Adeem the Artist, Crafting a Country Music of Their Own

Hannah Bingham understood that the blouse she had bought for her spouse of six years, Adeem Bingham, who was turning 32 in 2020, would be more than a mere garment or birthday present. Deep green silk and speckled with slinking tigers and glaring giraffes, it was Hannah’s tacit blessing for Adeem to explore beyond the bounds of masculinity.

“Adeem had expressed an interest in dressing more feminine, but they went in the opposite direction — boots, trucker hats, canvas work jackets,” she said in a phone interview from the couple’s home in Knoxville, Tenn., as their 5-year-old, Isley, cavorted within earshot. “I thought, ‘If you’re not doing this because it might change our relationship, I’m going to help you.’”

The blouse proved an instant catalyst. Incandescent red lipstick followed, as did a svelte faux fur coat — another gift. Adeem donned the outfit for family photos on Christmas Eve, and a week later, announced online they were nonbinary. At the time, Adeem the Artist, as they’ve been known since 2016, was finishing a country album, “Cast-Iron Pansexual,” about the complications of being queer — bisexual, nonbinary, trans, whatever — in Appalachia.

“That record became therapy, helping me understand and explain myself,” Adeem, 34, said, speaking slowly by phone during one of a series of long interviews. “But I didn’t have in mind to explain my queer experience to straight people. I had in mind to tell my stories to queer people.”

“Cast-Iron Pansexual,” though, slipped through the crevices in country’s straight white firmament, which have been widened in the past decade by the likes of Brandi Carlile, Orville Peck, Rissi Palmer and even Lil Nas X. Adeem self-recorded and self-released the LP in a rush to satisfy Patreon subscribers. Galvanized by its surprise success, they returned to a half-finished set of songs that more fully explored the misadventures and intrigues of a lifelong Southern outlier.

Those tunes — cut in a proper studio with a band of ringers for the album “White Trash Revelry,” out Friday — sound ready for country radio, with their skywriting ballads swaddled in pedal steel and rollicking tales rooted in honky-tonk rhythms. Adeem culled its cast of tragic figures and hopeful radicals from their own circuitous story.

On her radio show, Carlile recently called Adeem “one of the best writers in roots music.” In an interview, B.J. Barham, who fronts the boisterous but sensitive barroom country act American Aquarium, suggested Adeem might be the voice of a country frontier.

“People aren’t coming to shows because of a nonbinary singer-songwriter. They’re coming because of songs,” said Barham, who asked Adeem to join him on tour the moment he heard Adeem’s trenchant Toby Keith sendup, “I Wish You Would’ve Been a Cowboy.” “If your songs are as good as Adeem’s, they transcend everything else.”

Before the blouse, Adeem struggled with discrete phases of intense doubt about identity, rooted in Southern stereotypes. First came the realization they were a “poor white redneck,” they said, a seventh-generation North Carolinian whose parents had a one-night stand while their mom worked late at a Texaco and married only after realizing she was pregnant. The family were pariahs, accused of spreading lice in a Baptist church and lambasted by an elementary-school teacher for teaching young Adeem to swear.

“I was this misfit in the small-town South, really into hip-hop and metal, with long, bleached-blond hair,” Adeem said. “I was beyond that cultural sphere.”

When Adeem was 13, the family moved to Syracuse, N.Y. Adeem tried to drop their drawl. “Everybody thought I was stupid no matter what I said,” Adeem recalled by video from their cluttered home studio, gentle waves of a mahogany mullet cascading across a tie-dye hoodie. “I wanted to be cerebral and poetic, words that seemed wholly incompatible with the accent.”

“I imagine these songs getting on a playlist beside Luke Bryan,” Adeem said, “articulating a full scope of the country experience.”Credit…Justin J Wee for The New York Times

Though their family attended church sporadically in North Carolina, Adeem began to pine for religion in New York, hoping for a kind of literal instruction manual for life. They moved to Tennessee to become a worship pastor, writing and performing songs (in nail polish, no less) that sometimes bordered on heresy. Months later, “hellbent on living life like people in the Scripture,” Adeem shifted to Messianic Judaism.

Nothing stuck, so they gave up on God entirely. (“That felt really great,” Adeem said and chuckled. “Big fan of leaving.”) Still, soon after marrying in 2014, Adeem and Hannah decamped to an Episcopal mission in New Jersey, where queer folks, trans friends and people of color prompted Adeem to face the ingrained racism, sexism and shame of their childhood. “I met my first person who used they/them pronouns,” Adeem said. “It put language to so much I struggled with.”

Years later, that experience helped Adeem, a new parent back in Tennessee, address gender at last. Adeem’s father had jeered the flashes of femininity, which Adeem cloaked in masculine camouflage, continuing the practice even as they realized they were bisexual, then pansexual.

Working on a construction crew in Knoxville, surrounded by casual misogyny, Adeem broke. They listened to Carlile’s “The Mother,” a first-person ode to atypical parenthood, until working up the nerve to walk off the job. A year later, the silk blouse appeared.

A poor Southerner, a proselytizing Christian, a performative man: Adeem once thought they could change those models from within before abandoning them altogether, at least temporarily. Country music represented another avenue of progress, one they now have no intention of leaving.

Adeem came to country when their parents decided their firstborn should not be singing the Backstreet Boys. Adeem fell hard for Garth Brooks and the genre’s ’90s dynamo women — Deana Carter, Reba McEntire, Mindy McCready. Adeem’s own music later flitted among angular rock and ramshackle folk, but for “Cast-Iron Pansexual” country represented a powerful homecoming. “Using the vernacular of country, I got to showcase my values with the conduit of my oppression,” Adeem said, laughing at how high-minded it all seemed.

Where “Cast-Iron Pansexual,” which opened with the winking “I Never Came Out,” indeed felt like a coming-out manifesto, “White Trash Revelry” expresses a worldview built by reconciling past pain with future hope. Adeem addresses the grievances of poor white people they have called kin with empathy and exasperation on “My America.” They mourn American militarism and state-sponsored PTSD on “Middle of a Heart.” They fantasize about a revolution of backwoods leftists on “Run This Town.”

“I was this misfit in the small-town South, really into hip-hop and metal, with long, bleached-blond hair,” Adeem said of their childhood.Credit…Justin J Wee for The New York Times

“I am passionate about not wanting to be the Toby Keith of the left,” Adeem said. “I imagine these songs getting on a playlist beside Luke Bryan, articulating a full scope of the country experience. The stories of queer Appalachians and Black activists in the rural South are part of this culture, too.”

There are signs it could happen. To record “White Trash Revelry,” Adeem started a “Redneck Fundraiser,” asking donors for just a dollar, as if it were a community barn-raising. They quickly raised more than $15,000, including cash from the actor Vincent D’Onofrio. For Adeem, the campaign revealed “how many people feel estranged by the culture of country.” They’ve since landed a distribution deal with a big Nashville firm and played a coveted spot at the city’s iconic venue Exit/In during AmericanaFest. “Middle of a Heart,” even before the album was released, netted more than 300,000 streams, a stat that stunned Adeem.

“Country should be this giant quilt work of people, of stories that let me see different struggles,” said American Aquarium’s Barham. “Excluding any of those stories, for gender or religion or race, is not country. Folks like Adeem remind you of that.”

Adeem seemed less sanguine about the prospect of moving beyond country’s margins, of infiltrating a genre and lifestyle chained to obdurate mores. Still, they beamed talking about widening queer acceptance, despite recent tragedies and political setbacks. Might it be possible for Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry and New York’s Gay Ole Opry, a decade-old showcase of queer country, to one day overlap?

“Every part of me thinks there’s no way I’m going to make it in the country industry,” said Adeem, pausing to swig from a giant Dale Earnhardt mug before continuing, drawl intact. “But no part of me thought Brandi Carlile would call me one of the best songwriters in roots music, so I have no idea anymore.”

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