There was most certainly a time in country music—and even in it’s more open-minded and less commercially-concerned cousin of Americana—where not fitting neatly within the gender binary would be a significant burden on the attention you would receive for your music. 2022 is not that time though. Conversely, when it comes to endearing yourself to the media and certain segments of the roots music community, there is nothing more enticing than shirking the norms of the cisgender, and nothing more burdening than being a white straight male.
In 2022, you can build a career in country music almost solely off of leveraging identity vectors for attention for favorable press coverage and placements on corporate streaming playlists. Two or three times a week, Saving Country Music headquarters will receive pitches for artists whose titles lead with the term “Queer,” despite the word historically being considered flagrantly euphemistic, and it being the very term that sent Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold on a bloody rampage in the halls of Columbine High School.
In an era when it’s not just how appealing your art may be, but how much you can couch yourself as a victim of something or lean into identity to receive sympathetic attention from a polarized public, a set of perverse incentives are presented to emphasize these things as opposed to the art itself. The performer may appreciate, or even covet this attention, but it can also ultimately be patronizing to an artist’s work when the “what” is cast as secondary to the “who.”
But lucky for Adeem The Artist, there is an exceeding level of talent and giftedness here to pay attention to the music regardless of the extraneous noise, which is certainly present. Savvy and persuasive with words, and unlike their previous album—the valiant but under-developed Cast Iron Pansexual—the new effort called White Trash Revelry is well-produced and fleshed out, utilizing the services of skilled musicians such as guitarists Ellen Angelico and Joy Clark, banjoist Jake Blount, and former Turnpike Troubadours drummer Giovanni “Nooch” Carnuccio III, allowing the music to come alive.
It was all produced by Kyle Crownover, who is also known as the tour manager for Tyler Childers. Crownover also happens to be Adeem The Artist’s manager. All stops were pulled out to make White Trash Revelry the perfect showcase for Adeem’s songs, where the music complimented the songs and presented an excuse to listen intently even if an audience member wasn’t amenable to the ultimate aim of the album: the message.
From the 90s alt-country power anthem “Heritage of Arrogance,” the swinging country rock of “Run This Town,” the spirited fiddle of “Baptized in Well Spirits,” to the more intimate moments of the Saving Country Music Song of the Year-nominated “Middle of a Heart,” White Trash Revelry touches on a wide variety of moods and attitudes, offering a diverse and robust listening experience to satiate most sectors of the listening palate.
But this is not why some have this album on their short list as a candidate for one of the best releases in country music in 2022. It’s because the writing of Adeem The Artist showcases a propulsive, provocative, and at times, polarizing aspect that pricks all the important zeitgeist social issues that get the press and progressive audience members swooning and pumping their fists in active appreciation.
This is not all of White Trash Revelry though. “Middle of a Heart” leaves the moral of the song up for interpretation. Adeem tells the story, sketches the lines, and lets the personal lineage and upbringing of the individual audience member color them in. Adeem draws a perfect circle—or bullseye if you will—and then takes their best shot at not stopping a heart, but changing one through the work of music.
Songs like “Painkillers & Magic,” “Baptized in Well Spirits,” and “Carolina” speak candidly about an upbringing in the rural South where virtue and sin sit on separate sides of an impossibly thin line, and the messages are mixed for young souls that often have a better sense for truth and hypocrisy than the adults handing down the morals. Born in the small town of Locust, North Carolina (pop. 3,000), the stories of White Trash Revelry are very much born from Adeem’s own personal American experiences, and you feel this in the details that are expressed within those stories.
A song like “For Judas” about a same sex dalliance in the arts district of Minneapolis is where you start to delve into material that might cross a line with certain country audiences, but it’s also written in a way that simply expresses a very human experience, and may open some audiences up to perspectives different than their own. Sure, some country fans will immediately punch out on this album’s second track and never look back. But “For Judas” is also a bit more of a conventional and pragmatic tact to opening up audiences to new ideas.
Much more problematic is most of the assertions of a song like “Heritage of Arrogance,” which shirks the nuance and specificity of storytelling to wield a broad brush via an angry hand, idealistically painting platitudes that don’t instruct or inform, but indict huge swaths of stereotyped populations, from white people, to Christians, to Southern fathers in an irreconcilable manner, damning their entire heritage with the aim of utter destruction as opposed to reformation, seethingly declaring these populations as solely the domain of white supremacy and hate with no regard for the spectrum of ideas and lived experiences within these populations, riddled with language pandering to the Twitter set as opposed to making persuasive arguments.
Like Jason Isbell and others who let terse, incensed, and emotional moments blind them with rage to the point where they become the ones sharing bigoted perspectives, Adeem The Artist does their music a grave disservice by giving into these angry and judgemental moments, while at the same time attempting to cloak them in, “Oh, I’m really not trying to judge you…’ qualifiers that are transparent and too little too late.
In the song “Going To Hell,” Adeem seems to fall for another stereotype that country music is a untouched and purified bastion of conservative and religious ideals that among other things, refuses to give Black people credit for their contributions. Every single history book on country music would disagree, so would the Sources of Country Music painting hanging as the centerpiece of the Country Music Hall of Fame, as would Hank Williams Jr., who has written and recorded numerous songs in tribute to Rufus “Tee-Tot” Payne, and paid for a memorial for Payne in Montgomery, Alabama, despite Hank Jr. selling Confederate flags with his own face in the center of them up to the 00s.
Those actively working to erase the Black legacy in country music today are not white supremacists, but elite intellectuals who love to use country music as a refraction point for their virtual signaling, actively engaging in wholesale Black erasure to make country music appear to be more racist and less inclusive than it ever was. In “Going To Hell,” Adeem cites The Louvin Brothers, whose song “Satan Is Real” is used as the opening salvo on Hank Williams III’s magum opus Straight To Hell, which along with many other titles, eradicates any notions that country music is solely the domain of conservative Christians fearful of Satanic imagery symbolically conjoined with Black people than needs to be integrated by performative activism.
A common refrain from Adeem The Artist is that “country music” wants people like them to disappear or to be eradicated. First, and once again, country music is not a monolith. A gay songwriter named Shane McAnally has been the most successful songwriter/producer in country music in the last 15 years. It has never been more easier or inviting for artists of color or outside the gender binary to gain acceptance. Adeem The Artist is part of that country community, and as evidenced by the acceptance of White Trash Revelry, is dispelling their own myths.
Of course country music has a troubled past with race, gender, and sex. This goes without saying. But if the greatest example of something you can cite as being belligerent against trans people in country music today is the Instagram account of some artist’s wife, that shows just how compartmentalized the concern is.
Not dissimilar to Staind frontman turned country songwriter Aaron Lewis who is similarly spectacular with words, but let’s the unmitigated anger of misunderstanding allow him to succumb to political propaganda, Adeem The Artist sullies what otherwise might be a work able to compel shifts in perspective by engaging in poorly constructed political opinion sharing. One of the reasons White Trash Revelry is being so revered is under the false notion that racist rednecks might get a hold of this album and somehow see the error of their ways. On the contrary, it will reinforce the notion that their culture is under grave assault under false pretenses, making them dig their boot heels even deeper into their stances.
With certainty, specific elements of Southern culture should be eradicated, and most of these elements have been, despite Adeem’s characterizations that rows upon rows of Confederate flags are around every corner, and white supremacists measure the sizable majority. Throwing the Southern baby out with the racist bathwater is one of the reasons the region is so riddled with dilemma. What is a man left with when you’ve robbed him of his cultural heritage? What fills that void? Fentanyl and methamphetamine, suicide, and violent extremism and retribution.
Country and Americana artists such as Bandy Clark, Brandi Carlile, Willi Carlisle, Melissa Carper, Bobby Dove, and so many more do more to normalize the presence of LGBT people in country music by simply being themselves as opposed to counter-productively trying to shock people into some form of submission.
Despite the exceptionally creative efforts here, Adeem The Artist falls so heavily for the categorically clichéd American experience of growing up in a religious setting, then being exposed to secular ideals later in life, and drastically overcorrecting one’s perspective due to an anger born off of being made to feel guilt for unpure thoughts or actions. Moving to Knoxville at one point to become a preacher theirself, Adeem most certainly has internalized this conflict in a way that shouldn’t be scoffed at, but is probably more pronounced than it is for the rest of us.
It is Adeem’s perspectives that make many of the songs of White Trash Revelry so potent, even if some of them cross over into being problematic in message. But it is also worth taking a deep breath, zooming out, ridding oneself of your own biased perspective, and regarding this work as a whole.
It’s not every song on White Trash Revelry that doesn’t practice what it preaches by passing judgement on individuals. Most of the songs simply share Adeem’s experiences as a nonbinary individual born and raised in the South, who is now married with a wife, and who wants to leave a more perfect world behind them. No different than Aaron Lewis or Jason Isbell, the balance of their contributions deserves to be ultimately concluded upon as a sum positive, even if the outcome for actually reshaping perspectives is not so favorable.
Adeeem The Artist is a uniquely brilliant with words in a way that separates them from the crowd, and when teemed up with the right music, which it is in White Trash Revelry, undoubtedly results in an experience that is fiercely compelling and resonant. Unfortunately though, that action is only effective on one side of the culture divide, which is so commonly the underlying failing of activism set to music.
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