Adeem Bingham just couldn’t abide the Aaron Lewis song “Am I the Only One.” The embittered tune, released in 2021, infamously name-checked Bruce Springsteen for being a disappointment to “real” Americans and moaned about the tearing down of Confederate monuments. Bingham, who performs as Adeem the Artist, wasn’t having it.
“It’s a terrible fuckin’ song,” Adeem, who is nonbinary and uses they/them pronouns, says. “I listened to it one time and it made me so angry.”
The Knoxville-based artist performed a parody version as a shit-stirring experiment, playing on the old-man-yells-at-cloud energy of the original. Fans urged them to record and release it on their next album, but Adeem had a better idea.
“I thought, what if I treated the guy that Aaron Lewis wrote that song for with respect and care and consideration and tried to imagine his actual perspective and tried to use my intuition to be sensitive to his view of things, and how he feels, and the reality of it?” they said.
The result was “My America,” an acoustic tune that appears on Adeem’s new album White Trash Revelry (one of Rolling Stone‘s best country albums of 2022) and imagines the difficulty of someone navigating a rapidly changing world. “Do the places I’ve found meaning still mean anything at all/Do the values I’ve upheld hold any value now?” they sing. It’s a powerful example of empathy for someone who may not hold the same beliefs as Adeem, a high-wire act of writing that closes out a landmark recording by one of Americana and country music’s most gifted songwriters.
It’s a mild November weeknight and we’re sitting in the coffee shop Frothy Monkey in East Nashville, trying to talk above a jarringly loud playlist of Johnny Cash, Elliott Smith, and Loretta Lynn. Adeem is wearing a denim jacket and scarf over a t-shirt with Dale Earnhardt’s image and the phrase “Today is a great day to kill god.” They’re attempting, with some degree of difficulty, to eat a slice of flourless chocolate cake while being interviewed.
“This wasn’t a great idea,” they say, “but it’s a very good cake.”
Adeem spent the early portion of their life in the Charlotte, North Carolina, area before their family relocated to central New York. They returned to the South as an adult, landing in East Tennessee. Their 2020 album Cast Iron Pansexual brought wider attention, wrestling artfully with parts of Adeem’s identity — “I Never Came Out” cheekily references dalliances with men — and taking on Toby Keith’s jingoistic, working-class cosplay in “I Wish You Would’ve Been a Cowboy.”
It was the latter song that caught the attention of B.J. Barham, leader of American Aquarium, while he was on a long drive with his wife. Barham immediately offered Adeem slots opening for his band, where they were tasked with winning over an audience that may or may not have had a super firm grasp on the nuances of gender identity. Barham felt like the empathy of Adeem’s writing was enough to sway them.
“When you make [songs] human, when you make them not just, ‘I’m right, you’re wrong, fuck yourself,’ but when you talk about it from a very real human standpoint, that’s where you can cross those party lines,” Barham says. “When you address topics that you’re strong willed about, when you talk about them in a very human way, you can transcend them. [Jason] Isbell does that. Adeem eats, sleeps, and breathes that.”
Adeem disclosed their nonbinary identity in 2021, and later that year they created a GoFundMe campaign for a new album, taking the novel approach of asking for $1 in hopes that thousands would say, sure, why not. To Adeem’s surprise, it worked out and exceeded expectations. It even attracted the attention of celebrities like Vincent D’Onofrio, who helped spread the word.
“We just had so many people show up. It was awesome,” they said. “It was like a little lightning bolt. People were bored on the internet and I had an idea.”
Adeem enlisted Kyle Crownover, whose day job is serving as Tyler Childers’ tour manager, to produce the album and then brought in a murderers’ row of guest musicians including Mya Byrne, Joy Clark, Jake Blount, Lizzie No, Jett Holden, and Zach Russell. As with Cast Iron Pansexual, the songs on White Trash Revelry tackle big topics of identity, faith, and the complex politics of the rural South, but they burrow even deeper than before, speaking with authority and vulnerability about the reality of those experiences.
“I felt kind of misunderstood as a kind of counterculturally presenting person in the South,” they say. “And living in the North and being perceived as a redneck. There was always that desire to understand the other.”
One of the most stunning examples of this is on the White Trash Revelry song “Middle of a Heart,” in which Adeem tracks the life of a young hunter who turns into a young soldier and ships off to war. He returns home haunted and falls deep into despair, choosing to take his life in one absolute gut-punch of a verse. It’s been compared, with good reason, to John Prine’s “Sam Stone” for highlighting the interior battles of veterans with PTSD.
“I sent them a text message: Just finished ‘Middle of a Heart.’ Fuck you,” Barham recalls of hearing the song for the first time.
Adeem nimbly shifts between writing from the perspectives of others and incorporating their own biography. “Painkillers & Magic” recalls a childhood of playing in the dirt at an aunt’s trailer, surrounded by assorted varieties of addiction, and praying in church for miracles that never come. “I watch with the eyes of a child as it happens/through the lens of these memories of white trash revelry,” they sing.
There’s a prevailing sense of solidarity with folks in the rural South (and the working class in general), and of how much more complicated the politics are than media outlets on the coasts make them out to be. “Books and Records” pictures people selling their most treasured possessions to make rent as prices and demands surge around them. The funky “Redneck, Unread Hicks” describes a place where pockets of progressive thought and queer fellowship are getting organized, all while “singing ‘Black Lives Matter’ to a Jimmie Rodgers melody.”
“These mutual aid groups [in Knoxville], it’s all fuckin’ hillbillies,” Adeem says. “It’s trailer park kids who’ve seen too many of their friends die of fentanyl overdoses, and they know no help is coming. With that song I really wanted to showcase how the social media meme of what it means to be a leftist activist and the reality of it is very different. Red-dirt shithead rednecks try to act like we’re carpetbaggers if we try to say things need to be handled differently in the South, but people on the coast do the same thing to us.”
Adeem also looks with clear eyes at the way white supremacy has been woven into the American experience from the outset in the revved-up country-rock tune “Heritage of Arrogance” and how that requires some unlearning of handed-down information. Using the lens of Adeem’s memories of Confederate flag-lined streets and all-white churches, on down to both-sides equivocation around the killings of Rodney King and Trayvon Martin, it’s a rousing call to break the cycle. Unlike other songs that have taken on the topic, “Heritage of Arrogance” doesn’t slot Adeem as being virtuous or above the problem. Instead, they’re figuring it out like the rest of us. “I’ve been learning our true history and I hate it,” they sing. “Wasn’t taught the world was so goddamn unjust/but it’s on us to make it right.”
“It’s so much harder to be like, ‘Listen, we as white people have been socialized to be racist,’” Adeem says. “That’s the reality of the situation in America. I’m dealing with it. You’re dealing with it. Everybody’s dealing with it. To me, removing the power from the word ‘racism’ gives us a lot more opportunity to address it and work through it.”
It’s not an easy process to go through, separating the truth from one’s generational beliefs. Mistakes are inevitable. Many people never even get started, though discomfort doesn’t have to be a bad thing.
“I do have a lot of sympathy for folks on that side, because finding somebody who loves you enough to sit around through the tumultuous experience of coming out of that and shedding it and letting it go, it’s a lot. It’s a lot to navigate. It’s a lot to accept,” they say. “It’s like heaven and hell. Some people die old believing in heaven against all odds because they can’t accept that their grandpa is not there, or their wife. Do you want to take that from people? I don’t know.”
But, as Adeem so capably demonstrates again and again on White Trash Revelry, that’s where the empathy part matters the most.