The microgenre that is country rap has a resurgence in popularity every so often — remember Bubba Sparxxx? Cowboy Troy? It usually gains a bit of media attention, makes some rap fans say, “Hey, country isn’t so bad,” and has country fans thinking, hmmm, this rap stuff can be okay. Then, having fostered a little cross-genre appreciation but no solid fan base, the sound returns to obscurity. But at least one artist is hoping that in the Venn diagram of country music fans and rap fans, the tiny intersecting sliver is growing.
Big Smo, an oversize guy with an outsize personality, hails from Unionville, Tenn., and is a purveyor of “hick hop,” a Southern rock/country sound with a smidge of hip-hop mixed in. He has amassed enough of a following to secure a deal with Warner Bros. — his label debut, “Kuntry Livin’ ” dropped this year — and a reality show on A&E. At the Birchmere on Thursday night, the crowd was extremely small — not a great harbinger of hick-hop’s popular appeal, but those in attendance were responsive to Smo’s great band and his gravelly, drawling voice. They hooted appropriately during “Redneck Rich” and hollered enthusiastically for “Anything Goes.”
Smo may call himself “Hick Ross,” but his sound is going to remind listeners a lot more of Kid Rock than any rapper. Borrowing from hip-hop, though, is still a tricky proposition. Is hick-hop another way in which hip-hop culture is being plundered? Or is it instead a sign that its world domination is complete? Is it cultural co-opting or cultural exchange? Where you fall probably depends on how much reality television you watch. When Smo’s genuine affection for hip-hop (watchers of his show have seen pictures of him rapping as a kid), his adorable daughters, his proud mama and his tears anytime he reaches a milestone are beamed into one’s living room, it’s impossible not to find the guy likable and genuine.
Still, he’s best when his music sticks to the great things rap and country have in common — giving listeners vivid tours through a new place (“Kickin’ It in Tennessee”), or reminding us of our shared frustrations (“Workin’ ”). It turns more toward shtick when Smo delves into rap covers sprinkled with a few mentions of Mason jars and moonshine. “Kuntry Boy Swag” is essentially Soulja Boy’s “Pretty Boy Swag,” with some twangy elements tossed in; “Put 35s on It,” from Smo’s old group Kinfoke, changes the ’90s rap hit “I Got 5 on It” from a track about weed to one about wheels.
One of Smo’s closing songs was also one of his most promising: a new duet, “My Place,” which features Darius Rucker, country star and former Hootie & the Blowfish frontman, on the recording. Considering country-rap collaborations are either offensive at worst (see Brad Paisley and LL Cool J’s “Accidental Racist”) or merely inoffensive at best (see Tim McGraw and Nelly’s “Over and Over”), Smo could be more than a flash in the frying pan.
Godfrey is a freelance writer.