It’s Election Day morning when Adeem Maria calls from Knoxville. I don’t consider the timing a coincidence but rather consequential, and like my civic duty (which I’d already completed during Georgia’s early voting period), something I’d been both anxious over and anticipating due to the might of the Artist’s new album White Trash Revelry.
Salt & peppered with autobiography and unapologetic discourse, White Trash Revelry exposes a culture I care for as well as pity, not an addendum to what the Drive-By Truckers coined as the “duality of the Southern Thing” but a fresh treatise that confronts a broken heart, dirty window view of the South in general.
With Adeem the Artist’s previous effort, last year’s Cast Iron Pansexual, the native North Carolinian ran the gauntlet of realizing their nonbinary identity– the comfort of finally knowing, the fear of rejection, and especially the uncertainty of being other in often tribalist Appalachia. If that sounds niche, it is but it’s also compelling, full of ridiculously sharp wit and the kind of storytelling that pushes pulses.
White Trash Revelry wields the same perhaps even greater savvy, widening the aperture for Adeem to address the rural marginalized as well as the 21st Century Southerner sick of romanticized stars n’ bars waving and selective denial. It’s exceptional songwriting that I fear is fated to remain relevant.
AI- I wanna start with the beginning of White Trash Revelry and the as you called it “Redneck Fundraising”, crowdsourcing the album, fans giving money directly to you to make the record. You’ve tried this before– why did it work this time?
AM- That’s a great question. I don’t know that I can speak with any authority on that. But I have hypotheses (laughs)! I think one thing that happened was people took it more seriously and wanted to give. We got a lot o’ traction, so I think by the second day I’d incorporated the weird advent calendar of redneck artwork! Every time we made a certain goal, it would unlock a new photo or sketch from the art gallery. I think that got people pretty plugged in. Every time I’ve tried this before, I didn’t have a clear goal in mind. It was always just kinda goofin’ off and this was pretty concise. The ask was very direct: I need fifteen thousand dollars, I wanna make a record, I believe the record’s important, and I don’t wanna ask anybody for a lot of money. So I’m asking a lot of people for a very small amount.
When you say you had the goal in mind, the goal was established, what was it exactly? You had the songs? You had the concept? You just had a definite game plan?
Yeah! I got to a point during the pandemic where I released a single and ran it on the radio. I did the whole radio campaign, charted Americana for the first time, and then I released Cast Iron Pansexual and did all the press on that. I was my own publicist. I was gettin’ an idea of how the mechanics of releasing a record work, and the one thing that I really learned was you have to pay people who do this stuff well (laughs) in order to make a big dent! I just kinda had it in my head like, “Man, I really need like thirty thousand dollars to make a good record that actually leaves a mark culturally.” I worked this around and I got this number down to fifteen where I was like, “Alright, I think we can record the record for five [thousand], and then do the press and everything for the other ten.” Which is a really, really modest budget for tryin’ to make the kind of splash I was tryin’ to make!
The songs were written, the album was assembled and I just needed funding. I needed to figure out those pieces and I got really lucky. Kyle Crownover came on board– I mean, he’s part o’ the reason I even did the redneck fundraiser ’cause he was like, “I’ll produce it for ya’ and you can figure out money later. But paying musicians and stuff? Why don’t you just ask people? They’ll probably give it to you.” (Laughs) So I just did and it worked!
Let’s talk about making the record ’cause I don’t have the liner notes. Tell me about where you made it, who was involved, special guests, performers, all that good stuff!
Oh yeah, it was a really special thing, man. Kyle came on as producer with Robbie Artress, who’s a buddy o’ his engineering. They were like, “I don’t know what you wanna do…” I wanted to record it in Knoxville. It’s where I live, it’s been a really special place for me for a long time, and I was able to find this studio that was a block from my first apartment I ever had! And three blocks from the house I live in now! I live in the same neighborhood (laughs)!
I went over and looked at it and it was perfect! It was just a stunning studio. Everything was perfect. I had a bunch of mutual friends with the folks that owned it, and I think that was the first of the money that I spent was I reserved that studio. We started the fundraiser on October 31st, and November 2nd I booked the studio time for the first weekend in December .
I had a bunch o’ musicians I wanted to work with. Joy Clark, who’s a lead guitarist– she’s also a fantastic songwriter in her own right– but she plays with Allison Russell, she’s played with Chaka Kahn… She’s the real deal, and I wanted to get her on there. And then Jake Blount, who’s a world-class banjo player– he’s got a new record [The New Faith], he calls it Afrofuturism, and it’s just a stunning conceptual record. He’s really, really, really a special talent and does a lot o’ cool stuff in the old-time world.
I’d played a gig or two with this guy Giovanni Carnuccio. He’s a drummer in Austin, Texas. He played with Turnpike Troubadours and a bunch o’ great bands. I love his energy. I really thought he’d be a good fit. None of these people had met before either! And then we were able to wrangle Craig Burletic from Tyler Childers’ band, and that was kinda the main band that got together. There was one other guitarist, Jason Hanna who lives in Knoxville, and he’s a close friend o’ mine. He came and played on some stuff but everything else was added in [post-production] and those were the core people.
I flew everybody in, I got an Airbnb in Knoxville, everybody met on the first day, and in three days we banged the record out! I’d play a song, we’d talk about the song, and then we’d run it as a band, and then we’d track it.
Let’s jump into the album proper. The opening track “Carolina”… You’ve got a daughter, right?
Yeah, I’ve got a kid. They’ll be five this month.
The line, “Some of us have childhoods that aren’t poems on sight, but darlin’ you’re doin’ alright.” Did you write that for her?
I wrote that before my kid was born. I wrote that for all of us, you know?
How old were you when your family moved to Syracuse?
I was about thirteen years old.
So old enough to have been rooted in not only a Southern accent but a Southern way of thinking.
Yeah, it was a weird experience.
How much does that play into your personality and thoughts as an artist?
(Laughs) Probably pretty huge! I was a redneck in all the most visceral ways– I had a heavy accent, I had poor redneck parents, a lot o’ generational trauma, Dad was a laborer… I had long bleach-blonde hair, I was very effeminate, I liked a lot of counterculture music. By the time I was thirteen, I was out o’ the country music “world” (laughs), you know what I mean? And then when we moved to New York it was like I was just a good ol’ boy! Outside of the South, there’s not as much nuance. When you’ve got the accent, that’s who you are.
The rednecks up there look the same, they just have different accents.
(Laughs) You’re exactly right! And so I kinda got lumped in with them. People would say a lot o’ casual racist stuff that I wasn’t even used to hearing in the South because they just thought, “Oh, you’re a safe person to say this kind o’ stuff too.”
Isn’t it amazin’ how folks will just make that generalization if you have a Southern accent? I roadied for a while and we spent a great deal o’ time in the northeast and it stunned and horrified me that folks leap to that conclusion and say things to me that, here, would getcha belted in the mouth or shot!
That’s exactly right!
You use the term “redneck”, and it’s a different thing when you use it other than being the butt of a joke or an insult. You use it to describe yourself and what you do– is that a way of way of reclaiming the term?
Oh, yeah! I take umbrage with a lot of the ways that language is used to create divisiveness in culture. Like right now, I’d say the biggest way that’s manifesting itself in my life and in the culture at large is the narrative being forced by Republicans that Christians and queer people are at war with each other– which is largely false! Actually, the war that’s happening is Republicans against seats they can’t win unless they come up with some ridiculous (laughs) red herring to throw into the conversation! There a so many queer-affirming churches now. There’s so many people in the queer community who are Christians, and I think it’s the same way with this.
There was a lot of this narrative goin’ around that white Southern poor people elected Trump, which is largely not true. The data there does not support this. This is the narrative and I think that for me, there came a point where I started gettin’ really pissed about stuff like the “toothless hick” tirades. It was just like, “They’re toothless for a reason! ‘Cause they don’t have medical care! Their communities are neglected and they’re being force-fed pills because the healthcare system knows they can’t afford the research procedures to figure out what’s actually wrong with them!”
That’s what’s goin’ on. It’s a running joke, but also what you’re makin’ fun of at the end of the day is the systemic issues that you say you stand against. I’m talkin’ about comin’ from liberals and other parts of the country. These are the same folks that are like, “Well, they shouldn’t vote for Republicans if they don’t wanna get killed in a flood!”
You address all of that across the album. If I go next to “Heritage Of Arrogance”… “I’ve been learnin’ our true history and I hate it,” you know, the overt racism we were just talkin’ about, that we also grew up around, that was tolerated by the generations before us. People would say, “Oh, they can’t help it, that’s just how they were raised,” or, “It was a different time.” You’re absolutely right when you say, “It’s on us to make it right.” How do we do that? Sittin’ here on Election Day?
This is something I’ve had to process. I kinda came around to what the rowdy folks are callin’ “wokeness” after the Mike Brown shooting in 2014. I just was stunned by it! I remember when Trayvon Martin happened, I was still livin’ with my folks, and the way that was discussed by my parents, I really didn’t have an understanding… I saw all of that happen through the lens of my parents, so it was like, “Oh, he was scary!”
Blamed for being black is what happens.
Yes, you’re exactly right. That’s exactly what it is. I was out o’ the house and had a few years of independent thinking by the time that Mike Brown happened, and it really shocked me. It really took me off-guard, you know? Especially coming from, much like my father, an education system that taught me that Martin Luther King Jr. (laughs) had totally ended racism!
Me and my partner moved to New Jersey to join this service core program. We really wanted to try and make a better world and that seemed like our best outlet for it at the time. We had to do all these racial dialogues and dive into all this stuff– and man, it suuuucked! It sucked! The truth is the only way to become an ally or to become on the right side of history and progress is to really reckon with the fact that we have been socialized to be racist. We’ve been socialized to be misogynists. We’ve been socialized to be homophobic, to be transphobic, to believe that whiteness and power should be aligned with these patriarchal structures. That’s all been embedded in the fabric of who we are and our society since birth.
I think that one thing I’ve struggled with and this album is part of me workin’ through is that I think the impetus when you first get privy to these layers of injustice is to validate yourself as one of the “good whites” (laughs), you know what I mean? Like, “I’m a feminist and I’m an anti-racist,” and all that. And I think that’s good! I think it’s a good impetus– it’s shame for having believed wrong things and learnin’ about it. But I do think that one of the biggest ways we make an impact on the culture is by owning it in a way that uses that language.
I wanna be really clear the way I talk about misogyny and racism is not as one of the “good” higher-minded feminist anti-racists. I am approaching it as somebody who is still actively working to dismantle my implicit biases, still working to uproot my misogyny and my racism. Those are elements that are still there. I still have friends who bring things up to me and say, “Hey, maybe you should think about what the root of this grievance is that you’re having about this.” It’s an ongoing thing and I think that it has to come from a posture of being willing to learn and accepting that’s just the reality.
I think that it seems just to say, “I’m not racist. I stand with black people. I’m the least racist person you know.” But I think that there’s just no way! If you grew up white in America, you grew up being instilled with racist values. It’s built that way. So that’s one thing I’ve adopted is tryin’ really hard to be clear that while I stand with marginalized voices and people of color and black people, I stand with them as somebody who is dismantling this stuff in my own heart and in my own life. I think that helps everybody else feel welcome to the conversation instead of it being like, “Hey, look, I’m one o’ the good guys and you’re one o’ the bad guys. So you can come be a good guy with me or you can stay over there.” I think that is just as divisive.
I think with one line, you sum up two-hundred and fifty years of that total fear in this country in “My America” when you say, “I’m worried my America will die when I do.” I think that there are legions of Americans that walk around with that myth in their head that they’re somehow maintaining a “golden era” standard that never really existed.
Yeah! And that’s inherited (laughs)!
What kind o’ reaction do you get to that song when you’re out playing it?
I’ve only played it a handful o’ times. I just had an interview the other day with someone for the first time that interpreted it as being a first-person narrative kind o’ thing…
I get hearing it that way. But there’s so many ways I think that song can be interpreted which is the beauty of a wonderful song.
Thank you, that’s very kind of you. You know, there’s the line about, “You can call me a white supremacist, whatever helps you sleep,” that’s a really jarring and combative line. I think it’s one that makes everybody clench their jaw a little bit ’cause you almost wanna respond viscerally to it when you hear it.
But that’s the point, right?
Yes! That’s exactly the point, and that was a big part of it– inviting disparate perspectives to have space to dialogue.
We brought up the church part and the religion part which is a huge component of your songs now and before. I read an interview where you said, “I could write a song about my questions surrounding religion and people connect with it on a personal level, but if I asked those questions aloud, it’s heresy.” To me, that falls along with what you’re talking about in “Painkillers & Magic” and something that you mentioned earlier about how rural poor people don’t have access to certain things. Addiction goes along with that. Among families and close-knit communities, questions about addiction are also treated as heresy in the exact same way.
(Laughs) Yeah! Tryin’ to give people help is greeted as an accusation or a condemnation. It becomes really difficult. Even therapy as a whole, recommending therapy or any type of self-care. All of Appalachia’s like this a little bit– you just know that nobody’s comin’ to help. So the whole thing is all community based and I think that anything that hints at needing help from an outside source triggers this immediate response of, “Oh, so you’re sidin’ with them now.”
“Going To Hell” comes across as a more complete and fully realized sequel to “Going To Heaven” from Cast Iron Pansexual. If some songs are razors, others are kettlebells and you swing that one at the face! “White men would rather give the Devil praise than acknowledge a black man’s work.” That’s hardcore. And true, I think. You’ve talked about this before– do you consider yourself an atheist? How are you sitting in the realm of religion these days?
That’s a good question. To some extent, I think identity is tough to grapple with because it’s so tied to community. I think as an atheist, I don’t exist in the sphere of atheist thought. I don’t believe there’s nothing, so I guess I’m pretty definitively not an atheist. But if you asked religious people, if I was to explain my religious beliefs to any religious person, they would probably consider me an atheist. So there’s some difficulty here. Culturally, I consider myself Christian. I mean, I was promised to God before I was born, I grew up memorizing the scriptures, those were the metaphors that I projected myself onto and the mythos through which I explored my own development and self-growth for decades of my life, so I think I’m probably somewhat of a non-believing mystic. I think that’s probably the pocket I’m most closely falling into right now.
How do you deal with that as a parent? Because that’s something that my wife and I struggle with. I have a six-year-old daughter and the things that she says and the concepts that she has of God, we’re not real sure where it’s comin’ from because it’s things that we don’t say or do. I know some things come from school and some things come from other family members, but overall, what we promote and support doesn’t always rise to the top. I wondered how you as an artist– and as you say this mystic— treat that when you’re raising your own child.
I grew up believing in Santa Claus and I really loved it. It was somethin’ that was really sweet. I remember there was a sort of soft area where I no longer believed but continued pretending to believe so that I could participate in the magic. With our kid, we didn’t wanna lie to our kid, so we do Santa Claus every year and our kid knows that we are all doin’ it. Santa Claus is like a magic spirit that we get to channel and play for each other. It’s a different way of participating in the myth because kids love to pretend. They love playing in these alternate realities and they have a really good way of doing it. There’s actually no reason to act like it’s (laughs) objectively real! It’s the same sensation either way for their brains. We’ve done that since our kid was born and I think by extension, it’s made it a lot easier to talk about religion because it just becomes an extension of the same thing.
We ran into a manger scene when our kid was like two and a half and they were asking questions about the manger scene and it was like, “Well, we talked about Santa? This is the Jesus story. Jesus is another myth that people believe in and talk about.” So our kid is aware of Christianity and of Judaism, and we try to introduce different holidays because that’s a fun lens to view different cultural experiences through. Ultimately, we’re always very much like, “Huh, we don’t really know! This is what we do know.”
I don’t think personally that any faith tradition is bad as long as it’s being held the way that it’s supposed to be held. It’s a tool, and I think that fundamentalists are using the tool wrong. That’s my biggest thing in raising my kid to interface with religion is, “I want you to know how this tool is meant to be used.” I think as long as we do that then even if those other ideas take root– and maybe my kid does become a Christian or a Muslim or converts to Judaism or any number of faith practices, Buddhism or Daoism or anything– at the end of the day, I’ve taught my kid how to hold that tool and it what means and how to stay grounded and rooted in reality when interfacing with it. That’s the most important thing to me.
“Run This Town”, so much in that song echoes this very minute and the weight that swings with it. I don’t know how much of that song is tongue-in-cheek. Funny thing I saw this morning, somebody asked Jason Isbell on Twitter if he ever thought about running for office and he said, “Maybe in ten years when my daughter is her own person and I know what it would mean to do it.” Have you ever thought of running for office? Having any kind of political aspiration? Or is the song more of a “power to the people” notion?
I thought about it– I don’t think I would now. No, I think that aspiration is behind me at this point. I’ve talked about this a lot, but a few years ago, you could get real people elected on the local level. You sound like you’re pretty connected, you’ve probably seen the same change. There was a point, especially depending how rural the area it was in, you would choose between a Republican or a Democrat and the person going against them would be kind of like an independent who maybe was a leftist, maybe was Libertarian, maybe was something else– but they had a chance. You didn’t have to align with a political party necessarily to get a local election.
Under Trump, a lot o’ that grassroots movement got subverted when the Republicans got clued into it, and same with the Democratic party. So now, it seems to me in a lot o’ the places that I exist that that’s gone. Now you choose between a Republican or a Democrat even on a local level! That’s really discouraging to me and it makes me feel like we have a lot less power than we did a few years ago.
The hope aspect of it is that I really believe that capitalism as awful and dejected as it is also gives us the opportunity to subvert those political systems to create whatever resources we need. That’s where my attention is: How can I use capitalism to prop up the institutions that are needed by the marginalized communities that the political forces are just not gonna show up for?
In “Books & Records”… I have absolutely been there, sold a lifetime’s worth of books and movies and guitars and amps and comic books to get through. The line, “The cast iron will be well seasoned by then,” and then of course the title track of the last full-length… Cast iron skillets and pans are such a rural symbolic item. And a family item. As a matter o’ fact, I just talked to Michelle Malone a couple weeks ago and we had a conversation about having cast iron pans that have been passed down through our families. So as a symbol of rural families and also endurance, tell me how that figures into your ongoing narrative.
You don’t put soap in a cast iron when you clean it. You get hot water and you scrub it out. The point of it is all the oils and seasonings kinda sink into the thing. I think that’s part of what I’m doin’ altogether– it’s just tryin’ not to put soap on the cast iron. I don’t think that we have to scrub our history to make it seem better than it was, to pretend like our ancestors brought their favorite recipes to the indigenous people… We brought blankets ridden with smallpox! That’s a weird example, but I think that’s part of this work. Part of this work is allowing everything to be what it is and not having to feel the need to scrub it down. There’s a sense that over time, it just gets better. The seasoning gets better, the life in it, the meals poured into it, it’s all the same stuff runnin’ through in a circle. It’s nice.