Revelry With a Cause
A talk with Adeem the Artist about recognition, representation, and why they might have to leave Knoxville.
by jesse fox mayshark • January 5, 2023
Adeem the Artist has been riding a wave of acclaim for their new album, White Trash Revelry.
A Facebook post from last week pretty well sums up the kind of month Adeem Bingham has had since their new album as Adeem the Artist was released on Dec. 2.
A nonbinary country singer confronts the complexities and contradictions of their family and Southern culture.
The post showed a screenshot of a tweet by actor Vincent D’Onofrio in which D’Onofrio wrote, “My fav tune on this great album from @AdeemtheArtist is Heritage of Arrogance.” Above the screenshot, Adeem wrote, “I live in a hilarious dream.”
The Hollywood star is just one of many touting the Knoxville singer-songwriter’s work these days. White Trash Revelry, alternately poignant, funny and devastating, immediately landed on year-end lists and garnered Adeem profiles and interviews in places like Rolling Stone and The New York Times.
Billboard magazine named it one of the 10 best country albums of 2022, alongside releases from Willie Nelson, Miranda Lambert and last year’s breakout chart-topper Zach Bryan. National Public Radio listed the track “Middle of a Heart” among its 100 Best Songs of the Year. And then there’s the praise from fellow artists like Brandi Carlile, who called Adeem “one of the best writers in roots music,” and John Darnielle of the Mountain Goats, who has invited Adeem to open on the band’s upcoming tour.
“When that happened, that was really kind of like, ‘Oh, I died, and I’m making a dream for myself,’” Adeem said of the endorsement from Darnielle, a longtime idol.
Compass last talked with Adeem last year after they had a set cut short at a public concert in a Farragut park, because some parents were reportedly uncomfortable with the performance. We caught up with them over coffee at Wild Love Bakehouse in North Knoxville. The conversation covered both the buzz around the album and the complex topics and perspectives it engages, as well as thoughts and observations about Adeem’s dozen years of living in Knoxville — and why the city is losing its charm for them.
Adeem is one of a number of artists in recent years who have challenged the white-Christian-conservative default settings of country music, laying claim to it as a platform for other kinds of voices. In Adeem’s case, that means a leftist, nonbinary North Carolina native who uses they/them pronouns and wears lipstick — or as the opening lines to “Redneck, Unread Hicks” off the new album put it, “Everybody gather round, we got another one here/ It’s got the pronouns listed, it’s a genuine queer/ Singing ‘Black Lives Matter’ to a Jimmie Rodgers melody.”
After several years of gigging around town, including numerous appearances at the now defunct Rhythm ‘N’ Blooms Festival, Adeem self-released their first album, Cast Iron Pansexual, in 2021. It received favorable notice and led to a marketing and distribution deal with the Nashville entertainment company Thirty Tigers.
To record a follow-up, Adeem wanted to go bigger, bring in a band and give it a full production. To pay for it, almost as a joke they started a crowdfunding campaign asking fans to give $1 each via Venmo or CashApp. It went viral — with marketing help from a theme song — and ended up raising more than $17,000.
The budget shows in the polish and shine that resulted, both in the playing and the sound of the album. But the heart of it remains Adeem’s words, melodies and clear, twangy tenor voice, with a craft honed by years of writing and singing songs for audiences here and elsewhere. Now 34 and married (to local artist Hannah Bingham) with a young child, their perspective is informed by an honest appraisal of their own complex background — and a determination to break many of its cycles.
That can take the form of the opening track, “Carolina,” which mixes family lore about their parents’ romance with less rosy details — “From my grandpa’s fist to my mother’s lips, there’s an ancestral impression/ An American inheritance of trauma and depression.”
It can take the form of “For Judas,” a lilting ballad that uses a Biblical allegory to tell of a same-sex kiss “in the Northeast Minneapolis Arts District.” (Or perhaps it uses the tale of the kiss to interrogate the Gospel text — Adeem’s religious upbringing and background in Christian music permeates their songwriting.)
Or it can take the form of the D’Onofrio-approved “Heritage of Arrogance,” a chugging rocker over which Adeem looks generations of whitewashed American history straight in the eye, drawing a throughline of racial brutality from the Ku Klux Klan to Rodney King and Trayvon Martin. The rousing chorus builds to a refrain of, “We were not taught the world was so goddamn unjust/ But it’s on us to make it right.”
But it would take a whole article to quote every memorable line on the album, so we might as well just let Adeem tell us about it. The following interview has been edited for concision and clarity.
COMPASS: First of all, have you been surprised by the reaction to the album? What has it been like to be on the receiving end of all of this enthusiasm?
ADEEM: I think one of the most shocking things has been how many best-of lists it's been on, because we didn't think we'd get on a single one just because it's late. Most of those are secured in November. I mean, it’s unreal. It is to the point where somebody texts me and they're like, ‘Yo, you made it to the top 10,’ and I'm like, ‘OK.’ Like I’ve grown numb to that excitement, because I’ve just been in a barrage.
COMPASS: One thing that struck me listening to it is, do you consider yourself a political singer-songwriter? I feel like the album mines this seam where the political is always informed by the personal.
ADEEM: I don’t consider myself a political singer-songwriter. I think part of the prerequisite of being a political singer-songwriter is having a strong political agenda that you're trying to enforce. And I think that my agenda is way more just trying to to imagine new pathways for connection in the sort of disparate world of reality that we live in right now. It is kind of a murky area. I mean, I wrote pretty explicitly Christian music for a long time, and I didn't consider it Christian either. So maybe this is just a holdover from that, where I'm reluctant to accept that I write political music.
But I don't know, when I think about political music I think about guys like Toby Keith, I think about the Drive-By Truckers. I’m not trying to disparage Drive-By Truckers, obviously. But that kind of music for your drunk uncle of any stripe to get rowdy about. And I wasn’t trying to do that.
COMPASS: In 'Heritage of Arrogance,' you’re talking about your own journey through understanding the world around you. But it also to me feels very reflective of where we're at, in this broader cultural sense of still not being really comfortable about understanding ourselves and our history.
ADEEM: Yeah, that song’s gotten the most shit. Most people that have been uncomfortable with the record are uncomfortable with that song and its call to action. I mean, I don't think anybody could do a real honest reflection on the history of racism in America as a white person without feeling like there's something I have to do to make this right. Unless you're just being completely dishonest with yourself about the reality.
When Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman, that case (happened), I remember my parents talking about it. And the way that was explained was well, you know, ‘They're showing pictures of a kid, but he didn't look like a kid, he looked like a grown man, he was scary.’ That’s a narrative that I grew up with. With nothing to combat that, I was just like, ‘Oh wow, yeah, that’s crazy.’ But I remember when Mike Brown (was killed), that was the first one that was like, ‘Oh, this feels wrong. There's something else going on here.’ And that was when I really started digging in. I spent a few years really obsessed with it, it was all I could think about. It made me sick and angry all the time. Which is a healthy response to finding out that Martin Luther King didn't fix racism, you know what I mean?
This is not long after I found out that the Thanksgiving story was just kind of a myth. You know, a lot of stuff like that, I don't think that people who exhibit bigotry get given enough credit or grace for the psychological mechanisms that are in place to protect you from having to experience such disruptive reality. I think a lot more people than we want to give credit for are so afraid of the work that that means and the radical shift that it means for them. Like their brain just won't let them look at it realistically. There’s very little you can do with that, besides offer some sort of roadmap for what it looks like to deconstruct those sorts of myths, and reimagine what a world without them might look like.
COMPASS: Along those same lines, you obviously raise gender issues, too. And again, these are issues that permeate society and culture. There is in particular a Southern sense of masculinity that seems to feel very threatened these days. You’ve obviously spent a lot of time thinking about that, where are we in that process?
ADEEM: I think the South has a really warped and direct relationship with a specific brand of Christianity. I think that the Christianity that informs the South is the Christianity that they brought here, which is one of conquering, it’s one of power, it's one of strength. The steeples are the phallic symbol of that strength. Power is linked to sex, and if you can’t tell what the sex (of a person) is, that’s a dangerous situation, it destabilizes. We (queer people) just are being who we are. But the reason it threatens that power structure is because it's true that if I'd have known a single nonbinary person when I was a teenager who used that language and explained their relationship with gender, for me that would have been like, ‘Oh, well, that's it. That’s what I’m doing.’
And so now that that's happening and there are these roadmaps, there are these people who are like, ‘Look, I'm living and thriving, and doing what I want,’ there are a lot more people that are feeling like there's a way to live. A lot of people within the queer community and within the Christian community, and outside as well, naively believe that it's a battle between Christians and the queer community. That's not what's happening. When I meet young people who are Christians, I no longer have the baggage that I had before, because I've met enough of them to know that they don't believe like that, they don't feel like that.
I wrote a Christian song with a contemporary Christian music artist two days ago who’s signed to a big gospel label. He wanted to collaborate with me because he wants to be at this work of showing that. So the battle is between who? The battle is between elected officials who want to win seats that they can't win unless they can rattle their bases.
COMPASS: I wanted to ask about 'Run This Town,' which imagines taking over city government and county government 'until we’ve got a cool majority.' Understanding that the song is not necessarily only about Knoxville, but you live in Knoxville. How does Knoxville factor into your processing of all of this?
ADEEM: This is really tough for me to talk about in a diplomatic way. I try to talk about everything from as ambiguous points as I can, to put people at ease and to let them imagine that we’re just people who like different kinds of soup, you know? But I am a leftist, it’s an important part of my identity and I don’t shy away from that. I don’t think you could listen to my record and be super unclear where I stand.
I think Knoxville has a serious race problem. I think that's the most important thing happening here, and I think nobody wants to talk about it or interface with it. I got into it with somebody locally about (the shooting of) Anthony Thompson Jr. That was a really life-changing thing for me here, between that and the (Farragut concert incident) happening. For me personally, I do not feel like a citizen in this town. I will move — I don't think I can live here anymore. It doesn't matter if anybody acted responsibly, or within the realms of their power. What matters is if it had been a white kid, they would have known to practice care, because that's a fucking kid in his high school bathroom, he’s scared, he’s a child. And they didn’t do it because he’s a 'thug.' His skin color makes him violent.
You know, we got to see (City Councilwoman) Gwen McKenzie take the biggest step out of her comfort zone in her life, where she said, 'Look, the Knoxville Police Department's racist, this is a problem that needs to be addressed.' And (Mayor) Indya Kincannon undermined her. She said, 'We as a mayoral office stand behind the police.' That was a chance for her to reckon with this.
COMPASS: Do you have any concern about how you maintain your sense of self amid all the attention? From observing people go through these cycles of kind of blowing up, it seems like one thing that can happen is you can become a little unmoored from what anchored you.
ADEEM: Yeah, it’s hard. I think I’m a little insulated from that inasmuch as I don’t believe any of this is really happening. I don’t know how healthy that is, but that’s where I’m at. But also, you know, I wanted to succeed. People keep asking me, what do you want to do in the next few years, what are your dreams and aspirations? I’m like, man, I wanted to press an album on vinyl and I wanted to tour with the Mountain Goats someday. I’ve done it.
I definitely think people are pushing me a little bit in the country direction. I talked about taking aim at Toby Keith, and the truth is Toby Keith is a person, he’s got a lot of shit I don’t know anything about, he’s just a guy. But when I’m thinking about Toby Keith, I’m thinking about Toby Keith the public property. Now, for better or worse, Adeem the Artist is a public property. So when interfacing with it, it becomes less about identity and more about what are the things that Adeem the Artist needs to say? What are the things that need to be spoken to in country music?
I think I’ve been given a job a little bit, and that job is to be an instigator in country music, to talk about misogyny, to talk about homophobia, to talk about racism and talk about what those things mean, culturally. You know, I’ve got rednecks on podcasts talking about pronouns. I’m going to keep trying to do that as much as I can. My big thing is I don’t want to let down the queer kids who found me when Cast Iron Pansexual came out.