Adeem the Artist
Photo: Madison Miles Photography

Adeem the Artist Announces With ‘White Trash Revelry’ That It’s Their Country Too

White Trash Revelry offers no elegy for hillbillies. Through deeply empathetic songwriting, Adeem the Artist has made one of the best country albums of 2022.

White Trash Revelry
Adeem the Artist
Four Quarters Records
2 December 2022

What constitutes country music? Any simple answer probably originated with an industry gatekeeper and is beholden to algorithms and selective focus groups where “authenticity” is mass-produced and packaged. A fairer question might be, “What does country music sound like?” Frankly, I hear it in all its legacy and future when listening to White Trash Revelry, the new album by Adeem the Artist.

White Trash Revelry is the second album in two years by the non-binary country musician Adeem the Artist. It follows Cast-Iron Pansexual, a self-released album that caught the attention of many, including Rolling Stone, who said, “[it] lives up to its title with explorations of sexuality and gender expression that are equally clever and poignant.” White Trash Revelry is an impressive downpayment on Cast-Iron Pansexual’s promissory note, centering itself as a musical statement from, to, and of the American South.

The song of the South is a complicated tune traversing as it does a landscape pockmarked by structural racism, religion, economic exploitation, and stubborn pride that often manifests as cultural blindness. From blunter pencils, a pastiche of country kitsch can emerge where songwriters see how many mentions of mudding, Mama, Jesus, trucks, farming, and young women clad in cut-off jeans and cowboy boots they can squeeze into a three-minute-20-second number. Addressing the South’s political complexities can evoke reactions that range from avoidance to maudlin sentiment to cringe-inducing earnestness (I’m looking at you, Brad Paisley).

It quickly becomes evident that Adeem is not one of those artists. There is an authentic empathy that permeates this album and lends genuine gravity to the songs held within. Take the way they address the unhealed scars of structural racism in the Southern United States in “Heritage of Arrogance”, a scorching barroom rocker that sounds like Bruce Springsteen and the Drive-By Truckers found themselves double-booked in the same studio space. Yes, it charges into the debate, but with a subtle complexity that is rare in a four-and-a-half-minute song. This isn’t Neil Young‘s ham-fisted “Alabama”, after all.

As a white, non-binary Southerner, Adeem the Artist articulates how their allyship involves intersectionality and honest, ongoing self-reflection. They offer no simple morality play with two-dimensional characters. They deftly acknowledge that multiple things can be true at once and that attending to the tension between empathy and honesty illumines the tragic flaw haunting white families in the South—terrain seeded by generational racism shapes values. “Mom and Dad tried to teach me wrong from right / But their compasses were bad.” 

The song is replete with concise turns of phrases that each—like Mary Poppins’ carpetbag—contains measures deeper and broader than initial appearances. Within the span of 270 seconds, Adeem the Artist draws the listener’s attention to the infernal complexity of systemic oppression and how one can both be a recipient and perpetuator of its harm. They trace how even exposure to indefensible racial brutality seemingly fails to deter racism’s eternal return of the same (“I saw Rodney King on the TV screen turn slowly into Trayvon”) while marking the paradox of evangelical Christianity’s implication in freedom and bondage (“I got saved at the Baptist church when I said the sinner’s prayer / Went to service with momma and they’s only white people there”). 

There is a clear and cutting repudiation of the “both sides” binary that stunts imagination and kneecaps dialogue (“Two sides of a coin implies there ain’t no better one”). The legacy paved by the Drive-By Truckers when they mapped the “duality of the Southern thing” on their Southern Rock Opera is traversed by Adeem the Artist some two decades later in a fashion that acknowledges and pushes beyond the binary in multiple ways. Their piercing analysis is neither self-exoneration nor blame-shifting. Clear eyes, full heart, “it’s on us to make it right.”

When they say, “But I’ve been listening / Trying to keep myself from dismissing / Perspectives that I struggle to relate with,” they foreshadow the deeply humane closer, “My America”. It’s the song every progressive-minded offspring should have on their playlist for the holiday trip, dreading the inevitable clashes around the dinner table. It isn’t apologetics for the other side. Instead, it honestly explores the shifting fears exploited by bad-faith actors to drive culture wars and strife. “Do the places I found meaning mean anything at all?” is a question worth sitting with, pondering the possibilities of connection within the fault lines.

It is this ability to sketch heartrending narratives that expand the field of vision while simultaneously drilling down on the particular that make a case for considering Adeem the Artist in the same breath as some of the finest writers in country/Americana/roots music. Take “Middle of the Heart”. A simple acoustic guitar navigates the rites of passage in a four-act Southern tragedy. It evokes comparisons to John Prine’s “Sam Stone” and Jason Isbell’s “Dress Blues” while also tapping into the dark vulnerability of Dolly Parton’s “sad ass songs”, as she described them to WNYC’s Jad Abumrad. To say more would risk overshadowing the song; it is best to experience it.

Flannery O’Connor claimed that “[b]y and large, people in the South still conceive of humanity in theological terms. While the South is hardly Christ-centered, it is most certainly Christ-haunted.” White Trash Revelry is firmly within this heritage. This album traces the spectral imprint of evangelical Christianity within its offerings with honesty and depth. “Painkillers & Magic” is exemplary in this sense. A country ballad where Adeem channels their childhood memories of a church-going aunt to illuminate the trauma around the “coalescing of holiness and horror/addiction, loss, and blessing”. It is a child’s experience of working-class struggle and the avenues one seeks for release—the addictive lure of drugs and religion—that folds into a hymn where the symbol of the “prayer closet” holds multiple meanings.

The gem of this album’s creative engagement with religion and longing is “For Judas”. Contemporaneously set in the arts district of Minneapolis, it is a tender, yearning love song keenly aware of how love’s desire exposes one’s vulnerability in a simultaneously unsettling and exhilarating way. Accented by Jessye DeSilva’s dexterity at the piano, it envelops the listener in the experience of the pull for human touch and connection, even as one sees betrayal on the horizon. Is it plumbing new theological depths of the story of Jesus and Judas, or is it cleverly using this story from the Christian scriptures as a literary template through which love’s tender mercies mark the fragility of human connection? Maybe it’s both. Leaving the tension unresolved is part of the power of a song that packs the most emotional punch of the album and that, in conversation with the other tracks, is saying something.

Adeem the Artist’s songwriting also employs wry humor to trouble the comfortable myths propping up unjust structures with a deftness not unlike Randy Newman’s withering winks at Southern absurdity. “Going to Hell” is a raucous, apocalyptic, fiddle-driven bluegrass hoedown that both inverts the evangelistic sales pitch (“Do you really want to go to heaven?”) while offering a subversive counter reading of the “crossroads and the blues” myth. When the devil rebuffs the song’s protagonist for a “soul for success” deal, the prince of darkness peels back the curtain on the blues myth and the status quo. “It’s true I met Robert Johnson, now he showed me how the blues could work / But white men would rather give the devil praise than acknowledge a black man’s worth.” Whew. It’s getting hot in here. 

To call their writing subversive of the status quo is not to make an accusation of unnaturally adding to the landscape of country music lovers as much as it is an act of revealing what is and has always been there. Somewhere along the line, the country music industry sold us a bill of goods. The act of naming is both subversive of an incomplete narrative and a declaration of love to marginalized communities within marginalized communities.

Take “Redneck, Unread Hicks”, for instance. This smoldering blues jam finds Adeem the Artist joined by Jett Holden’s guest vocals and Jake Blount‘s distinctive banjo solo in an insurgent countermeasure to the Charlie Daniel Band’s “The South’s Gonna Do It Again”. Where Daniels was dishing shoutouts to a community of artists around the Lost Cause, Adeem’s song is a queer—in the multiple senses of that word—reading of the hootenanny where “singing ‘Black Lives Matter’ to a Jimmie Rodgers’ melody” is right at home. When they describe “a trans femme trans am mandolin riff / A firebird, registered socialist”, you can hear the echoes of the pioneering witness of Lavender Country’s founder, the late Patrick Haggerty, whose ground-breaking 1973 album combined class consciousness with a more expansive vision of the country music landscape.

Adeem the Artist gestures at this songwriting paradox in a recent feature in The New York Times. “Using the vernacular of country,” they said. “I got to showcase my values with the conduit of my oppression.” In this move, Adeem joins the ranks of luminaries from Dolly Parton and Loretta Lynn to the Chicks, to name a few. I think this—along with their deep empathetic sensibilities, mastery of language, and piercing wit—is one of the reasons Americana icon Brandi Carlile called Adeem the Artist “one of the best writers in roots music”. 

White Trash Revelry offers no elegy for hillbillies. Instead, within the album, they—with equal measures of passion, poignancy, and unbridled joy—claim their voice, give voice to the overlooked and hidden,  and expand the horizon of our vision while offering up one of the best country music albums of this, or any, year. 

RATING 9 / 10