eight miles of backcountry trails and several mud bogs, which serve as raucous gathering spots throughout the weekend. On Saturday, with the temperature nearing triple digits, the Lacs’ two MCs, Clay Sharpe and Brian King, stand at the edge of a deep circular track filled with about three feet of muddy water. More than a dozen off-road vehicles line the outside of the track, blasting a hazy mash-up of songs that’s pretty typical of what the music fans here play all weekend: Brad Paisley’s “Old Alabama,” Young Jeezy’s “Where I’m From,” Sam Hunt’s “House Party,” Chance the Rapper’s “No Problem,” Young Thug’s “Best Friend,” the Lacs’ “Kickin’ Up Mud.” Sharpe, an amiable, brawny colossus in a Falcons hat and a sleeveless vest, and King, reed-thin in a loose-fitting T-shirt and jeans, watch as four-wheelers slowly circle the swampy track, with riders somehow gripping beers, cigarettes, vehicles and significant others. It’s stunting, redneck-style.

“People don’t have a clue about this world,” Sharpe says. “Not saying that’s a good thing or a bad thing. They just don’t know this exists.”

Gigs like this, at mud parks around the country, are the lifeblood of country rap. The music, sometimes called hick-hop, is pretty much the hybrid its name promises: It’s rap but made largely by white guys from the rural South. Songs about jacked-up trucks, drinking, mudding and other virtues of so-called redneck life are standard, and rants extolling the virtues of the Confederate flag and the Second Amendment aren’t uncommon.

The complicated politics are hard to miss. The Lacs dubbed their fall tour with Big Smo and fellow country rappers Demun Jones and Shotgun Shane the “Deplorables Tour.” The cultural appropriation on display is brazen and unapologetic. Bottleneck, a heavyset rapper from Florida, seemed to sum this up tidily with the oversize T-shirt he wore during his set Friday evening: Modeled on the classic N.W.A album Straight Outta Compton, it read, “Straight Outta White Guilt.”

Artists like the Lacs, Colt Ford, Big Smo, Upchurch and Moonshine Bandits are stars in this world, and even though they’re hardly household names outside it, this isn’t some tiny niche. Two different Lacs albums have gone Top Five on both Billboard’s rap and country charts. Colt Ford has sold more than 1.5 million albums. Videos for these artists can top 10 million YouTube views. All this with little to no help from the mainstream music industry or traditional media outlets.

country rap lactember festival big smo

As Big Smo, a beefy MC from Tennessee, puts it as we wander the Moccasin Creek campground, “What you see here is the center of the whole country hip-hop thing. It all radiates out from places like this.”

Country rap’s origins can be traced pretty clearly to one guy: Bubba Sparxxx. So, early one morning in September, I drive from Atlanta to Nashville to meet with him. He doesn’t show. He then spends the better portion of six weeks ignoring my calls, texts and emails, before finally calling me one afternoon.

“I’ve been avoiding you,” he says. Sparxxx has serious issues with the country-rap scene. “I do urban music. I do hip-hop. I don’t want to be looked at as starting anything that’s not reflective of caring about hip-hop culture as much as I care about hip-hop culture.”

Sparxxx was raised on a farm outside LaGrange, Georgia. “I grew up in a racially charged environment,” he says. “It was pretty much 50 percent black and 50 percent white, but you didn’t see mixed couples in the early Nineties. Anytime that was going on, they were sneaking around.”

Sparxxx was obsessed with hip-hop and spent years as a fledgling rapper. He had real skills but no sense of what to rap about. “It was all stuff not based in reality,” he says. “I was just talking about Uzis and dumb shit. I hadn’t yet figured out that I needed to talk about country shit and who I really was.” When he did, in 2001, he scored a head-spinning hit with the Timbaland-produced “Ugly,” and seemed poised for a huge breakout. His 2003 album, Deliverance, mixed acoustic guitars, bluesy harmonica, bits of live fiddle and Timbaland’s elastic beats with Sparxxx’s tales of rural Georgia. It was an attempt to find common ground between the poor white people and poor black people he’d grown up around. “My heart was always in, ‘Man, these people aren’t as different as they think,'” he says. Despite positive reviews, Deliverance didn’t sell. Interscope dumped Sparxxx, and most people forgot about the album. But not everyone.

“Nobody was ready for Deliverance, but you see how those seeds are blooming now,” says Derek Thrasher, who as D. Thrash is an MC and producer for country rappers the Jawga Boyz. Thrasher is part of an entire generation who grew up in the rural South in hip-hop’s thrall. To guys like Thrasher, Sparxxx was a revelation. “Bubba’s the only one I heard talking about deer hunting in his lyrics. Nobody else knew about those types of things.”

country rap bubba sparxxx

Sharpe and King both grew up in South Georgia. They started the Lacs – which stands for Loud Ass Crackers – in 2001. Nobody knew what to make of them. “We’d go to a hip-hop club and open for Trick Daddy, then the next night we’d go in a redneck bar and open for Blake Shelton,” says Sharpe. “There was no avenue then.” He recalls hearing Sparxxx and being blown away. “I was like, ‘Finally somebody’s giving us a voice.'”

But after Deliverance failed commercially, Sparxxx moved on to the definitively urban “Ms. New Booty,” the biggest hit of his career, and then to rehab for a prescription drug habit. Country rap appeared dead on arrival. It took one of Sparxxx’s former collaborators to jolt it back to life.

Colt Ford, the son of an Athens, Georgia, car salesman, had worked with Sparxxx in a booty-shake rap duo called One Card Shi in the Nineties and also did time performing under the name X-Man, spitting Ice Cube–influenced gangsta rap while wearing a mask onstage. “Growing up the way I did, I didn’t know about that shit,” he says, laughing. “I was like, ‘If they ever get this mask off me, they’re going to fuckin’ kill me!'” He eventually realized he needed to lean on his own life experiences and in 2008 released Ride Through the Country. The album was co-produced by Shannon Houchins, a Valdosta, Georgia, native who’d also co-produced Sparxxx’s debut, and it was the inaugural full-length from Houchins’ and Ford’s label, Average Joes Entertainment. It was country rap, but unlike Deliverance, it was aimed squarely at country audiences, with guest spots from Brantley Gilbert and Jamey Johnson. “[Bubba] was a rapper from the country,” says Ford. “I’m a country boy that can rap.”

The album sold well, and Jason Aldean covered one of its songs, “Dirt Road Anthem,” making it a Number One country hit. Soon after the album was released, Ford was offered a gig playing a South Carolina mud bog. He was used to performing in front of a few hundred fans. This time, he arrived to find nearly 5,000. Some had just shown up to ride four-wheelers but left with armloads of Colt Ford merch. “When I got back, I was like, ‘I’ve got to find more of these places,'” says Houchins. An original list of 26 off-road parks grew to roughly 600.

With this pipeline in place, Average Joes became a magnet for similar-minded artists, including the Lacs, Moonshine Bandits, Lenny Cooper and Charlie Farley. Outside the label, others were also taking note. Big Smo, who’d grown up on a farm in Tennessee and then spent years grinding as a protégé of the Nashville street rapper Haystak, embraced his country roots, eventually signing with Warner Music Nashville and landing his own A&E reality show. Other artists, like the Jawga Boyz and Bottleneck, found fertile audiences in the same world. YouTube proved a huge boost: Low-budget videos of artists living the life – riding four-wheelers, ogling girls in rebel-flag bikinis, drinking moonshine, etc. – spread like wildfire. And in a music industry where CD sales have been mostly relegated to a rounding error, country-rap fans still buy physical product. This is partly down to dodgy rural Internet connections and economics. “This fan base of lower-class country folk haven’t all evolved to the digital world,” says Big Smo. “We don’t have new shit.”

country rap colt ford

But as country rap has grown, it has become increasingly isolated. Although mainstream country is now heavily influenced by hip-hop – not just through the occasional participation of rappers like Nelly and Ludacris, but also with artists like Sam Hunt, Jake Owen and Thomas Rhett turning to it for inspiration – Nashville has shown scant interest in the country-rap movement. Radio has snubbed it. Sharpe senses institutional resistance from the country-music powers-that-be. “A lot of radio stations are owned by rich, older males, and when you throw that word ‘rap’ in, older people automatically get turned off,” he says. Country rap has also been largely ignored by television and the press. “There’s a lack of understanding that there’s a huge audience for this,” says Houchins.

Country rap has become not so much a branch of hip-hop but simply hip-hop for rednecks. “This is the voiceless people, the Walmart demographic,” says Sharpe, in language that’s eerily similar to exit-poll analysis on election night 2016. “They’re not heard a lot of times, but when they need to show up, they’ll show up.”

Of the 7,000 or so people at Lactember Fest, not all are white. When I’m walking with Big Smo, we meet a black teenager, covered in mud, riding a four-wheeler alongside a white friend. When I ask what brought him to the festival, he smiles: “The music, the riding, the drinking, the girls.” Later, I’m introduced to a Native American metalhead with several body piercings who rode here on his motorcycle from Florida. “People here are great,” he tells me. “You can’t walk five feet without someone offering you a beer.”

There are fewer Make America Great Again hats and Trump banners than you might expect, but even those flogging their support for the commander-in-chief aren’t easy to categorize. Just before Big Smo’s set on Saturday night, I share beers with a guy who lives nearby and is wearing a huge, oversize Trump mask on his head. He’s a hardcore country-rap fan who has been coming to the festival for years, but also knows his hip-hop history. He loves Outkast and the Ying Yang Twins. This, as it turns out, isn’t unusual. Sparxxx says most fans love mainstream hip-hop. “In the country, they’re listening to the same stuff everybody is listening to – Young Dolph, Blac Youngsta, Lil Yachty.”

country rap lactember festival trump

But that sense of inclusiveness is undercut by the widespread prevalence of the Confederate flag at festivals like this. At Lactember Fest, the Lacs sell merch emblazoned with the flag and wave one onstage during a song (“Let Your Country Hang Out”) that celebrates it. Both Sharpe and King maintain a distinction between the flag and its racist legacy. “We don’t look at that flag as, ‘Ha-ha, we had slaves back then,'” says King, who worked construction before the Lacs took off. “It’s something to do with family.”

I hear some version of this argument from several artists. “It’s more to do with being a poor person from the South,” says Thrasher of the Jawga Boyz, who display a huge Confederate flag in the video for their 2013 song “Welcome 2 Jawga.” “Poor Southern people always feel like outcasts in this country.”

Thomas Sapp, who grew up in Loganville, about an hour outside Atlanta, and raps under the name Teacher Preacher, is one of few artists of color in the country-rap scene. He also works closely with Thrasher. “I don’t put a rebel flag out there because I’m biracial,” he says. “Do I think it represents racism? Yeah, to some it does. But the people I’ve dealt with in the country-rap world who fly the rebel flag have never treated me different than they’ve treated anyone else. Maybe twice I’ve encountered somebody in this community that’s bigoted. Mostly, it’s completely welcoming.”

Country rap isn’t monolithic on the flag issue. Smo doesn’t promote it. Struggle Jennings, a burly former drug dealer who also happens to be Waylon Jennings’ grandson, explains that growing up in Nashville, the rebel flag “wasn’t a part of my upbringing.” In fact, although Jennings’ music is, in the strictest sense, country rap – in that it draws most of its inspiration from classic country and rap – he’s uneasy with many of the genre’s totems. “I love the country, I love the South, I’ve been fishing and hunting, but I’m not a hick,” he says. “I’m not hick-hop.”

Even the Lacs are beginning to question such Confederate imagery. “It does draw a barrier,” says Sharpe. “If we want to bring the music to the masses, that’s a tough road to cross to get it there.” Their manager says they have stopped selling rebel-flag merch but Sharpe acknowledges that fans might see ditching the flag as a kind of selling out.

There’s little question that the continued prominence of the flag has made country rap a non-starter for many hip-hop fans. In September, the California-based indie rapper Murs posted a 15-minute video on HipHopDX’s YouTube channel asking, “Does Hick Hop Have a Right to Exist?” The video garnered more than 350,000 views, and several of the country rappers I spoke to brought it up, a few not fondly. Murs’ breakdown focused on his discomfort with the flag and with using an art form created by black people to promote ideas seemingly hostile to them.

country rap lactember festival the lacs confederate flag

“I’m very pro-black and pro-hip-hop,” he says. “I don’t take it lightly when somebody is infringing upon African-American culture. That flag became a symbol of slavery and racism. It’s a flag that people who fought against the civil rights movement chose to uphold. I know the majority of Southerners weren’t slave owners and that [they] got the raw end of the Industrial Revolution and a whole lot of other shit, but so did we. We’ve got to get rid of that flag. It’s literally just a piece of fabric dividing us.”

Efforts to diversify country rap have been halting but not invisible. Veteran rappers Nappy Roots played seven dates on the Deplorables Tour this fall. According to one of the group’s MCs, Skinny DeVille, their first show was eye-opening. “It was Confederate-flag–crazy,” he says. “We were the only black guys there. I was like, ‘We done fucked up. We’re at a motherfucking Trump rally.’ My prejudice was, Someone’s gonna call us ‘niggers.’ We’re gonna get into a fight.” DeVille’s fears were unfounded. “I couldn’t have been more wrong. These people were excited to see us.” After seven shows, DeVille’s conclusions about this community were heartening. “We have so much in common. They disarmed our defensiveness and made it feel like we were one of them.”

Right now, the fastest rising star in country rap is Ryan Upchurch, a talented rapper and singer who puts his controversial politics at the center of his music. Upchurch, who raps under his last name, was hanging drywall and cutting lawns until a couple of years ago when his music career started taking off. Now, he’s a social-media star with more than 2.5 million Facebook followers and 500,000 subscribers to his YouTube channel, where he posts videos near-daily, opining on politics, skewering liberals and so-called social-justice warriors, and feuding with his detractors. “I’m about to snatch you pussies up like I’m Donald Trump,” he rapped on a 2016 track.

When I meet him at his home about an hour outside Nashville, he’s wearing jeans, a gray Wild Wing Cafe T-shirt and a baseball hat with a Confederate flag on it. He’s built a bit like the football player he once was, with tattoos covering his thick arms, and a pinch of dip in his lower lip. He grew up not far from here, and in fact, had never even been out of Tennessee until 2015.

“I didn’t know what the rest of the world was like,” he says. His parents always listened to country music but he fell in love with hip-hop around eighth grade. “But I couldn’t really relate because it had nothing to do with the lifestyle I lived.” It was a while before he discovered country rap, but once he did, he quickly grew disenchanted. “As I got older, the more cheesy country rap sounded. Every song is about beer and trucks. I was like, ‘I’m going to make it better.'”

In that sense, Upchurch is working in the decades-old tradition of rappers who’ve incorporated politics into their music, albeit from a Fox News perspective. “White lives, black lives and the blue matter too/So point your gun across the sea and let’s just stand as a group,” he rhymes on the title track to his 2017 album Son of the South, before continuing, “They got people trying to kill us because of our fucking beliefs/And towelheads in the subway with a bomb in the brief.” Another song, “Bloodshed,” which dropped just after a white nationalist killed a counterprotester with his car at a rally to save a Confederate memorial in Charlottesville, Virginia, offers a call for political unity and the kind of rhetoric that makes such unity nearly impossible: “American flags, Confederate flags and Nazis with swastikas/Hate groups throwing piss because they’re mad at a monument.”

Despite the harsh lyrics, Upchurch insists he has “no problem with any other race or culture. Out here, we’re not raised to hate. I was taught to respect everybody, no matter what color they are.” In fact, he believes he can be the one who introduces the rest of hip-hop to country rap. “The problem with country rap is half these motherfuckers have no flavor,” he says. “You can’t expect black culture to respect a rapper that has no flavor. There hasn’t been somebody spitting so hard, talking about real-life shit, that has so much flow.”

On the final night of Lactember Fest, Moonshine Bandits are performing and the crowd is gathered in a circular corral in front of the stage. Midway through their set, Dusty Dahlgren, one of the Bandits’ two MCs, points into the audience. “How many of you are proud to be from America?” he asks. The crowd roars. “I don’t care who you voted for, him or her,” Dahlgren continues, pausing long enough for the crowd to break into chants of “Trump! Trump! Trump!” Then Dahlgren dedicates the song that follows to “a 21-year-old named Joseph who lost his life in Afghanistan so we could be here to party.” It’s called “Pass the Ammo.”

country rap lactember festival moonshine bandits

It’s a weird moment that makes me think of Bubba Sparxxx’s dilemma. Deliverance may have been country rap’s founding text, but he’s come to believe many of the album’s supposed adherents missed its point. “My goal was always to build a bridge between people,” he says. “It wasn’t trying to say, ‘Let’s take this and go have our own party.’ It’s reflective of the split that’s taken place in this country. The schism has just grown since George W. Bush got elected.” Sparxxx’s career hasn’t been markedly helped by his O.G status in the country-rap movement, yet he finds himself constantly pressed to speak for people he doesn’t necessarily relate to. After Eminem recorded an anti-Trump freestyle in early October, Sparxxx got jabs on social media wondering whether he’d post a rebuttal. “These jokes go around like I’m the Donald Trump of white rappers,” he says, sighing deeply. “I’m just like, ‘Y’all motherfuckers didn’t pay attention at all, did you?'”

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