By Joseph Hudak
At the end of every tour of Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium, country music fans have the opportunity to ascend a small staircase and have their photo taken on the very stage where legends like Hank Williams and Johnny Cash once stood. On this November afternoon, a few gray-haired stragglers of the day’s final tour group are doing just that — paying little mind to the Southern rap star trying to soundcheck behind them. To be fair, Yelawolf doesn’t much resemble his fearsome moniker. Dressed in khaki pants, a striped sweater, bucket hat, and eyeglasses, he’s more of an unassuming dad.
Until he opens his mouth.
“It’s a fucked-up day,” he snarls, emphasizing the F-word as he runs through a track off his 2022 left-turn rock album, Sometimes Y. At that moment, a small crew of stagehands detach the photo-op old-timey staircase and quickly roll it out of the auditorium. The remaining tourists scatter. It’s the perfect metaphor: a symbol that a musical change is about to take place. Out with the old, in with the new.
Yelawolf’s rock awakening didn’t just catch the Ryman tourists off-guard. It also smacked his own fans upside the head. Since the release of the mixtape Trunk Muzik in 2009, the Alabama-born/Tennessee-raised Yelawolf — né Michael Wayne Atha — has amassed a rabid pack of diverse followers, all drawn to his rapped tales of poverty, rural hardship, and the never-ending hustle. At his show later that night, older guys in biker leathers mingle with teenagers in camo and snapbacks, young Black girls slide into a Ryman church pew next to white dudes in hoodies that read “Slumerican,” Wolf’s record label. Some fans howl at the stage, and nearly all rap back to Yelawolf when he warns, “Don’t make me go pop the trunk,” the payoff line of his brooding breakout song “Pop the Trunk.”
Sometimes Y, released back in March, is different. Produced by Shooter Jennings, who previously worked on Grammy-winning releases by Brandi Carlile and Tanya Tucker, the album introduces a new and unexpected Yelawolf. For starters, he sings, while live musicians, including bassist Ted Russell Kamp, guitarist John Schreffler, and drummer Jamie Douglass of Jennings’ solo band, play behind him. Hard-charging tracks like “Jump Out the Window” and “Make Me a Believer” are full of synths and sharp guitars and call to mind “One Vision”-era Queen. There are shades of new wave, Eighties metal, and country, all delivered with swaggering Liam Gallagher energy by Yelawolf. Sometimes Y — the title is a reference to the fluid nature of rules, as in “a, e, i, o, u, and …” — is a musical experiment; it’s also the sleeper rock album of the year.
“To me, this album is a natural progression, but you’d have to have paid attention to not be surprised by it,” Yelawolf tells Rolling Stone in his dressing room after soundcheck. Jennings, who leads the Sometimes Y band and plays keys and guitar onstage, is there with him, mixing a drink. “A lot of my fans are like, ‘Of course, you did this. We’ve been waiting on this.’ And some fans are like, ‘Fuck this, I want to hear ‘Pop the ‘Trunk.’ But I don’t allow myself to be stalled by other people’s expectations of what I should be doing. I just do what I want to do and make the art I want to make. I make no excuses or apologies for it.”
Jennings first met Yelawolf through his nephew, the rapper Struggle Jennings, while on tour in support of Shooter’s 2010 album Black Ribbons. Both that album and 2016’s Countach (For Giorgio) found him exploring electronic sounds and production that caught Yelawolf’s ear. They rendezvoused at a studio to jam, but nothing came of the sessions. Still, Jennings was sure there was something to mine in the future. “All we knew is we wanted to make a record where he sang the whole thing,” Jennings says.
Fast forward to the pandemic, and Jennings emailed Yelawolf a rough acoustic-guitar demo of a country-ish track titled “Hole in My Head.” Yelawolf returned a fully finished rock song, with lyrics about a small-town kid who enlists in the military as a means to bankroll future dreams: “We got college all paid, free bed and suit/no more hungry nights for you.” Instead, the character ends up dead.
“It was nothing that I thought it was going to be,” Jennings says of the song. “This album is so special because the world that Wolf comes from. His view on music is different than if he was some guy who slugged it out doing AC/DC covers his whole life. Someone like myself, if I were to write ‘Hole in My Head,’ it might sound like some two-bit Hank [Williams] Jr. rip-off. But he’s coming at it from such a unique view that it’s completely fresh and exciting.”
Jennings was invigorated, and he and Yelawolf hammered out nine more songs together in Los Angeles, including the stripper-pole rhythm of “Rock & Roll Baby,” the disco-rocker “Radio,” and the forlorn piano ballad “Catch You on the Other Side,” a tribute to Yelawolf’s wife, the singer Fefe Dobson. Like Yelawolf rap staples “Empty Bottles” and “Till It’s Gone,” its lyrics are brutally honest. “That song was written during one of the hardest times in my life. I thought I had lost someone forever and ever,” Yelawolf says. “I’m great at being an artist. I’m not so great at being a good father, at being a good husband.”
Yelawolf was deep into David Bowie and Tom Petty during the Sometimes Y sessions; Jennings was listening to a lot of Warren Zevon (he’ll play a tribute to Zevon at the Roxy in L.A. during Grammy week). When Yelawolf listened back to the tracks, he was surprised by the way those classic-rock melodies worked their way in.
“I said, ‘Shooter, man, this is like a new house,” Yelawolf says. “And he was like, ‘Naw, dude, it’s just another room in your house.’ And that’s exactly what it is. That helped me to compartmentalize, instead of looking at it like a whole new career.”
Yelawolf fully crossed the rock threshold while recording the high-octane anthem “Make Me a Believer,” a song Jennings describes as “The Cars meets AC/DC.” It’s when Yelawolf learned how to scream, letting loose a guttural wail that both proved to him he was a rock singer and exorcised lingering demons that haunted him about where he fits in the rap hierarchy.
Despite robust Spotify streaming numbers for songs like “Daddy’s Lambo,” “You and Me,” and “Till It’s Gone” (over 152 million), features on songs by Eminem and ASAP Rocky (opposite Kendrick Lamar no less), and guests like Gucci Mane, Lil Jon, and even Ed Sheeran on his own songs, Yelawolf still felt like an outsider among his rap peers.
“I felt so underappreciated in the genre I was in. Just always fed with a long-handled spoon, man. I was there but not there. Not going to the proverbial party, so to speak. I didn’t get the invite,” he says. “I had all the credibility from all the amazing rappers, artists, MCs in the world: Busta Rhymes, Eminem, Twista, Kendrick Lamar, you name it, I had been there. But I needed something that was so uniquely mine forever. And that was Sometimes Y.”
Yelawolf isn’t throwing in the towel on his rap game, however. Onstage at the Ryman, he “opened” for Sometimes Y with a hip-hop set before returning to the stage with Jennings and the band to play his rock album start to finish. Jennings wants to further blend both worlds by playing “Pop the Trunk” live with the band.
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“It’s so fucking cool because nobody else can do that. But you can,” Jennings tells him in the dressing room.
“I know we can pull it off. We just gotta get Jamie 808 triggers,” Yelawolf fires back, perhaps not entirely sold on a fully organic drummer laying down rap beats. “Snoop Dogg does hip-hop records with a church band, but you gotta have that knock!”
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