Adeem the Artist refines their ability to tell country tales from where they stand
Is there a more pointed or pleasing satire of what it's like being newly visible at the margins of country and roots music than Adeem the Artist's "Redneck, Unread Hicks"? "Everybody gather 'round, we got another one here," they taunt in character. "It's got the pronouns listed; it's a genuine queer."
The macho bully Adeem's playing is further thrown by hearing calls for racial justice set to a spry country-blues groove that echoes Jimmie Rodgers — the artist regarded as the father of country music, who borrowed quite heavily from Black blues predecessors — and reaches a cantankerous conclusion: "Well, these rednecks and unread hicks ain't the same 'round here anymore."
That's the ninth song on White Trash Revelry, the album Adeem released in December to their widest audience to date, and it captures fresh awareness of the scrutiny they receive for the array of identities they embody in life, in song and in stage banter as a white, working-class, pansexual, nonbinary singer-songwriter raised in the rural South.
They're new to the national spotlight, and to being seen as representative of any community, or communities. But since Adeem was a kid in North Carolina, surrounded by the popular country of the '90s and early 2000s, they've had an inkling that music could carry a worldview. It only grew as their family migrated north and they had an alienated teenager's impulse to distance themselves from their roots, and expanded a great deal more when they became a performer of devotional fare during a period of intense involvement in evangelical Christianity.
Eventually, after sampling various spiritual communities, returning south and starting a family with their wife, Adeem worked their way to clarity about who they are and the cultural legacies they've been burdened with. Their 2021 album Cast Iron Pansexual, rendered with shaggy charm and a mixture of DIY and old-time string band sensibilities, was celebrated within the coalescing community of queer roots music devotees. They've brought their strengths and insights together more fully on White Trash Revelry, a collection of keenly knowledgeable and arresting songwriting delivered over spirited, full-band arrangements with a charisma that can feel needling, mischievous or vulnerable. They fundraised for it in deliberately tiny increments (i.e. a dollar at a time), then persuaded a powerhouse indie outfit, Thirty Tigers, to release the finished product.
Before playing their Nashville release show in December, Adeem sat down with NPR Music to muse about how they formed the perspective that's now a point of fascination. Any time they caught their indignation taking on inflated significance, they took the air out of it with laughter. "I feel like I'm coming across as very self-important, and that's making me feel very insecure," they admitted at one point.
It's the rich range of tones that Adeem strikes, from riotous, rollicking and irreverent to pensive, pained and earnest, that makes their music, and interviewing them about it, so captivating.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Jewly Hight: Fan funding models have been with us for quite a while at this point. How did you want your own approach to be different, more class-conscious?
Adeem the Artist: It's only a crowdfunding campaign in hindsight, because in the moment, it was kind of a bit.
I knew I needed to raise around $15,000 to do what I wanted to do. I mean, either people are going to finance this or it's not going to happen, because I'm a low-class person. It felt really audacious; that's almost half what I make in a year. That's a lot of money to say, like, "I should have this for a business thing I'm starting."
I didn't want to ask people to pay for something like this, and this just seemed like a really low risk way to do it. It's not like I'm asking people to even really inconvenience themselves. I'm just saying, "Hey, you get money in your Venmo you probably don't even know about. So just send me $1 of that if you think that this is worth doing."
That was the entire plan. It's so simple a child would think of it.
In a lot of current roots and country songwriting, there's kind of a shorthand, words that are meant to signify a thing and they're treated as though the meaning is self-evident. Like, a small town or a dirt road. Why wasn't that sufficient for you?
I left country music for a long time. I grew up in it, and towards the tail end of the '90s and the early 2000s, I kind of left that world and it was tangential to me.
When I first moved back to Tennessee from New York, which is where I kind of learned to play, I had, like, stripped myself of my accent. I tried so hard to assimilate in the North, and I was trying to assimilate again. And I think that there was a moment for me a number of years back: I was listening to this Roger Alan Wade song, and he talks about the sky looking like rusted chrome. There was something really beautiful about that that drew me in. And then I listened to a lot of Guy Clark, and then I got really into John Prine and a lot of country music crept in this weird side door that was really cerebral and sophisticated and poetic.
I was really hesitant. I didn't know if I could do this kind of music. I didn't know if it'd be alright or if I'd feel like I was putting it on to come back and experiment in that world. But it came naturally to me.
I had a straight job when my kid was born and I was going to do construction work and [play] gigs. And I got this gig opening for Kyle Petty, the NASCAR driver. I was named for Kyle Petty. I begged for this gig. ... And I thought, "Man, I need to write an opening song, so that I frame myself for this room. I'm playing with my namesake, so I want to come out there and prove myself, my credentials." So that's when I wrote "Carolina," [the first song on White Trash Revelry].
"Carolina" follows this sort of stereotypical origin story aesthetic in country music. But there are some pretty clearly defined departures from that.
Given how far away your life experience had taken you geographically and musically, what do you make of the fact that you have settled so close to your roots in some ways, with what you're doing?
It is a funny thing to reckon with.
I think I felt so detached from my culture. I grew up in Locust, N.C. My dad didn't really have many friends. My mom hung out with kind of weirdos. I didn't feel like I belonged there. I didn't fit in [in a] small, super Christian, put-together town. Then we moved to New York, and I kind of felt, as a depressed redneck, too many things count against me. I tried to throw myself hard into Christianity, trying to serve the Lord, trying to do Christianity well. And then I got into Messianic Judaism and I was really trying really hard to be Jewish — and I wasn't Jewish at all. And then I left for all these different wanderings. I mean, I changed my name to Adeem. I was reading the Quran. I moved to New Jersey with my wife in 2014, and we joined this weird program. I can't remember what book I was reading, but [the author] Reza Aslan, he talks about how you spend your whole life digging, and you can go to different spots and dig a little bit, or you can find a spot, dig in and dig down, and then you might get water, you know? So that kind of led us back to Tennessee.
I did a lot of inward looking. I spent so much time up to that point really trying to ground myself in a global awareness and being a citizen of the world. And then I had the realization that the most important thing was maybe to bring that clarity as close as possible to smaller communities. You're able to do a lot more with your time. It goes a lot further.
What I'm getting at is I think that country music for me was that. I spent a lot of time trying to find identity, cultural identity, you know, anything. And I think I started really honing in on this: I have a cultural identity. I have a heritage. I'm just embarrassed about them. That's brought me to a lot of real heavy identity realizations about gender and everything else, but also about being from a low-income family, growing up white, growing up poor, growing up with this inheritance of racism, systemic advantages and disadvantages.
You've been a music-maker for a while, but working in different kinds of music under different names, for different audiences. What has it been like navigating that process of growing self-awareness, coming to realizations about identity while you were putting your work out for public consumption on one scale or another?
I got caught in a bit of a weird situation. Pretty early on in the pandemic, I became a part of a community of queer fans and creators of country music, and met some of my now best friends who were part of this community. I was out as pansexual. I hadn't really talked about gender. When I became part of this community, it became a great source of people to walk through it with. I was talking to a lot of folks who were confirming a lot of my experiences, and it really helped me to understand myself a little better.
But that took place in this weird isolation chamber of the pandemic, where I didn't have to go into any work spaces and perform any of that masculinity, and I didn't have to go perform the character that I was performing in the bars around town, I didn't have to work construction. There were no roles to play. It was just me and my family. I sat around with my kid building an Animal Crossing island.
When I came out as being nonbinary and released a very queer record, it didn't occur to me that I was making this big revealing thing. It didn't feel particularly vulnerable to me, because most of my friends during that time were trans or queer. I just kind of felt like, "Yeah, I've got this greater understanding of where my gender is, I've got this greater understanding of my sexuality. I'm feeling confident in that. I'm feeling affirmed by the community. Like, I feel OK." That was my first experience, really, with knowingly trying to navigate a thing privately that accidentally became part of a very public brand. That was, and has continued to be, really strange.
So many other people of marginalized identities, those we're aware of and those we're not aware of, have been part of these musical traditions, and country music has celebrated the heroic outsider or outlaw image. How did you want to play with the perception of you and your collaborators as outsiders in "Redneck, Unread Hicks"?
I have never performed before the pandemic in a space where I considered myself a marginalized voice. Even as a queer-identifying person, I didn't feel like that was a foot forward with my art. It wasn't something that I talked about or sang about, really. I did not feel like I was approaching any of these issues from any level of marginalization, I guess, is what I want to say. But then I put Cast Iron Pansexual out, and that changed a lot of things for me. I was treated differently and sometimes in really radical, painful ways. Mostly just in marginally uncomfortable ways.
When I worked on this record, I had largely songs that were about race and class. I really had been working on this collection of songs that examined everything from a perspective of privilege and power. I wanted to make sure that it was clear that I'm still going to champion the same values. I'm not switching teams with this record. I'm still here.
One thing that I really worry about is I don't want to seem like I'm chief. I'm not any kind of activist. I have done very little tangential work in the world of activism. And I would never want to be lauded as such, not because I think it's dishonorable — I have a lot of heroes who are activists — but because I don't want to seem like I find myself to be of any level of importance. I am strictly a rodeo clown.
And the second thing that I want to say is that in a rural Southern town, there are some rednecks that are just handing out Narcan and collecting money on Cash app to keep some mom in the trailer park's power on. I see this all the time, mutual aid groups and collectives. It's scrappy people. There's a lot of people that are just doing really important work and just really want to change the world and don't want to get caught in this system
A lot of artists who address realities as weighty as the ones that you do take a pretty straightforward approach. There's not necessarily much humor or irreverence involved. What's appealing to you about varying the tone of your music, moving from camp to bitingly tongue-and-cheek humor to earnestness? What role do you feel that plays in your work?
When you grow up in tension, you learn how to read people and you try to figure out how to ease the tension, and when to gas it up when you need to get your point across. You start to pay attention to these metrics because they can be important.
I got woke in 2014 around all the Mike Brown coverage. And I was really passionate. I felt angry. I felt as angry as I did when I found out that the Thanksgiving story wasn't true. It was the same anger. It was the same moment of, "Why didn't you just tell me what the heck was really going on?" I have gone through waves of real rage in the past several years here where I was ready to burn it down for justice's sake.
But I don't want a civil war. I don't want to hurt anybody. I don't want to lose my air conditioning unit. I love my air conditioning unit. I want a safe world for my kid. I want to find some way to build back shared spaces, because I don't feel like we have them anymore. I don't feel like there's any sense of common ground right now. And it feels scary. It feels like there's not going to be any way to repair anything.
I think things have gotten so tense. Being able to share in a laugh together is a really important thing to be able to do, because it creates a sense of safety. You're laughing. I'm laughing. We're all having fun here. I'm not trying to tell you how to be a good white person. I'm telling you, "Hey, this is the stuff we need to be doing together."
A lot of rooted forms of music used to be considered music of working-people, and class consciousness was baked into it. Things are a lot more complicated now, after the middle-classing of country music. How do you think about centering class in your work?
When we look at what's happened, this change in country music from centering laborers and workers' rights to what it is now is because of this system that's been built here [in Nashville] that has very little respect to regard for its audience base. It's music as a means of fishing for a demographic you can sell ads to. They don't respect workers. They don't respect laborers. They do not know them. That's my perspective. That's my inheritance. I'm a laborer. I was born to a laborer. So it's very frustrating for me.
It's an interesting impulse that you have to try to not just dismiss mainstream country songs that you don't think do justice to country people, but to improve on them, try to write your own, better versions. What's that about?
"My America" was literally me trying to write that Aaron Lewis song ["Am I the Only One"] with regard for the people he tried to write it for. The truth is I don't feel mad at him because he wrote a bad song. I feel mad at him because I feel like he's disrespecting people I care about. These characters on his album, they're in me. They walk with me. They're my family, the ones that make me uncomfortable, the ones that I want to dance and feel with and frolic around all of them. They're all part of this for me. I definitely don't want it to sound like I was trying to outwrite Aaron Lewis. I just wanted to try to really humanize what he was describing, because what he's describing is important. That song became a No. 1 song. I want to know who liked that song and why they liked it, because that matters, because there's something I'm not hearing.
Then I think about all the people who feel like Toby Keith's "Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue" had an actual effect on the way they perceived their safety. There really are profound consequences for the art we create.
I'm new to people caring or listening to what I say. That's never happened before.
You mean you didn't ever experience that back when you were writing songs from a Christian perspective?
No. I mean, there are strangers that are telling me they like my album. That's never been the case for me before. That's why I'm laughing, because I'm laughing at how it sounds like I think that my music is important in a way that I don't think it's important. I'm just conscious of the fact that stuff impacts people differently. You don't know how it's going to land.
I think one thing that I really was intentional about was trying not to exclude all the characters that matter. We're not trying to say, "Country music is now, like, gay." We're not saying our stories are more important than yours or more profound than yours. Just that we're here, and they're happening right beside each other. These are complementary. These aren't diametrically opposed humans.
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