Why Yelawolf’s “Love Story” Is Important to Country Music

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“Here at Saving Country Music, we have put ourselves squarely on the front lines of opposing the infiltration of hip hop into the country genre, or possibly, the takeover of country by hip-hop, that seems to be pervading the current mainstream country music landscape. Unlike many others that flee from this fight, I am willing to take the charges of racism and closed-mindedness to fight for the preservation of diversity and contrast in music.”

—from “Yelawolf Has No Place in Country and Roots Music” published October 18th, 2011.

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That was 2011, and hip-hop artist Yelawolf was just getting ready to release an album called Radioactive. The rapper had nearly everyone buzzing it seemed, including many members of the greater country community who had ties to, or an affinity for the Alabama-born rapper. His previous album Trunk Muzik 0-60 was a big success and launched some huge underground hits. “Pop The Trunk” had garnered over 8 million hits on YouTube at the time, and caught the ear of Eminem who he signed Yelawolf to his imprint of Interscope Records. Yelawolf was booked as one of the headliners for Nashville’s Soundland Festival—a festival that traditionally catered more to roots artists. It seemed like everyone was singing Yelawolf’s praises even in and around country music, and that he was poised to take a big bite out of the World.

What made Yelawolf so intimidating to some in country, including Saving Country Music, was that unlike the country rappers in both the country music mainstream and underground, Yelawolf actually had talent, even if at the time he was using that talent to peddle the same time of self-gratification and materialism that much of mainstream hip-hop is known for. The attempt to keep hip-hop artists at bay from making inroads into country was in serious jeopardy if an artist like Yelawolf decided to take his music down country avenues.

But Yealawolf’s major label debut was seen as a letdown by some fans and hip-hop critics. Radioactive was a “flop” as Yealwolf himself admits, as he tried to make everyone happy but himself. Incidentally, his headlining spot at Soundland was at the last Soundland Festival there ever was, with some wondering if the strange Yelawolf booking was responsible. And though Yelawolf continued to enjoy an incredibly strong grassroots following, his effort to break it into the mainstream at large seemed somewhat scuttled, and his effect on country music remained fairly negligible.

"Love Story" album cover

“Love Story” album cover

Fast forward nearly four years later, and Yelawolf has just released one of the biggest albums in American music at the moment. Love Story came in at #3 on the Billboard Top 200 last week, and where Radioactive flopped, Love Story has bounced. Where Radioactive seemed to only be considered relevant to the country rap debate because Yelawolf was white and from rural Alabama, Love Story has some serious ties to country music that can’t go overlooked.

So what is Saving Country Music’s interest in this new Love Story record? The serious threat of country rap seems to have waned significantly in the rise of Bro-Country, and country music faces much bigger problems now. But what Yelawolf has done with Love Story is pulled the curtain back and exposed the sheer lack of talent in the ranks of country rappers and other misguided genre benders by putting out an album that sets a creative high watermark, and bucks the narrative of commercial pandering and derivative cliché in the space between country and hip-hop. Love Story is bursting with creative vision, respect for art forms, and most importantly, it is an album that tells a very personal, self-reflective, and at times vulnerable and self-deprecating story. It is Yelawolf’s opus.

Take the entire canon of country rap in all of its forms, from Jason Aldean’s rendition of “Dirt Road Anthem” that was the best-selling song in country in all of 2011, to the entire discographies of Colt Ford and Cowboy Troy, to the Moonshine Bandits and Big Smo and all those second-tier semi-successful country rappers, to all the more recent mega hits from Florida Georgia Line to Blake Shelton’s “Boys ‘Round Here”—take it all and squeeze whatever true artistic value any of it can account for combined, and Yelawolf has just laid to waste the entirety of those cumulative efforts in one album.

However, Love Story is not a country rap album, though you may see some make this claim. There’s not really even any country rap songs here, though you may see this claim as well. This is a hip-hop album. There are some songs that arguably blend country and rap, or some rap songs with country themes. But this is a hip-hop album, which is one of the reasons it actually works.

That said, Love Story has more steel guitar and fiddle on it than most any mainstream country album being released today. It has more traditional country leanings, from some of the songs like “Devil In My Veins,” to samples of Jim Reeves and Patsy Cline, to a hat tip to Johnny Cash. The album boasts contributions from the McCrary Sisters, the legendary Robby Turner on pedal steel, and Geoff Firebaugh of Hillbilly Casino on upright bass. But again, Love Story is a hip-hop album that layers any country accoutrements on top of the music, or beneath the surface in the story.

Beyond the natural barriers of mixing country and rap—which are very grand—the primary problem with the country rap subset was not completely a philosophical one, but that country rap became a pathetic excuse to make music that could cross lines of popularity to pander to the widest possible audience. You didn’t hear top tier hip-hop artists adding fiddle and steel guitar to their tracks, it was only country artists crossing over in a somewhat subservient posture to hip-hop.

The genius of Love Story might be best spelled out best in the song “Whiskey In a Bottle,” where Yelawolf admits to his past transgressions as an artist, and just like a fine adult beverage, says he’s now ripened into maturity at age 33. “I’ll give you three darts: One, my last album flopped. Two, it wasn’t my time. Three, my fuckin’ mama’s selling my pajamas online.”

Alternative cover

Alternative cover

The bravado and chest-pounding that made Yelawolf such a waste of his own talent in the first era of his career is mostly replaced now with cutting stories ripped right out of Yelawolf’s personal narrative, and even a couple of songs that veer towards gospel in their theme. Where his first album was full of guest appearances (another practice that plagues the hip-hop world with busy music and unnecessary back-scratching), there’s only one collaboration here with label owner Eminem called “Best Friend” that takes a surprisingly religious turn. “Disappear” also reveals a very deep and unexpected religious narrative in an excellent bout of storytelling from Yelawolf.

But overall, like many of the albums that have gone to become landmark albums of American music over time, Love Story takes the listener on a journey down the path of disillusionment with the American ideal. It’s music filled with anger and unrest, but that reaches to gain wisdom from the struggle as opposed to giving into righteous indignation that simply looks to alleviate itself through violence or objectification. Yelawolf is a cultural mutt with DNA from both the country and hip-hop worlds, and a vernacular that includes drug and gun references, religious and rural symbolism all rolled into one. Those were the surroundings from whence Yelawolf came—the forgotten, culturally-bereft, and drug-addled regions of rural Alabama. Yelawolf doesn’t borrow anything. He’s not coveting another man’s culture. He’s regurgitating what he sees and hears, and the result is the honest account of the deprived state of the authentic American South.

This approach is embodied in some of the album’s first few tracks, and in some of it’s singles like the deceptively sweet and melodic “American You,” and interwoven with Yelawolf’s struggles with fame and the expectations of others in “Till It’s Gone.” Similar to how this album has more traditional country and steel guitar than most mainstream albums can boast (even though it’s only evidenced in a few songs), same could be said for the amount of melody and melodic singing. Just as traditionally-leaning country fans are shocked at the amount of electronic instrumentation in today’s country music, a hip-hop fan might be surprised at how much organic, wood and wire, real musicianship, and singing instead of rapping made Love Story‘s final masters.

But again, this is a hip-hop album. If you roll up on Love Story expecting the first country rap album you’ve ever enjoyed, you’ll miss the point entirely and be disappointed. That is one of the challenges of Love Story. Since it’s a hip-hop album, will it find its way to ears that can appreciate the musicianship, melody, and traditional country sentiments evidenced in certain songs? Though I’ve seen praise for the personal nature of this album from the hip-hop sphere, some of the country stuff might seem queer, aloof, or be misunderstood by that crowd.

One of the criticisms levied at Love Story that is probably warranted is that the album is too long. 18 tracks the listener is tasked to sit through, and it’s most lasting contributions might be set to the extremities—the beginning and end—while the middle bogs down just a bit, even though if you isolate each song, it’s hard to find fat to trim. One exception might be the unfortunate “Box Chevy V”—one of the singles of the release. One thing you pick up on quickly listening to Yelawolf’s music is his affinity for Chevrolet, and in this instance he seems to revert back to the old Yelawolf, braying about material things and relying too much on repetitiveness for a song to garner a reaction.

yelawolf-315 or 16 songs may have been Love Story‘s sweet spot. It’s not a masterpiece, but you may be able to cull it down to one. The first song “Outer Space” is definitely a way to get the adrenaline pumping, but it also feels like a track from Yelawolf’s past life in some of it’s bravado. It’s also hard to appreciate music that still uses words like “faggot” and “retarded” here in 2015 like Love Story does in a few instances. Again, in some respects this is Yelawolf just regurgitating the filth he is surrounded by, but it’s an easy way for passive observers to discount his contributions, warranted or not.

What should a country music listener zero in on if they want to hear what all this Yelawolf business is about? My suggestion would be to not even try, unless you find yourself appreciating some hip-hop music from the outside looking in already, or are a straight up hip-hop fan. Aside from “Devil in My Veins,” you may not find anything here appealing, and even that selection may not sound especially impressive out-of-context.

So again the question is, what is Saving Country Music’s business with this release? I cued up this record looking for something to slander. What I found was something that turns the whole mono-genre paradigm on its head. By showing restraint in not making a country rap album, yet letting his roots shine through and sticking to what he does best, Yelawolf made possibly the first modern hip-hop album that even if I still can’t enjoy, I can at least respect.

But there’s a much bigger issue here that will go right over the heads of the folks who will rush to Facebook to scream how Saving Country Music has officially lost its mind for promoting a hip-hop record, and how dare I spit in the eye of all those traditional country fans. Whether you personally think this album is good or not, whether you think Saving Country Music should be covering it, Yelawolf’s Love Story could have huge, massive, critical, tantamount importance on country music.

An artist like Yelawolf that can speak directly to the disenfranchised experiences of the rural South, and do so in a way that is poetic and poignant, while mainstream country continues to attempt to be all things to all people, ostensibly mocking its own listeners by selling them on the idea of “evolving” that in truth subjugates them in a cultural malaise. Yelawolf could enact a great awakening with Love Story—a Nirvana moment if you will. This album is the narration of an authentic American experience that once the public clues in on, could spread like wildfire for better or worse. So it would be criminal for Saving Country Music, and the country music literati to ignore this album under the fanciful conceit that if we don’t acknowledge it, it might go away.

Yelawolf’s Love Story could very well be a landmark American album, and could go on to influence countless other artists and albums in the coming years. And in this transfer of influence, there will be the bits of traditional country that are instilled in this record. I cannot assign a grade Love Story because I’m not a hip-hop critic, and therefore am not qualified to rate it on certain merits or against its peers. But will this record still be standing at the end of the year when the entire recording industry gathers to consider who released the most important and influential works? There’s a chance it might be overlooked or misunderstood. But it probably deserves to be.

 

 


Editor’s Note: Saving Country Music is not “promoting” rap or hip-hop music with this review. Saving Country Music is not condoning rap or hip-hop music with this review. Posting this article does not illustrate some change in philosophy or calamitous development in the evolution of Saving Country Music. It is simply a review for an album that as explained above could have very significant impacts on country music moving forward, and it would be irresponsible taking into consideration this site’s charge and mission to ignore this release. Saving Country Music takes no responsibility for anyone too lazy to read the review, understand its purpose, and that resorts to either wild-eyed assumptions concerning what this review is about, or uses it for opportunistic propaganda against Saving Country Music, primarily on Facebook.