Hick Hop

Written by Abby Shamis, Emma Morgan, and James Pruitt, 25 February 2014

In 2005, Troy Coleman (more famously known as Cowboy Tory) released his song “I Play Chicken with the Train.”  This song was revolutionary for a couple of reasons.  For one thing, Cowboy Troy was an African American man in the country music scene, which in itself is somewhat uncommon.  On top of that, he was integrating rap in to his sound, creating the first wave of what will become a subgenre of country music termed “Hick Hop.”

While at first thought the idea of country music and hip hop combining seems random, their histories contain deep roots along with common themes.  Their defining features are historically linked to the races of the people that most commonly are artists in each, as well as their presentation of the music.  However, when taking a deeper look, it is clear that they are more similar than originally thought.

Cowboy Troy

Cowboy Troy

Country music can be traced all the way back to when performers would travel around the country and perform their music in “black face.”  Although music would be collaborated on or inspired by African American folk songs, they were not to perform the music.  Caucasian performers would paint their faces black and sing the honky-tonk music, displaying the deep-rooted racial separation that country music is notorious for.  In addition to the shared history, country music and hip hop also share common themes within their songs.  Country music is famous for singing about trucks, drinking beer, and women.  Hip hop is also known for artists rapping about cars, partying, and women.  With similar themes and a shared history, the only real feature separating the two groups are the presentation of the music.

This is where Cowboy Troy comes in.  He brought the music genres together and changed country music forever.  Hick Hop is becoming more and more popular, tearing down boundaries and increasing musical creativity within country music.  But it is not always welcomed with open arms.  Critics of the music have lashed out against songs like “Honky Tonk Badonkadonk” by Trace Adkins calling it awkward and a mockery of the merging of the two genres.

Other critics have also said that merging country music and hip hop undermines social inequality between races, which has come back in to the lime-light quite recently, due to controversy certain police instances and the movie Selma.  For the most part though, hick hop is growing in popularity with both entertainers and consumers, with more artists experimenting with such combined creative aspects and more audiences opening up to the idea of such a bold blending of music.

Key Figures

“Cowboy” Troy Coleman, (1970- ), was one of the first “hick-hoppers” to break onto the scene with his song “I Play Chicken with the Train” in 2005. Coleman was born in Dallas, Texas and attended the University of Texas, where he gained his nickname Cowboy Troy. Coleman grew up listening to country, rap, and rock and roll, and his music mixes all three genres. His debut album Loco Motive was released in 2005, and it was met with stiff criticism from Nashville. Rap music was typically thought of as “black” music, and country music was thought to be reserved for whites. Cowboy Troy, an African American, was determined to blur those lines and show that rap and country music can be blended. Despite the opposition from the country music establishment, the popularity of the song soared, peaking at No. 48 on the Billboard’s Hot Country Songs. On April 15, 2005, the song was the No. 1 downloaded country song on iTunes. Cowboy Troy also a member of MuzikMafia, a group that includes artists like Big and Rich and Gretchen Wilson and specializes in country rap.

Colt Ford, (1970- ), is a country-rapper and songwriter who co-founded Average Joe’s Entertainment, a record label that has produced various hick-hop performers such as Bubba Sparxxx, The Lacs, and Brantley Gilbert. Born John Farris Brown, he began his career as a professional golfer before deciding to turn his interests to music under the stage name Colt Ford. His first album was released in 2008 and included the singles “No Trash in My Trailer” and “Ride Through the Country”. Ford is musically influenced by both country and hip-hop, and has appeared in various rap-remixes of country songs with singers like Montgomery Gentry and Jamey Johnson. Ford has also written songs that have been hits for other artists, most notably the song “Dirt Road Anthem” that Ford co-wrote and recorded with Brantley Gilbert but was re-recorded by Jason Aldean who made it a hit.

Florida Georgia Line is a pop country duo consisting of Brian Kelley and Tyler Hubbard. The two met in college at Belmont University in 2008 and decided to form a country duo. They were discovered by Nickelback producer Joey Moi at a county fair, who helped them produce an album titled It’z Just What We Do. In 2012 Florida Georgia Line released their first studio album, Here’s to the Good Times, which includes the singles “Cruise” and “Get Your Shine On”. “Cruise” went on to spend 24 weeks at the top of the Hot Country Songs chart, the longest time in the history of the chart. A remix of “Cruise” with rapper Nelly reached No. 4 on the Billboard Top 100. The duo has since released a new album and six singles, including “This Is How We Roll”, a collaboration with singer Luke Bryan that features Kelley and Hubbard rapping. Since the release of Here’s to the Good Times, Florida Georgia line has won 15 major music awards, including the CMA awards’ Vocal Duo of the Year in 2014. Both members of Florida Georgia Line were influenced by both rap and country music, with Kelley claiming he and his friends used to “ride trucks and listen to Garth Brooks, Alabama, Lil Wayne, and Eminem.” Most of their songs contain “country” themes of the South, summer, and having a good time, and also include heavy “rap” beats. They are currently leading the charge of the “hick-hop” subgenre.

LL Cool J and Brad Paisley collaborated on a song called “Accidental Racist”, which appeared on Paisley’s 2013 album Wheelhouse. The song was an attempt by Paisley, a white country singer, and LL Cool J, a black rapper, to show that the racial tensions that are present not only in the music industry but in the entire South are the result of misunderstanding between the two races. The song is important to the subgenre of hick-hop because it serves an example of hick-hop music (with Paisley singing and LL Cool J rapping) and it touches on the social issue that surrounds the subgenre: race. The song was met with harsh criticism from the country music industry and the press, with many calling it “offensive”. Only time will tell if the song has an impact on others and if more country/rap mash-ups are made.

Jason Aldean and Ludacris joined together on the remix of the hit song “Dirt Road Anthem”, in which Aldean sings the chorus and raps the verses along with the rapper Ludacris. While not the first instance of a rapper collaborating with a country singer, the previous success of the song before Ludacris joined for the remix version helped warm people up to the idea of rap included in a country song. Aldean himself had started drifting away from his earlier, more traditional style with songs like “Amarillo Sky” to more of a country pop/hick-hop sound that includes voice enhancers and hip-hop-style beats. The remix of “Dirt Road Anthem” was performed at the 2011 CMT Awards, and was one of the first instances of a live performance of a country/rap mashup. The song was designed to prove that country and rap could co-exist, with Aldean stating “even though are music is totally different, our roots are the same.” The song preceded newer acts like Florida Georgia Line and seemed to be the beginning of the shift to the hick-hop sound that is heard on the radio today. In 2013, Aldean returned the favor and was featured on Ludacris’s “Burning Bridges”, which seems to show that there is room for more collaborations in the future.

Recommended Listening

  • Cowboy Troy was one of the first artists to combine country and hip hop together in a song, creating what people first thought of as hick hop. “I Play Chicken With the Train”, off of his album Loco Motive, was revolutionary as he was the first country artist to rap lyrics in one of his songs. This was huge for the country and hip hop music industries. Cowboy Troy was the first artist to go outside the boundaries of what people thought of as normal country music and through this he changed the face of today’s country music altogether. Cowboy Troy is a key figure in the face of hick hop and it is evident in this song that he was not afraid to test the limits of country music as well as hip-hop.
  • Popular tracks, “Cruise” and “This is How We Roll”, by Florida Georgia Line are prime examples of what some would recognize as hick hop. Florida Georgia Line attempts at rapping most of the verses, which makes both sound more hip-hop than country. If you have ever heard these two songs, let alone anything by Florida Georgia Line, you will understand what the term ‘hick hop’ is encompassing. After these songs became huge hits on the pop and country charts, Florida Georgia Line incorporated more hip-hop in their music than traditional country music fans were ready for. They remixed “Cruise” to feature rapper Ludacris and “This is How We Roll” with rapper Nelly. This shows that not only has the band been influenced by the style of hip hop, which can be heard in many of their popular songs, but they have gone as far as to actually feature rappers and hip-hop artists to further amplify the hip-hop sound in their music.
  • Jason Aldean’s remake of Colt Ford’s hip-hop influenced song, “Dirt Road Anthem”, also shows the melding of the two genres. While “Dirt Road Anthem” may have lyrics that incorporate common themes found in traditional country songs such as “good ole days” and reminiscing about simpler times, the whole song itself is far from sounding like normal country. Colt Ford’s original version would not even be considered partly country by a lot of people. Like Ford, Aldean raps most of the lines in the song, and includes a beat and melody that sounds like it could be straight out of a popular hip-hop song. Jason Aldean, like Florida Georgia Line, also remixed this song to feature rapper Ludacris, which adds to its hip hop sound.
  • Big & Rich are another group that is not shy about using hip-hop styling in their music. In one of their popular songs, “Save a Horse Ride a Cowboy” off their album Horse of a Different Color, Big & Rich definitely show their country roots through the use of guitars and fiddles, but also include hip-hop elements that place the song into the hick hop genre.
  • “Accidental Racist”, a collaboration between Brad Paisley and LL Cool J, is different than the songs mentioned above, but still hick hop nonetheless. While the majority of this song sounds like any other Brad Paisley country-sounding song, complete with guitars and fiddles backing him up, he still went out on a hip hop limb. Towards the end of the song, LL Cool J is featured rapping a response to the story sung by Brad Paisley. During this rap, the beat drastically changes, sounding more hip-hop, to match LL Cool J’s hip-hop voice. The song then ends with a mixing of the two singers voices, combining the country element of guitars and fiddles with the traditional hip hop beat. This song, unlike the others mentioned, was not a huge success, however it embodies hick hop and what artists are doing to revolutionize their music.

Annotated Bibliography

  1. Berlatsky, Noah. “The Racial Dynamics of ‘Hick Hop.'” The Atlantic. Atlantic Monthly Group, 15 July 2014. Web. 17 Feb. 2015.
    This article, written by Noah Berlatsky, is an interview with Tressie Cottom, author of “Reading Hick-Hop: The Shotgun Marriage of Hip Hop and Country Music”, which appears below. Berlatsky talks to Cottom about whiteness and blackness in regards to both country music and hip-hop. She says that contrary to what most people would think, the two genres weren’t solely created for their respective races. Like she said in her article, Cottom explains, “There’s nothing that has been created singularly and uniquely by one group of people”. She also reinforces today’s mainstream cultural impact on country music looking to hip-hip. She states that country artists use hip-hop to be young and hip without being considered hardcore hip-hop. Although country artists are incorporating hip-hop and rap into their songs, they still seem to stay true to “country” roots. They don’t try and look or perform like a true hip-hop artist would. Cottom uses Florida Georgia Line as an example saying, “They still have that rock country look—the tats and the jewelry and the hair. So they’re not trying to perform hip-hop the look”. This article gave more perspective on Cottom’s essay, which was helpful because it answered some underlying questions about “hick hop”. She was able to go into more detail about the most important aspects of her article giving a better understanding of the crossover.
  2. Cottom, Tressie McMillan. “Reading Hick-Hop: The Shotgun Marriage of Hip Hop and Country Music.” Academia. N.p., n.d. Web. 17 Feb. 2015.
    Tressie Cottom addresses the cultural issues surrounding mixing country music with hip-hop and rap to create the controversial genre called “Hick Hop” in this analytical article. She explores the idea that country music is using hip hop influence because of the fact that today’s popular culture and youth is centered on hip hop and rap, regardless of race. This change in approach to country music is a response to our changing culture and ideals. We often think of country as white music and hip-hop as black music; however, music and races are very interchangeable and they have been throughout time. The collaborations among country and hip-hop artists are also due to the genres’ marketability. Cottom also touches on the fact that even though country artists are starting to use hip hop styling in their music, they do so without making black culture seem superior to white culture. This idea also goes for black artists using white culture in songs. Cottom argues that in Trace Adkins’ song “Honky Tonk Badonkadonk”, the word “badonkadonk” must be used “without lifting up black women as beauty ideals”. She goes on to describe how Adkins executes this idea in his song. All of these ideas that Cottom writes about are helpful in giving reasons why this meshing of genres is taking place as well as what makes it so culturally controversial.
  3. Gussaw, Adam. “Playing Chicken with the Train.” Hidden in the Mix: The African American Presence in Country Music. Ed. Diane Pecknold. Durham and London: Duke University UP, 2013. 234-62. Print.
    The author of this chapter, Adam Gussaw, in the book “Hidden in the Mix: The African American Presence in Country Music,” explores Cowboy Troy Coleman and how he started mixing country music with rap, as well as other artists that have done similar things since him. This gives a view of the pros to the mixing of the genres and the implications that doing so has on the genres involved as well as the people that listen to country music, rap, and hick hop. Gussaw mentions the similar origins that the two music genres share as well as the divides that comonly separate them. This gave a broad basis for our research as well as a list of artists to further look in to.
  4. Mansfield, Brian. “‘Hick-hop’ pioneer Troy wields a unique brand.” USA Today 21 Mar. 2005: n. pag. Academic Search Complete. Web. 16 Feb. 2015.
    This article was featured in USA Today about a year after Cowboy Troy came out with his song “I Play Chicken With The Train.” In this article, author Brian Mansfield touches on a little bit of the background in Troy Coleman’s life that plays a factor in why he came out with a merged musical genre song that is causing an uproar in country music. Mansfield says, “Troy’s self-described ‘hick hop’ owes as much to the talking-blues country records of Jerry Reed and Charlie Daniels as it does to the old-school raps of Sir Mix-A-Lot and the Sugarhill Gang’s Wonder Mike.” He then goes on to explain how and why he decided to pioneer a musical movement based off of his past of growing up in Texas immersed in country music, along with pursing his talent for rapping. He also goes on to explain his hopes for the music genre’s future. This is helpful in addition to the chapter “Playing Chicken With The Train” by Adam Gussaw because it has some more insight on Troy Coleman and how it has created a merging between two historically distinct music genres, as well as focuses more on the man behind the music.
  5. Morris, David. “Hick-Hop Hooray? ‘Honky Tonk Badonkadonk,’ Musical Genre, and the Misrecognitions of Hybridity.” Critical Studies in Media Communication 28.5 (2011): 466-88. Academic Search Complete. Web. 16 Feb. 2015.
    This source takes a look deeper into the Trace Adkins song “Honky Tonk Badonkadonk.” Author David Morris does talk a little bit about the boundaries it took a step in helping dissolve. Morris says, “‘Badonkadonk’ caters to American culture’s growing embrace of hybridity while continuing twentieth century efforts to downplay country music’s racially hybrid roots.” But he also talks about the downsides to songs like this one. For example, he talks about how it can undermine social inequality by downplaying racial tensions that are still being leveled out, even in this day in age. There are other downsides that he mentions in this entry. Some of these include the distinction between cultures merging on their own and the forcing it to happen and the effects that each have on society, as well as a bit of awkwardness and humor in Adkin’s lyrics which make the merging seem a bit of a mockery. This gave a further avenue for research and gave insight farther in to the negative aspects of the controversy.
  6. Hight, Jewly. “A History of Hick-Hop: The 27-Year-Old Story of Country Rap.” Rolling Stone. 27 June 2014. Web. 17 Feb. 2015.
    Hight’s article mainly touches on the history of “hick-hop”. As Hight points out, technically hick-hop’s roots date all the way back to the songs of Charlie Daniels and Johnny Cash. However, Hight points out that since hip-hop had not been invented yet, these songs differ from modern hick-hop songs, which include which includes more of the new hip-hop influence. The song that Hight points out as the first “hick-hop” song is the Bellamy Brothers’ “Country Rap”. She says that this group was the first to incorporate aspects of hip-hop into their songs, such as a repetitive beat, rapped verses, and electric instruments. Next, Hight identifies Neal McCoy’s “Hillbilly Rap” as one of the starters of the subgenre, followed by songs by Kid Rock and Toby Keith. These early instances of hick-hop led to more hip-hop influenced artists such as Bubba Sparxxx, Trace Adkins, and Colt Ford. There were also some important collaborations along the way, the most famous being Tim McGraw contributing to Nelly’s “Over and Over Again”. It was these collaborations and early country rap experiments that led to the recent success of artists such as Luke Bryan, Blake Shelton, Jason Aldean, and Florida Georgia Line.
  7. Karp, Hannah. “The Unlikely Rise of Hick-Hop.” The Wall Street Journal. N.p., 3 July 2013. Web. 17 Feb. 2015.
    In this article by Hannah Karp of the Wall Street Journal, the hick-hop genre is analyzed from a seemingly neutral point of view. Karp mainly discusses how the hick-hop subgenre was started and its unique way of maintaining success. The rise of hick-hop was met with harsh criticism from traditional country music fans, and there wasn’t a clear target audience. The rise of Colt Ford made it apparent that there was a market for this new type of music and suddenly more “hick-hoppers” began playing shows at off-road racing tracks, with music promoting themes such as American pride, the urban working man, and playing in the mud with jacked-up vehicles. Although a market for the music was identified, it wasn’t gaining much traction on the national scale. It wasn’t being played on the radio, which in most cases is a clear predictor of a genre’s success. Through different tactics such as studying Pandora listening habits and Walmart purchasing statistics, hick-hop singers planned their tours around areas where there was a high-concentration of hick-hop listeners. Still, Karp says, despite its apparent success, hick-hop still isn’t typically considered as a sustainable genre on a national scale due to its inability to get on the radio and the lack of a true identifiable national market.
  8. Williams, Nick. “Battle Plan: The Lacs.” Billboard 125.35 (2013): 49. Web. 17 Feb. 2015.
    The article discusses the marketing strategy behind a country-rap album, in this case “Keep it Redneck” by The Lacs. Average Joe’s VP of marketing and promotion, Tony Morreale, was in charge of the promotion of the album, which came out in 2013. Morreale’s first order of business was to film a music video for the group’s first single from the album, which featured the members mudding on their ATVs. Exclusive offers such as signed koozies helped with initial album sales. For release week, Morreale coordinated an exclusive stream with Pandora Radio, and also secured a deal with Animal Planet that led to The Lacs writing the theme song for a reality TV show. Both of these deals were made to give the group a sense of connection with hick-hop fans. It’s unclear at this point if the promotion actually resulted in increased album sales, but it serves as an example as what the managers of country-rap must do in order to compete with other genres. The article ends with Morreale’s future plan to release a new single from the album, and discusses how hick-hop artists have to have unique promotion techniques since they are typically left off the radio.

Guiding Questions

  1. What are some similarities in the history of country and hip hop? What similar themes do both kinds of music address?
  2. How did Cowboy Troy influence Hick Hop?
  3. How have other country artists incorporated hip hop in to their music?
  4. How did the traditional country industry respond to the new “country rap”?