By Blase DiStefano
Photos by Jason Grindle
A friend showed me a viral YouTube video of a young, nice-looking redneck male going off on other rednecks for freaking out about the “trans in bathrooms” issue. I was confused at first because this man—Trae Crowder—was obviously very knowledgeable, but what he was saying seemed diametrically opposed to the way he said it. How could that voice be coming from such an intelligent man?
If you haven’t heard of Trae Crowder, you should do yourself a favor and go online to search “trae crowder youtube,” then watch any number of videos (averaging maybe two minutes each). The aforementioned “transgender bathrooms” video is priceless: “Child molesters are not gonna prey on a kid in broad daylight, in public—especially not with their mouth-breathing troglodyte daddy 12 feet outside the door just dyin’ to punch something different. It don’t make no sense.” There are two reasons you may not have found that very humorous: one, it makes sense, so it’s just real, not necessarily funny; and two, you’re reading it, not hearing it. This ally to the LGBT community has succeeded in creating a character who says the opposite of what you would expect a redneck to spout.
I spoke on the phone with Trae Crowder, the real person behind the Liberal Redneck, about growing up poor, a gay uncle, and changing attitudes in Southern cities. It was not what I was expecting to hear.
Blase DiStefano: I Googled the definition of “redneck” and what I got was “A working-class white person, especially a politically reactionary one from a rural area.” So that sorta sounds like you, except the “politically reactionary” part. Although I guess you’re the extreme opposite of what that implies.
Trae Crowder: Typically, it’s in the exact opposite direction. Basically, that’s it in a nutshell.
Where are you living?
I’m in east Tennessee, right outside of Knoxville.
Is that where you were born?
No. Originally, a really small town in Tennessee called Celina. People 40 miles away from Celina have not heard of it—and I’m not joking. No one in Texas will have heard of it. We don’t have any traffic lights there.
That is small.
It’s so rural there that the Celina hospital doesn’t do deliveries. So I was actually born in a neighboring town. Dad drove my mom to a hospital in a neighboring town for me to be born…literally just to be born. I was born there, they left the hospital, and they drove back to Celina.
And when were you born?
1986. So I was 30 in April.
Were your parents born in Celina also?
The general vicinity, yeah. My family in my paternal lineage was in that area of Tennessee for generations.
What was your childhood like?
I grew up super, super poor. My mom and dad got divorced when I was seven. My mom had issues with not just drug addiction, but she also sold drugs and was in and out of jail most of my childhood. So I was mostly raised by my dad. When I was young, my dad owned a video store—if you remember what those are.
Oh yeah. I’m old.
That was alright for a while, but the economy of the whole town went to jig ’cause the nerve center of the town was a big textile factory that moved to Mexico in the mid ’90s when I was a kid. So that devastated the town’s economy, including our business. And then my dad got sick when I was like 12 or 13, and he had to go on disability so we had even less money. My dad was a good dad, though—we were just extremely poor in a rural area. And the shit with my mom and my mom’s family was pretty gnarly stuff.
Were they liberal?
My mom, I don’t know what her political beliefs are. She was not the type to sit around and talk with her friends about foreign policy. [Both laugh] My Dad, though, he was a very open-minded person.
He’s pretty redneck—comes from a long line of ’em who grew up in that area. But he’s also a super music buff. Loved rock and roll and shit like that—Bowie and Springsteen and people like that. But also, his only brother, my uncle, is gay, and I imagine that has a lot to do with it. They never really talked about it that way, like, “Yeah, I feel this way because your Uncle Jim is gay,” but I’m just saying they were super, super close.
How was he treated?
My grandpa didn’t really talk about it openly, but my uncle and his partner were always around—they came to dinner all the time, and they were always there for holidays. So [their being gay wasn’t] really weird to me or anything. The only thing, like I said, you didn’t really talk about it openly around my grandpa, but other than that he was cool with it. They didn’t ostracize him or anything like that. He was very much a part of the family, and his partner, Mike, was too [while I was] growing up.
So how did you even know they were gay, since they didn’t talk about it?
My dad told me and my sister when I was about eight or nine and she was five or six. They knew how the town is and how the kids are, yada, yada. They knew we were gonna start hearing about it from people, so they explained what [being gay] was and what it meant.
So that’s pretty much the reason why you defend queers.
Yeah. The thing of it is, I lean left on pretty much everything. I’m not super-hardcore gun control, but I just don’t think anybody should just buy a goddamn A-K 47 either. I don’t know, I’m just not that passionate about that, because to me—and it may be defeatist—America is a f–king gun culture, and that’s just sorta the way it’s gonna be. So I focus my attention on other things that I think might actually f–king change.
The gun laws aren’t likely to change anytime soon.
Exactly. So when I say I’m not that passionate about it, that’s why. I don’t see much happening there. For everything else, though, I’m very left or liberal-leaning. The only thing I’ll get upset about—or that I’ll get personally invested in and passionate about or offended by—is the LGBT stuff, because of my uncle. I take it personally when people start talking about gay people being [an] abomination or a crime against nature—shit like that.
You grew up knowing what your uncle is like, so you know that’s not true.
Exactly. I love my uncle and he’s one of the sweetest f–king people on the planet Earth, so when people say that shit about gay people, in my head I hear it as them talking about my uncle. So I’m like, “F–k you, you don’t even know my uncle.” People are like, “Oh, I don’t mean your uncle. Those are just my beliefs.” You can’t just say shit like that about people, then try to act like you didn’t. That’s really f–ked up.
If they are making a generalization, they do mean your uncle, because he’s gay.
So your “Liberal Redneck” character is kind of an extension of Trae Crowder.
Very much so. Pretty much the only thing that makes the character different from me as a person is that if I’m just talking to someone else cordially and casually about political things, I’m not going to f–king scream in their face about what I know is wrong—“F–k you,” and all this stuff. That would be shitty. But my Liberal Redneck character is a lot more aggressive and in your face, and that’s on purpose because that’s how rednecks act about things. That’s the only part that’s not the way I actually am. It’s just an exaggeration.
Assuming that you do some of this stuff in your stand-up, don’t you get heckled?
Honestly, probably not as much as you’d think.
Do people know what they’re coming to see then?
No, no. Here’s the thing. I preface this by saying that I do not pander to crowds, but at the same time, if I’m in a certain type of venue with a certain type of crowd, there will be jokes that I’m like, “I’m clearly not doing that joke tonight. They’re gonna hate it.” But it’s not like I have my regular set and my Larry the Cable Guy set. I also talk about growing up poor and things like that—not super-politically charged, but still very real. I’ll do shit like that, but I won’t do my Bible material.
But I still do a lot of that material in the South, for younger crowds. I’ve found younger crowds are pretty much fine with that kind of left-leaning and political-type stuff, making fun of religion and the Bible, or whatever—even in smaller towns like Cookeville, Tennessee, which is where I went to college and is halfway between Nashville and Knoxville, this town of about 50,000 people. That’s been my experience, anyway.
That sounds logical, because young people are usually more open and they’ve learned so much more than we did.
People are out now, and people might have an experience like mine where they actually know that gay people are not f–king demons or whatever.
Do you have any idea what the Pride parade is like in Knoxville?
It’s definitely not huge, but I think that’s because Knoxville’s not that big of a place. Knoxville, from what I’ve heard, is relatively gay-friendly as far as cities go. I’ve seen articles and lists that had Knoxville on it. In my experience as a comedian, I really think it’s more about cities vs. rural vs. the country or whatever, [both] in and out of the South. Atlanta is metropolitan as hell. So is Nashville. Knoxville isn’t super-metropolitan, but our mayor is a Hispanic woman who is very gay-friendly.
The cities are not super-redneck or conservative or crazy at all. All these local or state-level politicians that make these crazy-ass laws are usually in [rural] districts that are gerrymandered around.
So what is your take on Trump?
I can’t f–king stand him. I don’t even have to consider his policies or anything. I mean, I try to be fair, but I think his policies are awful. What I’m saying is that I don’t even have to get to his policies to hate Donald Trump. I’m only 30 years old, so in my entire living memory Donald Trump has existed literally just to be made fun of. He has been a national punch line—a laughingstock—my whole life. No one has ever taken him seriously about anything, ever. Now all of a sudden everybody’s acting like, “That’s not true anymore, and he can be the goddamn president of the United States.” He has been a clown for 30 years, and now they’re like, “No, he’s the man for the job,” and it just blows my f–king mind.
My mind too, because there is a possibility he could win.
It scares the shit out of me. But I did have to make a little bit of a concession recently: Trump had the largest margin of victory in my home county than anywhere else in the state of Tennessee—and in most places in the entire Southeast. So when that happened I posted something on Facebook about how just ashamed I was, like “What the f–k, are y’all serious?”
My point was this: some old-money, super-wealthy Yankee from f–king New York knows nothing about our people, what it’s like, what our struggles in life are like, and what to do about it. He couldn’t be further removed from our problems. You’re f–king crazy.
That was my stance on it, and then my buddy Drew Morgan from two counties over, found this article that was in a very legitimate publication. This very liberal-leaning writer said that it’s time to stop completely discrediting all these [unemployed rural] people as lunatics because we need to acknowledge something very important. (In that article he actually brought up my home county, because of that textile mill there that went out in the ’90s and decimated the place—unemployment goes up, drugs get worse, crime goes up, and all that shit is true. My hometown went to shit all because that factory left.)
One of Trump’s biggest things—which the media doesn’t talk about as much because they mostly cover the insane things Trump says about women and Mexicans—is bringing jobs and manufacturing back to America. He harps about that a lot, and people in these places have seen firsthand the effects on their lives. They hear that and it appeals to them, and I do think there is some truth in that. I mean, Trump is full of shit…he’s not gonna do any of [the things he’s promising], but I do think there’s some aspect of that that does actually speak to some of those people, outside of just “To hell with the brown people.” They actually do think he may be able to help them. [Yeah,] right.
Still, even though I could not be more firmly anti-Trump, I read that article and I had to concede: “Okay, some of us on the left, myself included, might need to stop brushing this dude off as some fringe, crazy bullshit because it may not be as simple as we’re treating it, and it’s time to start taking it seriously.”
So the obvious next question is, “What about Clinton?”
I’m not crazy about Hillary, but I’m pragmatic. I know a lot of millenials who are like, “It’s Bernie all the way” to the point where they hate Hillary—like, “I can’t f–king stand her,” and that worries me a lot because you can’t lose sight of the forest for the trees. I know that she is your guy’s opponent right now, but you need to look at the big picture here and not turn too strongly against her.
There are gonna be a lot of guys who are not gonna vote at all, and that’s bad. I tell them, “Look, I hear ya, but just try to be realistic and pragmatic about things.” Those people try to act like the whole “lesser of two evils” thing is defeatist, but it’s pragmatic. Again, I hear where you’re coming from, but that’s just the f–king reality of it. And again, I’m not crazy about Hillary, but if it’s Hillary versus Donald Trump, I’ll take Hillary for 30 years over four years of Donald Trump. It’s not even a question for me: I’ll be voting for her all day. I’ve got some reservations about her as a candidate, but the choice is still very clear.
It didn’t occur to me, until I saw your videos, that there might be such a thing as a liberal redneck.
The thing is, I’ve heard that from a lot of people. I’ve gotten a lot of hate mail, but I’ve gotten a whole lot more supportive messages from people. There are some outliers among all different types of people, but the two biggest groups that have reached out to me positively have been LGBT people and other liberal Southerners, who have been like, “Man, I’m a liberal, grew up in the South my whole life, and I really just appreciate you letting people know we’re not all f–king crazy redneck hicks down here. I really appreciate you breaking that stereotype.” And I have gotten a lot of messages like that—definitely more than people think.
I’m gonna preface this by saying [that compared to LGBT persecution, being a liberal Southerner] is not even remotely the same in terms of difficulty or hardships or persecution. But I do think liberal Southerners are “in the closet” and don’t talk about it, because they get ostracized by their family and friends. I think there’s a whole lot more than people realize. They hide it.
I don’t know how many of the big Southern cities you’ve played, but it seems a lot of people show up because there are a lot of other liberals.
Until this video went viral, nobody would show up! [Both laugh] So I don’t know the answer to that question, but we’re gonna find out. [Recently] we announced a surprise show at the music hall in downtown Knoxville—24-hour notice, just Facebook and Twitter and a sandwich board in front of the place. And the place was filled up completely. And the first show of the tour was in Atlanta at the Punchline Comedy Club, which holds about 220 people—and that show sold out and they added a second show.
It looks like people are going to show up in the bigger cities, and I love it. Atlanta, Asheville, Nashville, Huntsville, and back in Knoxville for the end. If the tour was in actual small redneck towns, it would not go well.
That’s good to hear, ’cause that means eventually you’ll come to Houston.
We’re actively trying to book some stuff in Texas, including Houston, Dallas, and Austin. We’re looking at doing a Texas run, but we don’t have venues or dates. [Editor’s note: check for updates at wellredcomedy.com.]