“I’ve never had so much pushback in a culture than I’ve ever had with this country music,” shapeshifting electronic DJ Diplo told the Hollywood Reporter whilst preparing for the release of his latest effort in the genre, the six track Thomas Wesley: Chapter 2: Swamp Savant, the follow-up to 2020’s Thomas Wesley: Chapter 1 – Snake Oil.
It’s true the country genre and its fans have been notorious gatekeepers of their sound and the culture that surrounds it – sometimes justified, sometimes very much not so. Why? Country music may be huge business now, but it wasn’t always as slick an operation as it’s become.
Once derided, frequently underestimated, the genre has long been proud of its blue-collar roots, built on the simplicity of being able to make it with instruments you can carry on your back, and tell it with words that can sound simultaneously like everyday conversation and poetry.
The genre has spent the last decade in an identity crisis, trying to find its footing between musical and (much-needed) social progression and inclusivity, and a fundamental, sometimes outright unpleasant, shift in its sound.
So, to Diplo. His ability here, as an outsider, to secure such an impressive list of collaborators (much edgier than those seen on Chapter 1), featuring the likes of notoriously private and usually choosy Sturgill Simpson, is undoubtedly his biggest coup; not just for credibility, but because it means he can let people sing as they are, with no affected baritone or twang on anyone’s voice added.
Not that everyone gets an equal shot to showcase their chops: perhaps this album’s biggest misstep is its criminal underuse of Sierra Ferrell, who provides a barely distinguishable backing vocal for Paul Cauthen on ‘Rain On My Mind’. We’re more gratefully spared any songs that follow the ‘beer, girls and trucks’ format, so much so that until Morgan Wade namechecks Tennessee on ‘Never Die’, you’ll forget where you’re supposed to be.
Opener ‘Sad In The Summer’, featuring Lily Rose, with its rolling acoustic guitar and just a brush of steel, brings to mind Avicii’s ‘Wake Me Up’ by – in fact, you can listen to that song and consider it a precursor to much of what you hear on this album. ‘Sad In The Summer’ features the disco strings we’ll go on to see on ‘Use Me’, featuring Sturgill under his alter ego Johnny Blue Skies, and Dove Cameron.
‘Wasted’, with Koe Wetzel and Kodak Black, is the rockiest effort, whilst ‘Lonely Long’, featuring Parker McCollum, features some of the album’s best song writing (“The rain falls down like a soldier’s cry / Your father didn’t know you, all mum could do was try”).
Diplo finds himself stepping into a different country music landscape than the one he left in 2020. Traditional country sounds are resurging in popularity and many of those who’ve been accused of abandoning them are now quietly back-pedalling, dusting off fiddles and clinging on to them for dear life. It’s clear Diplo has no interest in this – with this album, it’s likely that the disinterest will be mutual.