The Unlikely Rise of Hick-Hop

A hot new genre blends country hooks with rap phrasing and a healthy dose of mud
By HANNAH KARP  Wall Street Journal  07/03/13
From Georgia to Texas this weekend, the stars of a budding musical genre known
as “hick-hop” will perform in swamp-like off-road-vehicle parks. Singing songs that
fuse hip-hop with country music, the bands will celebrate the popular rural pastime
of driving trucks, lawn mowers, golf carts and even jacked-up grocery carts—all
through the mud.
The music, anathema to country-music
traditionalists because of its heavy
drum and bass, doesn’t get much airplay on major radio stations. But the
all-ages mud-park shows, which
feature dancers that shimmy around
chain-link-fence poles cemented onto
truck beds, can draw upward of 10,000
fans. They tend to spend freely on CDs
and merchandise, from moonshine to
Mason jars filled with the mud used in a
band’s music videos.
Three of the genre’s top artists—Colt Ford, Lenny Cooper and the LACS (short for
the Loud Ass Crackers)—have albums among the top 75 on Billboard’s country
music chart this week with 1,800 Wal-Mart WMT +0.51% stores around the country
stocking their records. Average Joe’s Entertainment, a Nashville, Tenn.-based
independent record label that specializes in the emerging genre, has sold nearly
200,000 “Mud Digger” compilation albums featuring its various artists; the fourth
“Mud Digger” album hit stores Tuesday.
The unlikely rise of this niche genre,
despite its near-absence from radio,
shows how radically the music
industry’s playbook for success has
changed in recent years. Record sales
have tanked nearly 60% since their
peak in 2000, with the proliferation of
outlets offering music free or at a
nominal cost. So live performance and
merchandise sales represent an
increasingly large chunk of a typical
band’s income.
To maximize concert revenue, hick-hop artists are using some of the same
technologies that have eroded record sales to ferret out paying fans. They’re
routing tours based on data from services like Songkick, TuneCore and Pandora
that track where people are buying or listening to their music most frequently.
Big retailers like Wal-Mart have also
become a way for artists to reach
millions of listeners without radio or
record-label deals. Wal-Mart, which
accounts for about 10% of total music
sales in the U.S., according to the
market researcher NPD Group, has
taken to buying music directly from
musicians in recent years, selling
millions of albums even as industrywide
sales decline.
The increase in bands circumventing traditional channels has given rise to a
number of quirky musical styles. Though hick-hop has been more commercially
successful than most, Internet radio service Pandora counts 400 genres popular
among its 70 million active users, from psychobilly—a fusion of rockabilly and punk
—to trap, a hip-hop-influenced subset of electronic music.
Mud bogging has been a popular activity for decades, especially in the South, but
Watch a clip of “Country Boy Fresh” by The Lacs.
They represent a new genre of hip-hop, practiced
by good old boys who rap about driving oversize
pickups into mud and hunting for deer out of season.
the mud world’s musical tradition is recent, with live-music stages sprouting up in at
least 162 off-road-vehicle parks over the past five years. Fans typically pay about
$40 a weekend to cook out with friends and play in the mud with a wide range of
vehicles, from $100,000 trucks to homemade contraptions fashioned from tanks,
lawn mowers, even king-size mattresses, all jacked up on giant tires forbidden on
city streets.
The scantily dressed crowd includes grade-schoolers,
teenagers driving their parents’ farm equipment and
professionals who burn thousands of dollars each
week on truck repairs, only to demolish their rides
again the next weekend in events like truck tug of war.
Daisy Duke shorts, bikinis and anything camouflage
are popular fashion choices; homemade moonshine
and beer are on tap and truck brands tend to be
American, as Colt Ford notes in his “Drivin’ Around
Song”: “U.S.A., Chevrolet, Dodge and Ford, raising a little hell and praising the
Lord.”
The underground world even has its own magazines: Mud Life sells about 70,000
copies a year, thanks in part to its “Mud Girl of the Month” feature. The community’s
official afterparty is known as Club Mud, started by two friends who constructed a
makeshift stage with speakers and lighting on a yard cart made for hauling hay.
Now the pair throws weekly parties for up to 8,000 people from Missouri to
Michigan.
The culture’s unofficial soundtrack was
born during the summer of 2008 after
Colt Ford—a former pro golfer with a
devoted Myspace following—decided
to launch the record label Average
Joe’s with veteran hip-hop producer
Shannon Houchins. The music featured
catchy country hooks and traditional
country instruments like fiddles and
washboards, but Mr. Ford spoke the
lyrics instead of singing them, focusing
on rural themes like hunting, fishing
and driving big trucks through mud. After releasing Mr. Ford’s debut album on
iTunes, Mr. Houchins got a call from the owner of an off-road vehicle park in South
Carolina offering Mr. Ford $3,500 to play a show there. About 4,700 fans turned
out, snapping up $10,000 worth of merchandise, as many fans had gotten so wet
and muddy that they were happy to buy a fresh change of clothes.
Mr. Houchins, who helped artists like Bubba Sparxxx mix country and hip-hop in
the past but had never before tried to hawk the final product, said he realized he’d
found an untapped market. He began reaching out to scores of other off-roadvehicle
parks. Since most weren’t equipped to host concerts, he connected them to
ticket printers, security staff and stage builders. The parks booked a string of mudbog
dates for Mr. Ford, and the LACS played as an opening act.
Thousands of fans jammed onto rural two-lane roads to see Mr. Ford and the LACS
rap about the mud lifestyle, and they soon began seeking CDs in local stores. Mr.
Ford’s “No Trash in My Trailer” has lines like: “I’m mud boggin, camouflagen, a
ballgame is what I’m watchen. I work hard, mow the yard, fish, hunt, knuckle scar change oil, plow the soil, love a boat country boy.”  Mr. Ford has sold more than one
million albums to date.
That year, Wal-Mart started getting calls
from stores across the Southeast from
customers complaining that mudthemed
music was only available
online, said Tiffany Couch, sales
director of Select-O-Hits, a division of
closely held Anderson Merchandisers
that Wal-Mart hires to supply its 4,000
Supercenter stores with CDs.
Cautiously, she said, they began
stocking several hundred Wal-Mart
stores in the region with the music,
waiting to make sure it sold before
expanding to other locations.
Wal-Mart has long been supportive of
little-known community artists—
especially in the country-music world,
Ms. Couch said. The company
sponsored a free concert series in its
store parking lots in 1995, for example,
that featured up-and-coming country
acts such as the Smokin’ Armadillos
and the Moffats. But hick-hop’s quick
success came as a surprise. “It’s
atypical in country music to have
achieved this level of success without
radio being the main driver—this has
been kind of an enigma,” said Ms.
Couch.
To be sure, Wal-Mart’s power in the
music industry is fast diminishing as
demand for physical CDs shrinks. But
country fans have been far more
reluctant than others to go digital. Bigbox
retailers account for about 50% of
country-music sales, compared with
25% of music sales in all genres,
according to Nielsen Entertainment
analyst Dave Bakula.
Wal-Mart has made a string of
exclusive deals in recent years to
release new works by aging superstars
like the Eagles and Journey. For
budding acts, the stores present a
valuable opportunity to connect with
millions of potential fans on a national
scale.
Jason Lathrop, an air conditioning
contractor in Jacksonville, Fla., said he
bought every album in Average Joe’s
catalog he could find because he
spends most of his free time driving his
souped-up Ford Excursion “out in the
middle of a cow pasture somewhere,”
where the music has fast became
ubiquitous.
To assure Wal-Mart about its prospects
for selling more mud music outside the
Southeast, Average Joe’s last year
showed the retailer “heat maps” drawn
up by Pandora. The maps showed
where Pandora users were listening to
the new genre most frequently, landing
the records in nearly half of Wal-Mart’s
Supercenters nationwide. Average
Joe’s also began using Pandora’s heat
maps to route artists’ tours through
unlikely areas with high fan
concentrations, like Ohio, Indiana and
the Pacific Northwest.
Pandora founder Tim Westergren said
he started a pilot program over the past
year and half which shares these maps
with about 50 different groups. The
company has finally amassed enough
listeners so that bands can convert the
data into significant concert ticket sales.
More than 10,000 of the artists Pandora
plays have now been listened to at
least 250,000 times each, he said.
“It’s the folks that can really make the
live thing work that are going to thrive,” said Mr. Westergren, adding that Average
Joe’s “has been way out in front in terms of understanding how valuable” the maps
can be.
The LACS have now sold nearly 200,000 albums and an additional 25,000 singles
on Apple’s iTunes store, despite hardly any play on radio. They will release their
third album in August, as they quadruple their touring business.
Country rap dates back to at least the late ’90s, and before that country legends like
Johnny Cash used recitation instead of singing on some of their most popular
tracks. But in the past, country rappers have struggled to sell records for lack of a
defined audience. Though the two genres share the same roots and many of the
same general themes—drinking, driving around and having a good time—their
fusion has been controversial, says Adam Gussow, a Southern Studies professor
at the University of Mississippi.
“Country and rap have achieved much of their contemporary popularity by
configuring themselves in the national imagination as proudly radicalized genres:
the voice of the unreconstructed Southern pastoral and the rural white-working
class on the one hand, and the voice of inner-city frustration, gunplay and rumpshaking
Vegas-style fantasy on the other,” Mr. Gussow wrote in a 2010 essay in
Southern Cultures journal.
But the new hick-hoppers have targeted a specific audience, taking more care than
their predecessors to keep their language relatively family-friendly and the themes
lighthearted and violence-free.
“We never killed nobody, so we can’t rap about no gangster stuff,” Mr. Sharpe told
a half-baffled, half-riveted crowd at the Country Music Association’s flagship music
festival in Nashville last month, as the band used synthesizers and 808 drum
machines to accompany their hit tunes like “Kickin’ Up Mud.” Lyrics reflected their
lifestyle: “Everyday get stuck in a big mud hole/Just sit right there and watch the
sun get low.”
Hick-hop artists say the mud world is endlessly inspiring. Lenny Cooper, an artist
better known as the “Mud Digger King,” said that after he noticed scores of fans in
Florida and Georgia installing homemade stripper poles in the back of their trucks,
he wrote a song called “Rodeo,” an ode to truck-bed strippers. He also wrote a
song about a technique many of his mud-crazy fans used to center themselves:
“Just somethin bout chillin out where the corn grows/I like to clear my mind down
an old back road.”
Mr. Houchins, of Average Joe’s, said he has been receiving about 500 demo tapes
a week from country rappers lately. “That tells me that we’re creating a new genre,”
said Mr. Houchins. “But they haven’t made a Grammy category for us yet.”

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One Response to “The Unlikely Rise of Hick-Hop”

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