At a surprise Wednesday night show two weeks ago, Scruffy City Hall on Market Square was filled with people who had heard, through social media or word of mouth, about this spur-of-the-moment chance to see a man best known for recording his own shirtless back-porch tirades.
It wasn’t jam-packed, but several of the comics who took the stage early squinted into the stage lights to incredulously greet the crowd filling uncomfortable church pews in the balcony. “Look at that! The balcony!” one murmured.
Still, the audience was rather quiet in its appreciation until the headliner ambled onstage. This time he was wearing a shirt—a black button-down, actually—black-rimmed nerd glasses and loafers, none of which are in evidence during the viral online videos in which he practically yells his diatribes at social conservatives. Standing in front of Scruffy City’s pseudo-stained glass windows, he spoke in his signature deep twang, but the tone was low-key and ironic.
“A funny thing happened to me on the way to relevancy,” he started, acknowledging his sudden ascension to Internet fame. “You talk funny and use big words, and people eat that shit up.”
Oak Ridge comic Trae Crowder catapulted to social media stardom last month after his “Liberal Redneck” videos went viral. Upwards of 21 million people on Facebook alone have watched his breakout two-minute commentary railing against conservatives who want to control bathroom access for transgender people. (“Quit being a pussy and say what you mean: You’re freaked out,” he railed.)
The early videos didn’t even include Crowder’s name, and many who watched didn’t realize he was a comedian (although he really does have those opinions and talk like that). Yet the exposure launched his first comedy tour. Its initial leg is selling out through Southern cities this week, culminating in a show at the Grove Theater in Oak Ridge at 8 p.m. Saturday.
At the Scruffy City Hall show, which served as a test-run for the tour format, the crowd was on Crowder’s side from the start. “How often has that happened? NEVER,” Crowder laughs now. He used new, untested material, which he’d normally never do, “But I thought, these are my people.”
Despite having a good reputation among other Knoxville comedians and having steady gigs, Crowder was rarely a headliner. “I never had fans,” he says. That has changed. He was surrounded by a ring of loud enthusiasts two or three deep after the Scruffy City performance. While he is being accompanied on the “wellRED Tour” by a couple of other liberal Tennessee comics—Corey Forrester and former Knox County public defender Drew Morgan, who has since moved to New York—Crowder is the main draw. “The running joke is they’re riding my sleeveless coattails,” Crowder says.
Morgan, who told the Scruffy City crowd that his college football nickname was “Liberal Faggot,” has a similar rural Southern liberal viewpoint. “I never doubted Trae was special, but also thought he’d never break out if he didn’t move out of Knoxville so he could get more exposure,” Morgan says. “I was gloriously wrong.”
Crowder released his latest Liberal Redneck video last week. It opens with him staring wide-eyed at the camera like a deer in the headlights before riffing again on conservatives who claim to be victimized by Target’s pro-transgender “potty” policies.
“Believin’ something super-hard doesn’t make it any less wrong,” he says. “My 3-year-old believes he should get cookies for breakfast. That don’t matter to me, because he DON’T KNOW FACTS, so what he believes is irrelevant. You can’t expect people to respect your beliefs when your beliefs are so completely disrespectful.”
His profanity-laced manifestos have covered not only LGBT rights but also topics like Tennessee trying to designate the Bible the “state book” and Ted Cruz’s exit from the presidential race. (More election commentary to come, Crowder promises.) Shot on his cell phone, Crowder’s rants are an unexpected juxtaposition, which is incidentally one of the building blocks of comedy: Here’s a guy who looks, sounds, and acts like what you’d expect from a redneck, firing off opinions you’d expect from an educated liberal.
Which is what he is.
Well, he’s both.
Things you don’t know about the Liberal Redneck: He has an MBA. He manages engineering, utility, and construction contracts in a conservative workplace where button-up shirts are the norm and cursing is not. (He tries to keep his political views separate from his work environment, and asked us not to name his employer.) But he gets pretty het up if you question whether he’s a “real redneck.”
Perhaps what’s so shocking is that this is so shocking. Why can’t a redneck be a liberal? And can this liberal redneck do anything to change those rules?
Sh!tty Redn#cks & P@rtland Bari$tas
So what is a redneck, then? And how does it compare with white trash or a good ol’ boy? Even in the South, everybody’s definition seems a bit different.
“A redneck is a poor, rural white person,” Crowder says. “It doesn’t have to be a Southerner.” (He says white trash are similar but can live in cities.) He adds, “I have never felt like redneck meant willfully ignorant or necessarily an asshole.”
Crowder perhaps no longer exactly meets his own definition (he’s neither rural nor truly poor any more), although he did for most of his life. He grew up in Celina, Tenn. (population 1,500) on the border with Kentucky. The town hit conditions much like the Great Depression in the 1990s when the OshKosh factory moved overseas. Crowder’s family eked by with a business that combined his grandpa’s car lot, his dad’s video rental store, and (for a while) his Mema’s tanning beds in the back. Crowder was the first in his family to go to college, via financial aid, scholarships, and waiting tables.
Crowder often tells a joke about his momma’s cooking—she cooked up “the best meth you ever had,” he says—then assures his audience he was just kidding. His momma only sold pills.
That, however, is not actually a joke. She was in and out of jail for most of his childhood, which for the first decade featured a lot of violent pillheads with guns hanging out at his house and fighting, he says.
From the time he was 11 or 12, he lived almost exclusively with his dad, who “liked to party” with beer and a cookout, but no violence. Crowder also spent a lot of time with his dad’s brother, who was gay.
It was a small town and his uncle was in a long-term relationship, so everyone knew. Crowder says “The Shitty Rednecks” (a distinction he makes often) at school would make cracks about it, but the worst was when he went to church with his mom’s family. There he heard that being gay was an abomination.
Crowder remembers asking at around age 8, “Are you saying my uncle—who is one of the sweetest people on the planet, he doesn’t have a mean or vindictive bone in his body, he is so awesome—and his partner, my other uncle, they’re going to be tortured in hellfire for all eternity by God because of what they are?” He pauses.
“That’s the thing with these fundamentalist Christians, they’ll get a question like that and look right into a child’s eyes and say, ‘Yes, that’s what the Bible says.’ When I think about that now, I think that’s such a fucking horrible thing to say to a kid about someone they love.”
Crowder abandoned religion. But those early experiences, plus the influence of his progressive redneck daddy, formed Crowder into the liberal daddy he is today. Sometimes people online say they are praying for his babies (or make other “predictable” cracks, he says, along the lines of “I bet you’re a fag” and “all nonbelievers will face the Lord”). But Crowder is proud to be raising two very small boys to be progressive men. Occasionally he’s a little disturbed by his mixed notoriety, like when someone tracked down his Mema’s (pronunciation: Me-Maw’s) address to send “the Liberal Redneck” a package. It was a ukulele, but still. Leave Mema out of it.
The version of Crowder you see on the videos is angrier and more ruthless in his hilarious put-downs than he is in conversation or at a comedy show. But the twang remains.
“I really like showing people I’m not a fucking idiot just because I have an accent,” Crowder says. He rushes to point out he’s still a white man in America with plenty of privilege. “But… the most liberal people in this country, who abhor discrimination, they have absolutely no problem generalizing about poor white Southerners.”
Crowder says that’s accepted partly because it’s a redneck’s nature to shrug and say, “Who cares what you think?”
At the show, he joked that the people who question his redneck credentials are mostly conservative rednecks and “Portland baristas,” neither of whom can stand to have their preconceptions challenged.
“One of my primary motivators is shattering those expectations or stereotypes,” he says. “I hear from people like me who thank me, and a lot of messages from people who say they realized from watching videos that they have been ‘openly prejudiced against people with your accent my whole life and never thought twice about it. And now I realize that was shitty of me to generalize a whole group of people like that.’ I fucking love those.”
In fact, Crowder has received messages of appreciation from around the world, and he responds to many of them. A portion come from people with LGBT family members. On his Facebook page, some speak of transgender loved ones who have committed suicide, and of crying while listening to Crowder’s posts.
One woman writes, “As the parent of a transgender child, I can tell you that it’s really rough right now. We parents are afraid for our kids…. My 16-year-old is starting to look for colleges, and there are whole parts of the country we’ve marked off as ‘unsafe.’ I honestly can’t begin to tell you what it means to come across these little bits of light, especially in unexpected places. So thanks Trae. I hope you know you’re doing a lot more that just making people laugh. You’re providing a bit of hope to people who are feeling pretty hopeless.”
Other comments are from liberal Southerners, thanking Crowder for showing the world they exist. If Crowder has a further hope for his impact on the culture, it’s this: He’d like more of those folks to speak up.
“I get a lot of messages from people who say they agree but ‘can’t even talk about it around here,’” he says. “Maybe those people will start talking about it so Shitty Rednecks don’t think they just have carte blanche.”
A C@reer in C0m#dy
Crowder had been thinking about making the videos for a while, but hesitated because he lacked a high-quality camera or software. Then he saw that an anti-trans bathroom rant recorded on a cell phone by “some redneck preacher in front of his truck in the woods” had generated 15 million views. “If this is what I’m parodying, which it is, then I don’t need all that technology,” Crowder said to himself.
Crowder’s ability to hit a timely national chord at the right moment isn’t all that surprising. He was one of just eight people chosen last year for the NBCUniversal Late Night Writers Workshop. The workshop preps comedy writers for staff positions at late-night shows, where the jokes are full of current-event references. Until the videos, Crowder had actually stepped back somewhat from stand-up this year to work on writing packets and pitches for TV.
Crowder says he knew he wanted to be a comedian since watching Chris Rock: Bigger & Blacker at age 12. But his first time on stage was about six years ago, when he moved to Knoxville for a job and tried the open mic at the now-defunct comedy club Side Splitters. He says he was so nervous, he barely slept for two days beforehand. But when he got the laughs, he was hooked.
Local comic Shane Rhyne, who books monthly shows at local bars and restaurants like Saw Works Brewing Company (First Friday Comedy on June 3) and Sugar Mama’s (Sugar High! on May 26), joined the stand-up scene three years ago.
“The first time I saw Trae perform, it was not a secret to anyone that he would blow up one day,” says Rhyne, who booked Crowder as a rare local headliner in March. He says the reason the Liberal Redneck approach works for Crowder is, “He’s really talking about the way he grew up. So when he talks it’s authentic. If somebody else got up and tried that, it would come off as if they were making fun…. For a long time, if you wanted to be ‘a Southern comic,’ they expected you to be a Southern Christian person or a caricature like Larry the Cable Guy. What Trae does is just tilt that on its head.”
Crowder eventually became a house emcee at Side Splitters, along with Morgan and several others. Crowder had already met Forrester, who had been doing stand-up since age 16. The three began to bounce ideas off each other, and Crowder and Forrester did shows in Atlanta together.
Morgan says his skills, and those of other Knoxville comics, were shaped by the juxtaposition of telling clean jokes to suburban Knoxville conservatives at Side Splitters and performing edgier material for scruffier downtown audiences (more likely for free). When Side Splitters closed, Crowder branched into comedy festivals and alternative venues.
The three comics performed separately at the Scruffy City Comedy Festival last fall and have since developed a joint blog called Our Sunday Best (oursundybest.wordpress.com) where they each riff on the same timely issue—such as which presidential candidate would win in a knife fight. (Crowder argued “Ted Cruz all day.” Trump? “He’s the type to talk mad shit to you but then act like you’re some caveman when you ask him to take it outside. Plus, I mean, how’s he even going to hold a knife with those stupid tiny baby hands?”)
“I was always a liberal redneck, just less overtly political,” Crowder says. “It’s just who I am as a person.” His anti-racist and pro-gay material went over well at alternative comedy shows attended by young hipsters, but not so well when the audience was more conservative. The crowd might start out expecting Crowder to be like Jeff Foxworthy or Larry the Cable Guy.
“Some shows, you didn’t know until you got there,” he says. Just five months ago or so, he and Forrester did a show at a small comedy club in Jackson, Tenn., where Crowder says they despised his ideology so much that he found it funny. Usually when this happens, he’s just met with hostile stares, although occasionally he’ll hear someone yell, “That’s bullshit!” (No tomatoes.)
His future audiences may be a little more predictable. The wellRED tour was booked for a week to see whether it would be well-received, and the Atlanta show sold out almost immediately (“I couldn’t even get feature work at the Punchline in Atlanta three weeks ago!” Crowder says), followed by Nashville’s, before both added an additional show to the lineup. He anticipates new tour dates outside the South soon.
Rhyne says Crowder’s career grew alongside the Knoxville comedy scene, which has started attracting regional comics. (He and Morgan both credit Matt Ward, who started the Scruffy City Comedy Festival among other ventures, with building the local comedy scene to its level today.)
Rhyne now calls Crowder “clearly the best comedian in Knoxville” and predicts, “One day people will be shocked in Knoxville they had a chance to see Trae free for years, and they’ll pay $90 to see him at the Tennessee Theater.”
The free Scruffy City Hall show was put together on the fly to get film footage for a possible project Crowder says he can’t talk about yet. He’s been approached with ideas for TV, radio, and books, but he says it’s all nebulous right now—just like social media fame. And he’s not giving up his day job.
“If it plays out in such a way that I can be successful without leaving the South, then I would really like to do that,” Crowder says. “Because one of the things I think is a problem with the South and small towns like where I’m from is, all the best people leave. The South as a whole may not improve all that much with that happening. If I could stay here and make some kind of impact culturally, I would love to do that.”
His new notoriety has changed his daily life less than you’d think. The family members he stays in touch with mostly agree with his views. He’s not sure it’s going down so well with his in-laws or some of his co-workers, but no confrontations have ensued. He expects most of his old friends from Celina will not be happy.
“We’ll see if that means we ain’t friends anymore now, next time I go home,” Crowder says. “But the guy I’m closest to called me when this started. He said, ‘Son, I ain’t gonna lie to you. I kinda hated it. But if you feel like it’s right for you, you need to do it. You’re gonna make some people mad around here, but fuck those people. Who gives a shit what they think.’”
And there ain’t no more redneck self-defense than that.
Trae Crowder, Corey Forrester, and Drew Morgan
The wellRED Comedy Tour
Saturday, May 28 at 8 p.m.
The Grove Theater (123 Randolph Rd., Oak Ridge)
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