WILLIE JONES: Fusing Country and Hip-Hop into the Ultimate American Dream

by | Jan 29, 2021 | Interviews and Features

Willie Jones may be mistakenly categorized as that tired cliche of an “overnight success,” even though he first lit up The X Factor fresh out of high school way back in 2012, starred in the Netflix show Chasing Cameron in 2017, and then dropped an EP Road Waves (Acoustic Mixtape) in 2018, only to follow it up with a string of singles in 2019 and early 2020 that crushed Spotify and YouTube, like “Bachelorettes on Broadway” with well over 15 million streams alone.

Fast forward to the fall of 2020, with a coveted Warner/Chappell publishing deal inked, a venture label deal with The Penthouse/EMPIRE, and a hit radio show on Apple Music as a DJ and tastemaker, Willie Jones has released his first full-length album Right Now and is poised to really blow up.

Let’s get this whole genre question out of the way: Willie Jones is a songwriter and Country music artist. However, he blends his incredibly gifted storytelling songs with underground hip-hop beats to make something entirely accessible to a wider audience. It ain’t pure country, it ain’t pure hip-hop, but what is? If you are of a certain age, this may be confusing to you, but the younger generations simply do not view music in traditional genres anymore. If it slaps, it slaps (they also probably won’t use “slaps” anymore by the time this article comes out).

Willie is keenly aware of his place in this new movement of rising Black country stars who are blending genres in their productions like, Kane Brown, Lil Nas X, Blanco Brown, and more, and he is embracing it.

I’ll let others argue over genres, I’m here for the songs, and these are damn good songs, written by a damn good songwriter, and delivered by a damn good artist. You’ll find plenty of down-home party songs on the new records. If you don’t love banjo, the breakup song “Trainwreck” just might change your mind. “Actions” surprises toward the end of the album as a beautiful piano-driven ballad about a troubled relationship that has the killer line, “you say ‘can you hear me?’ but you don’t speak clearly no more.” And then there’s “Whole Lotta Love,” a song infinitely syncable.

But the standout track, and the one that I believe is going to catapult Willie Jones into all sorts of ears and hearts (and spotlights) worldwide is “American Dream.”

This is a song for the moment, for the movement.

It’s a song about the Black experience in America, especially for young Black men. The American experience of being seen as “other,” as “less-than,” as something to be feared. An experience shared by far too many for far too long. It’s about the failure of this country to reconcile with our greatest sins by ensuring that this “dream” is equally available to all. It echoes the failure of America to understand that “When you’re living as a Black man, it’s a different kind of American Dream.”

I had a chance to catch up with Jones to chat about songwriting and what it’s like to launch an album during COVID.

How are you doing personally with the COVID thing? Are you freaking out when you travel?

Just as a person? (Yeah) I’m doing okay, man. I’m safe. I wear my mask. Wash my hands. Yeah, we are all healthy, thank the Lord. But, I AM tired of this shit, though. (laughs) I mean, things are going great. Like wrapping up my album. I’ve been getting in a lot of good writing over Zooms. And like, even my trip to Nashville and a lot of great co-writes in person.  But other than that, I still stay pretty active, you know, gym, friends, and all that good stuff. I’m so annoyed with it. Yeah, “Performer Magazine.” You know, I love performing, I miss the hell of it. And I still do things here and there, like, over my social media and virtual shows.

What was the last proper show you played before COVID?

I was actually in Europe for the C2C Country to Country Music festival. I mean, it was dope. I was on the Spotlight stage, there were headliners for days. Rucker (Darius) was there, Old Dominion, Luke Combs, and I was going on like an intermission stage, in between for the bigger artist sets. And then I would play other shows here and there for the whole festival. It was crazy. And then we got the call that the [pandemic] was entering so we all had to dip out of Europe, like ASAP. Yeah, the next day, we’re about to play the O2. And I was like, ‘Damn! Things were going really well.’ But you know, I’m really hopeful and optimistic for the future. Like, yeah, this too shall pass.

How are you feeling being described as part of this vanguard new “Black Country?” Are you embracing that?

This is who I am and the kind of music I want to hear and make. But, I also get it, you know what I’m saying? Because it is a thing. Artists like Mickey Guyton, Breland, and Brittney Spencer, and so many other Black Country artists are getting a spotlight on them. But beyond that, we’re just artists, you know? That is dope. That’s initially why I got into it, because I didn’t see anybody like me. My stories and their essence. Seeing them authentically being themselves, Black, you know, cool. I’m just a different type of person in the world. So, I just want to represent myself and just other types of stories.

You love songwriting. Do you have a process? Are you a guy that writes to acoustic guitar? Do you write lyrics first? Or do you write to beats?

Yeah, I kind of do all of those things. Sometimes I’ll get in, and I’ll just have a song idea, or the co-writer will have a song idea, or we just get in there and just talk about life or something. I usually already have a lyric going and we’ll write something acoustically. But usually, I’m the type to go in with a song idea, at least in my head, and just turn on the mic and freestyle, and then just write from there. Just build around that. Since I’ve been writing more the past couple of years, it’s definitely been something where it’s a muscle that has grown a lot.

What guitars are you playing and have you named them?

I got me a little Martin. It’s like an X-series type. It was a gift from my uncle a few years ago. It’s nice. It does not have a name, but should name it?

You definitely should name it. But don’t jinx it. Wait until after 2020, that’s when you name it.

Yeah, I should. I’m gonna think on that.

Are you writing for other artists now too as part of the deal with Warner/Chappell?

I have written for a couple hip-hop artists. Yeah. And I’m writing for some pitch things. I’m like, ‘Oh, I would like to pitch that out.’ None have gotten snatched up yet, but with just the rise of “Willie Jones” I think I’ll have more getting snatched.

It must be difficult launching an album during COVID. I mean, there was probably a full media blitz and hitting the road planned. So how are you doing it?

Yeah, this was postponed for some months. I’ve been doing a few cool virtual shows. I mean, I try to work my social media as best I can.  With my new Crossroads Apple Music Show, I get to throw my songs on there. But yeah, it’s really strange. I mean, we’re definitely figuring it out. A lot of Zooms, a lot of calls. But I definitely do miss the road and can’t wait to get back out there whenever that time comes. It’s just a different age we live in right now.

Let’s talk about Crossroads Radio on Apple Music. Now you’re the DJ, the influencer. How much of the music do you pick?

Oh man, like 60% of it. Yeah, it’s pretty dope. That was a blessing from God. And that keeps me going, you know what I’m saying? I’m working on my music too, but this is a whole different thing. I work with really great producers – my boy, Trevor Bass and Tommy Nixon from Apple. You know, they’re young guys, really in touch with music, as well. We just have a good time creating and recording shows. We do it over Zoom. I actually had the chance to meet Trevor in person, this past Nashville trip. And he’s like, the homie. Seriously, because we just created such a rapport over Zoom in the past four months since I’ve had the show. Just meeting at the crossroads and playing country, hip-hop, and everything in-between, and we just create the stories.

Let’s talk about the song “American Dream.” It’s obviously a very personal song, but you are stepping into that leader position speaking out on it. Tell me about how you’re feeling about that coming out in this social climate in our country. Do you think it’s going to cause a ruckus?

I mean, I’m just speaking my truth, you know? I wrote it a few days after the Fourth of July, and I was like, struggling to put on my red, white, and blue. And I was like, ‘Man, screw that, bro.’ I’m wearing it. I am an American.  I’m here, we ain’t going nowhere. Y’all just gonna have to get with it or get lost. (laughs) I mean, if a ruckus is created, then cool. I mean, hopefully, motherfuckers just learn from the song because I’m speaking from a place of honesty.  You know, I rock with this country. Shit, America is dope. I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else, it’s just we just have to continue to grow. But it ain’t perfect. Nowhere in the world is.

How do you feel about this summer and the movement hitting the mainstream (BLM and protests) – are changes being made?

I think it is. I mean, it’s always changing, right? Maybe it’s just gradual, slow. Super-gradual. I mean, like the song (American Dream) says, ‘We’ve come a long way, but we got a long way to go.’ And people just have to see each other as humans, you know what I’m saying? I’m just fuckin’ excited for just the growth that I’ve seen in my life. And I think that will continue to happen.

How are you finding navigating the music business, and especially as a non-traditional country artist taking off?

I know I’m protected and I’m good. Yeah, I got a great team. And I mean, my family and friends are just definitely just rocking with me and just there for me.  At the end of the day, I’m not doing this to be accepted. I’m just doing what I love to do, you know? I’m saying what I’m saying and being authentic. And praise God, people have been rocking with it and I’ve inspired a lot of people, and I continue to inspire myself.

How does your mom feel about all this?

Oh, she’s so excited.

Have you bought her the house yet?

I haven’t bought the house, not yet. We’ll see how this album goes (laughs).

Can’t wait to see you on the road next year (vaccine willing).

Yeah, just get me on the plane. Wherever it is, I’m there!


**Photos by Gordon Clark