Trae Crowder came to the fore of the internet's comedic consciousness when a series of "porch rants" starring his Liberal Redneck character went viral. In his most popular bit, Crowder stands shirtless in a sun-beaten ball cap and slams conservative arguments in support of North Carolina's transgender bathroom bill, all while using a language and cadence familiar to Southerners.
He'd been doing stand-up for a while before the videos got popular, but the uptick in attention has led to cross-country tours and the publication of a new book called The Liberal Redneck Manifesto: Draggin' Dixie Outta the Dark. I caught up with Crowder and his liberal redneck coauthors—Corey Ryan Forrester of Chickamauga, Georgia, and Drew Morgan of Sunbright, Tennessee—who are performing at Parlor Live as part of their wellRED comedy tour.
They were knocking back beers at a bar and fielding a bunch of calls.
Who are your forerunners in this mission to "drag Dixie outta the dark?"
Drew Morgan: Jason Isbell. The Drive-By Truckers. Sturgill Simpson. Johnny Cash. Unfortunately, or fortunately, you have to look to music. Not that there haven't been Southern comedians, obviously, but the fact of the matter is that in the South, if you were going to be progressive or have left-leaning opinions, in the past you had to change your accent or pretend you weren't Southern. Bill Hicks didn't shy away from it, but he didn't really lean into being Southern. But maybe Stewart Huff is our main forerunner.
Crowder: Unfortunately, Stewart Huff is criminally unknown in the mainstream. He's a road dog comic. He's a progressive Southerner who's been doing it for 20 years. He's a guy we all look up to.
In the book, you say there are things the South can do better. What are some of those things?
Morgan: Acknowledge and deal with slavery in an honest way.
Crowder: My personal opinion is we could ease up on the Jesus a little bit. There are genuinely good Christians. If they acted like Jesus himself, I'd be totally fine, but so many of them don't. I think that's holding the South back a lot. Plus all the bigotry and shit. Our whole thing is that that stuff doesn't define the whole South, but we've never tried to pretend like those people don't exist. They do.
Do you have any success stories? Anyone in the early days who came up to you and said, "You know, normally I'm an avowed racist, but when you put it that way, it really makes me think."
Forrester: I do a joke about how ridiculous it was to not let gays serve in the military. I have had people come up to me and say, "You know, man, I sincerely hadn't thought about it that way. That is kinda ridiculous that we didn't let them fight for our country." I don't know if they held on to that, but there for a moment they thought it was kind of ridiculous.
What's the hardest liberal concept to joke about in the South? What doesn't get the laughs?
Crowder: Coming up in the comedy world down there, for me, the religious stuff.
Morgan: I echo that. My dad is a preacher, and I talked a lot about it, and I got a lot of bristle for it. But to give you a double answer: Now that we have the crowds that we have, the hardest joke for me to pull off is one where I'm poking fun at liberals and talking about how we can't take a joke. And they prove me right during the show!
People cracked jokes about Donald Trump in the whole run-up to his election, and it seemed to only make him grow stronger. Do you have any theories about that?
Crowder: Feeds off hate, man. That's his whole thing.
Morgan: Every time someone boos him or writes an op-ed about how dumb his followers are, he goes, "See, I told you they hated us. Let's get rid of those people."
How did you untie your deep identification with the South from your political opinions?
Crowder: For me, the stuff that I like about the South—the food, the music, the congeniality—never had anything to do my beliefs. Obviously it's an issue for a lot of people, but it's not an issue for me. That's kind of our whole point, actually. You can be both a Southerner and a liberal: They're not mutually exclusive.
Forrester: I've never thought to separate myself in that way. I am who I am. I like trucks and gay people. I didn't choose to be this way. I was born this way. In the South, we try to be nice to everybody, we try to love everybody. To me, it's this fundamentalist bullshit that gets in the way. There are more of us down here than anyone would believe. I promise.
You mean liberal Southerners?
Forrester: Yeah, hippies who drive big-ass trucks and love boats.
They're collected in the cities.
Crowder: I grew up in the middle of nowhere, and my dad was an OG liberal redneck. So I mean, it is a thing. Without a doubt they're collected in the cities, but, by the way, that's true of almost every state in the country. You get 30 to 40 miles outside the city—I don't care what state you're in—you're gonna start running into some shit.
I grew up in Belton, Missouri.
Crowder: So you get it.
In the days following the election, I felt intense pressure to return and try to "fix things" or whatever. Do you all feel any of that pressure?
Crowder: Yeah, Drew and I have talked about that a lot. Corey lives in his hometown.
Forrester: I do! Honestly, even as weird as it has gotten, as separated as we've become over this election—that's where I'm from, man, that's where my people are. Sometimes it can be a little tense, but, goddamn it, those are my people and I love 'em.
Morgan: I consider the South and Appalachia generally to be my home. I have an apartment in Knoxville now, and my wife and I talk about—if things keep going well—helping out with some programs there. But in terms of going back to my actual hometown? To Sunbright? I'll never do that.
Crowder: I echo that. My hometown of Salina? Not happening. But Knoxville or Nashville? Sure.
Forrester: And just so it doesn't seem like I'm willing to do it and they're not, my hometown—while a small hick town in Georgia—is very close to Chattanooga. It only takes me about 12 minutes to get to culture, if you know what I mean.
I still feel like I need to go back and spend the next 50 years of my life yelling at the dude in the bar who calls women "bitches."
Morgan: Eventually you'd become a different version of him. You'd be yelling at him and you'd have your own hang-ups. I think if you've got the hankering to leave your hometown, you gotta do it.
Crowder: I don't fault anybody who leaves. I left. I do understand that sentiment, but, you know, shit: Get out.
Mr. Crowder, on Bill Maher, Ana Marie Cox asked in an ironic tone, "Is the problem with American politics the fact that we don't cater enough to white men?" You said, "You're right about that. But do you want to be right or do you want to fucking win?" Go on...
Crowder: We can be all morally superior about the fact that we—right now when I say "we," I mean liberals—don't need poor white people, we don't want them on our side, fuck them, they're bigots and all this shit. But the point I was trying to make is that idea is pretty clearly untrue. We just lost. So we need to get off our high horse about it and try to understand and reach these people instead of just ignoring them or writing them off. Also it's shitty to me—and I'm not diminishing the struggles of gay people, black people, or women at all, and I never would—but I think it's shitty for anybody to say, "Fuck poor white people and their struggles." Because these people are struggling, believe me. I'm from a place like that. They're not doing well. To say, "Ah fuck 'em, they're idiot racists anyway"—I just don't think that's fair. If we keep doing that, we'll keep losing.
Morgan: I'd add that I'm frustrated with us on the left for having this sort of contest of who is struggling the most. Of course,of course, if someone's marching in the Black Lives Matter movement, I'm not going to look them in the face and say, "Don't you give a shit about the white guy in Pennsylvania?" Of course I'm not going to do that. But in terms of a political discourse across the nation, you know, you say to a guy who lost his factory job 10 years ago, and who works two jobs now, and who's been struggling ever since, if you say to him, "Don't you know the political process is catered to you, white man?" He's gonna say, "Well I'm not voting for your party if you believe that."
And you don't have to make any judgments to see his point. You don't have to say, "Oh, he's right and black people are wrong" or "He's right and women are wrong." You can just take his point. They don't run counter to each other. The fact of the matter is the system is screwing both of those people. And trying to figure out how to get those people to see that, and to see they need each other—that's the difficulty. And I understand when John Legend says, "Well right now, fuck 'em, because they voted directly against me and my rights." I get that. But in terms of winning next time, let's figure out how to deal with it.