Country music fans warm to hick-hop
By JESSICA BLISS October 29, 2013 10:27PM
Singer Colt Ford arrives at the American Country Awards on Monday, Dec. 10, 2012, in Las Vegas. (Photo by Jeff Bottari/Invision/AP)
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Updated: October 29, 2013 10:28PM
It’s a little bit backwoods and a little bit street.
Southern sound with an urban beat.
It’s known as hick-hop — country narratives that add rap’s heavy bass and aggression to storylines about pickup-driving, beer-swillin’, chicken-and-biscuit-eating good ol’ boys.
“Just when you think everything’s been done in music, you look up and here’s a new amalgam,” country music singer-songwriter John Rich said.
A genre that doesn’t get much recognition in the radio world has had to market itself via YouTube, social media and targeted marketing with concerts in middle-of-nowhere mud-boggin’ motorsport parks — where massive tires and track-side beverages accompany dirty, single-track race competitions.
The bulk of the fan base is “the countriest of the country people,” said Colt Ford, one of the genre’s most popular artists. But that’s evolving.
Hip-hop wasn’t on the radio in the south Georgia town where Shannon Houchins grew up.
In the ’80s, the only way to hear it was to have somebody’s cousin record Mr. Magic’s “Rap Attack” radio broadcast on WBLS-FM in New York and mail down a dubbed version. Or to visit the town’s only record store — a mom-and-pop shop called Rockin’ Easy Records — where he and his friends would buy 12-inch vinyl hip-hop records.
Houchins — now 43 years old and CEO of Nashville-based Average Joes Entertainment — was right there listening to Run-D.M.C., LL Cool J and N.W.A.
“Was that my lifestyle? No. Did I think it was cool music? Yeah,” Houchins said.
What it needed was subject matter that fit what he knew: dirt roads, trucks, hunting and fishing, mud and bonfires.
So, after beginning a music career as an engineer and then a producer in the hip-hop and urban genres, Houchins decided to combine his Southern country roots with the rap beat that resonated with him.
First with Bubba Sparxxx in 2001 and a little later with Ford, Houchins produced early country rap albums.
Average Joes continues to grow. The label celebrates its five-year anniversary with a re-release of its first country rap album with flagship artist Ford, “Ride Through the Country Revisited.”
The label had four albums — including the debut of the third album from the LACs (Loud Ass Crackers) — in the top 50 on Billboard’s Top Country Albums chart the final week in August.
Meanwhile, the LACs wrote the theme song for “Mud Lovin’ Rednecks,” a new reality TV show on Animal Planet, while A&E picked up Warner Music Nashville country rap recording artist Big Smo’s reality pilot.
“When this first came to me, I wasn’t sure,” said Cris Lacy, vice president of artists and repertoire at Warner Music Nashville. “I thought it might be just a niche market. But I think authenticity is always a bigger demographic than we think it is.
“I think there’s something that allows audiences that wouldn’t typically buy that music to buy in because they want to live vicariously. ... It’s real, and it’s going to have more mass appeal than people originally thought.”
There’s always been a moment where raplike verse has been a part of country music, said Tom Baldrica, vice president of promotion and radio marketing at Show Dog-Universal Music.
Jimmy Dean’s cadence sounded a bit like a rolling rap even in the 1960s, and spoken-word hits such as Johnny Cash’s “A Boy Named Sue” featured a distinct sound.
But now, he said, country rap has become a “movement itself.”
There was Toby Keith’s hip-hop-influenced 2001 “I Wanna Talk About Me” and Cowboy Troy, aka Troy Coleman, the 6-foot-5 father of triplets who back in the day was rapping in Texas clubs in his heavy metal T-shirt, buckle, boots and cowboy hat.
At age 13, Cowboy Troy knew he wanted to be a rapper. At the University of Texas, he was deejaying fraternity parties and jumping in with bands that would let him take the mic.
He wasn’t the only cowboy who liked hip-hop. In the early ’90s, he would hear booming bass coming out of people’s trucks — 12-inch speakers playing Sir Mix-a-Lot and 2 Live Crew.
He began “mixing two forms that most people assume are very, very different,” he said, but are really very similar in subject matter.
What are rappers and rednecks both talking about? Having good times with friends, what they are driving and their lady, he said.
“They are talking about the same stuff,” he said. “They are just using different instrumentation and music behind it to convey the same point.”
Troy self-released his first EP, “Hick-Hop Hysteria,” in 2001 and rapped his way into the country mainstream on the first cut of Big &Rich’s 2004 debut, “Horse of a Different Color.” Now he’s on the road with the duo and cutting country-club singles such as “Drink Drank Drunk,” featuring Big & Rich and Big Smo. With new album “King of Clubs” due out this fall, Troy captures the electronic vibe for the boot-wearing bunch: “All you mother truckers and all you Southern belles better get to church tomorrow, cuz tonight we’re raising hell.”
“This went from being a crazy idea to a real business,” Rich said.
But to sell the sound, promoters have to get dirty.
Down rural roads of the South, country dwellers swarm by the hundreds to line long mud-filled pits. They cheer as motors rev and massive vehicles mosh through the muck in a country competition like no other.
This is where hick-hop resonates. At the Ivy Bluff Mud Bog in Morrison, Tenn., owner Jimmy Roberts plays about 15 Ford songs a night.
“It’s just mud-slinging music. It goes along good with mud boggin’. It’s motorsports music. It’s good, hard country music.”
It’s music, Houchins said, that raps about “uber-redneck stuff.”
On a beat-up porch at a broken-down shack near Wooly’s Off-Road Park in Lynnville, Tenn., Lenny Cooper and Charlie Farley channel their roots to shoot a music video for “Country Folks Anthem,” a track on Cooper’s “Mud Dynasty.”
With Cooper in jeans and sporting a Chevrolet medallion around his neck and Farley in a camo T, the duo pop open a few beer cans, plop down on a gold-flowered couch circa the 1970s and rap about what they know: “Livin’ the simple life, 365, a jacked-up truck and buckshot tires. A cold Bud Light and a big bonfire.”
And it happens to resonate with fans just like them -- albeit unconventionally. Hick-hop recognition, Lacy said, has been mostly viral.
YouTube videos garner millions of clicks. On Facebook, Ford’s official page has nearly 1 million likes. By comparison, country singer Jason Aldean has 7 million.
Artists such as Big Smo continually flood the market with new stuff. He drops mix tapes and unauthorized albums that the label doesn’t support, but, Lacy said, “He’s seeding the fan base. He makes his own videos, and he’s constantly creating music.”
Music executives use heat maps from digital music services such as Pandora to see where their songs get the most play or downloads and then target those locations. They set up concert stages at local off-road-vehicle parks such as Bikini Bottoms Off-Road Park in Dyersburg, Tenn., adding music as the main stage entertainment. Concerts at these places can draw thousands of wet, muddy fans of jacked-up vehicles and souped-up country music.
“The word of mouth is pretty amazing,” Lacy said, “and it’s always evolving.”
Numbers suggest the approach works.
The LACS’ new album, “Keep It Redneck,” made its debut at No. 3 on the Billboard Top Country Albums chart, No. 5 on Billboard’s Top Rap Albums chart, No. 7 on the Top Indie chart and No. 23 on the Billboard 200 Albums chart.
The album outsold other first-week chart debuts by Charlie Worsham on Warner Bros. Nashville — who had a top 20 single on the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart with “Could It Be” and lots of critical praise and industry support — as well as multiplatinum CMA- and ACM award-winning artist Tracy Lawrence.
Jason Aldean took “Dirt Road Anthem” — written by Ford and Brantley Gilbert — to No. 1 on the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart and a Grammy nomination. Renowned rapper Nelly remixed Florida Georgia Line’s “Cruise,” adding a distinctly hip-hop vibe to the country flavor. And country singer Brad Paisley and rapper LL Cool J recorded the controversial song “Accidental Racist” for Paisley’s 2013 album, “Wheelhouse.”
Though industry execs don’t see this as pure country rap — but instead a country or rap artist doing something creative — such high-profile examples have “made the genre more accessible,” Lacy said.
Certainly there is a business for it, Baldrica said, because it’s inventive and at its root there is a real similarity to conventional country.
“Hick-hop is all about the lyric, and all about what is being said, and that’s what country music is about,” he said.
Gannett News Service