The three "liberal rednecks" of the WellRed Comedy Tour — Trae Crowder, Drew Morgan, and Corey Ryan Forrester — are cracking people up in clubs all over America. They’re also cracking the shell of what it means to be a “redneck.”
Story by Chuck Reece | Photographs by Caleb Chancey
To me and most folks I knew, the location of urination had always seemed a non-issue, but the whole South got in a tizzy about it in March of last year. Then-North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory had signed the infamous HB2 legislation into law: The “Public Facilities Privacy & Security Act” made it illegal for transgender people to use a bathroom in any public building if the sign on the door did not correspond to the sex listed on their birth certificates. Many viewed it as an attack on the LGBTQ community as a whole and transgender people in particular. Many others, of course, saw it differently.
On April 13, a man with a Southern accent who identified himself as a “pastor” stood outside his pickup truck wearing a Yeti-brand gimme cap. He ranted on Facebook for two minutes about the dangers posed by “a bunch of perverts usin’ this thing to go into bathrooms, pick at little girls.” It went viral quickly, doubtlessly spurred on by his punch-line pledge to “tear the bathrooms down and burn the ground (sic) before I’ll let a bunch of perverts in the bathrooms of our churches.”
One of the millions who watched the Pickup Pastor’s video was a husband and father of two children in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, a mild-mannered, bespectacled contract administrator for the Oak Ridge National Laboratory. For years, this contract administrator’s avocation had been stand-up comedy. He had been hooked since watching Chris Rock’s “Bigger & Blacker” at age 12. He and his friends Drew Morgan and Corey Ryan Forrester had been writing material and doing sets at comedy clubs for a half-dozen years.
Trae Crowder the contract administrator had wanted to become Trae Crowder the stand-up comic for a long time. He looked at the Pickup Pastor’s video again and figured if that dude could rant for two minutes and get millions of views on Facebook, maybe he could, too. He decided to adopt a character, the Liberal Redneck. It wasn’t really a character, because Crowder is truly both a redneck and a liberal, but he exaggerated it. He took off his glasses and put on a T-shirt with the sleeves ripped off it and a ragged ball cap on his head. He cranked up his accent to full East Tennessee twang, stepped onto his back porch, held out his phone selfie-style, and began ranting about the Tennessee legislature’s passage of a bill designating the Bible the state’s official book.
That first video got more than 70,000 views on Facebook. “I was over the moon about that,” Crowder says. “I was thrilled.” He tried again the next Wednesday, April 20. This time, he kept the cap but jettisoned the shirt entirely and went straight back at the Pickup Pastor’s brand of transphobia. He ended his screed with this:
You’re freaked out. The thought of a man wantin’ to be a woman disgusts you, because like most things that disgust you, you lack the capacity to understand it — you know, homos, algebra, shit like that. And y’all ain’t gon’ change. I realize that now. But that’s OK, because the rest of us are tryin’ to ensure that the next generation — you know, your kids — grow up in a world that’s a little more open-minded. And that’s happenin’ whether you like it or not. Bye!
“My wife and I stayed up that night a little bit watching it, and it was going up, but it still wasn’t insane or nothing,” Crowder remembers. “I went to bed, and when I woke up, my phone was damn near froze up from all notifications that were on it. But I still had a day job; I had to get to work. I was just like, ‘What the hell is going on?’ I just went to work, and my phone was buzzing in my pocket, and I couldn’t get it to stop. My battery died by noon because my phone was going bananas, and I happened to be really busy at work, so I didn’t really get a chance to look at it until that afternoon. I snuck onto Facebook at my work computer, and I was just like, ‘Holy shit!’ At that point, it was in the millions. And it kept building.”
One of those buzzes in his pocket had been a call from the Knoxville News-Sentinel, which on Friday, April 22, ran a story with the headline, “Knoxville ‘liberal redneck’ goes viral with transgender rant.” The story said Crowder’s video, in 48 hours, had clocked more than 13 million views.
Today, that Facebook post has passed 22 million views. And Crowder, Morgan, and Forrester no longer work, respectively, as a contract administrator, a lawyer, and a guy who spray-paints custom Yeti cups. They are full-time stand-up comedians. On May 22, 2016, they began a three-man comedy tour that still hasn’t ended after more than 150 shows across 37 states, about three-quarters of them to sellout crowds. They rushed to write a book for Simon & Schuster — “The Liberal Redneck Manifesto: Draggin’ Dixie Outta the Dark,” which hit stores only six months after that first video. Now, there is a development deal with Warner Bros. and talk of TV shows.
But it seems to me that Crowder, Forrester and Morgan are achieving more than just success in their chosen field. They are changing people’s stereotypical perceptions about the South. Outside our region, after-show crowds tell them they are happy to learn such people actually exist in the South. Inside our region, those crowds — the closeted liberal rednecks of the South — thank the boys for letting them know they are not alone, that maybe they can muster the courage to be bolder with their own views.
Ain’t that somethin’?
I saw that first performance of the still-running WellRed Comedy Tour. (“WellRed” is a mashup of the fact that the boys are quite well read and that their necks are, well, red.)
The show was at Atlanta’s oldest comedy club, the Punchline. The buzz from the Liberal Redneck videos was enough to make it a sellout. As for me, I didn’t know much beyond the buzz, but word had gotten back to Bitter Southerner HQ that Crowder, Morgan, and Forrester were fans of our publication. Their manager, Nat Goldberg, asked me to come.
Truthfully, I didn’t expect too much. I wasn’t sure the Liberal Redneck character would wear well on me over the course of an entire set. But that character is not what you get when you see these guys in a comedy club. Even on that first night, the trio delivered nuanced, practiced, insightful jokes — each with his own style. I didn’t know their backgrounds at the time, but I could tell from their accents all three were small-town boys. They shared a mountain twang very familiar to ears in North Georgia and East Tennessee. Crowder grew up in Celina, Tennessee, and Morgan in an even tinier mountain town 90 minutes away called Sunbright. Forrester is from (and still lives) just south of Chattanooga, over the Georgia border in Chickamauga.
Also, I quickly noticed that every one of them had a chip on the shoulder quite similar to the one I carry myself: that feeling of being a misfit in a small Southern town when you think differently than your neighbors and kinfolk.
More than a year later, when I joined them for a three-night stand in early June in Huntsville, Alabama, I saw what constant touring had done for their act. At the Punchline last year, I’d seen the comedy equivalent of a young band with potential. Seeing them again after 150 shows, I could tell the road had taught them. Their material was tighter and sharper. They had learned how to play off each other’s strengths.
Forrester, 29, opens and emcees every show. He is the screamer of the trio. His funniest humor comes from his utter astonishment at the weirdnesses of the modern world.
“Facebook!” he yelled from the stage at Stand Up Live, the newest (and quite lovely) comedy mill in Huntsville. “We divided our goddamn selves, y’all! I know way too much about ever’ son of a bitch in this room right now if I need to. Remember back in the day when you used to have to get to know somebody for 10, maybe 15 years before you found out they were crazy as fuck? You remember that?
“When I was a kid — and to this day — my best friend is Josh. Here’s why me and Josh are best friends. Number 1, I like baseball; Josh likes baseball. Number 2, we live near each other; we could play baseball together. Number 3, Josh's mama has an ass that won't quit. Oh, my God!”
As the crowd cackles at the ass joke, he gets to the point.
“Now, if we had met today, I don't know that me and Josh would be goddamn friends, because I would have to go, ‘I don't know about this feller. Let me check his Facebook and his Twitter and his LinkedIn profile.’ I wouldn't even make it past the profile picture. I'd just be like ‘Oh, my God, this picture! He's gonna kill my goddamn family.’ Delete. Delete. Delete. Delete. Delete. Delete. Deleeeeeeete!”
If he keeps this up, Forrester will one day be in the Screaming Comedians’ Hall of Fame with the late Sam Kinison.
“Corey was already the funniest person I know,” says Morgan, who follows him in every show. “And now, he's so sharp that following him is actually difficult, which in the long run is good. But you know, it's hard right now. It's hard to go in between the guy who everyone came to see and the guy who just did that.”
But Morgan doubts himself too much. If Forrester is destined to be the Kinison of this trio, then Morgan, 32, will be its George Carlin. His humor is sly and biting.
He begins his set in Huntsville this way: “I am the son of a Southern Baptist preacher and a Sunday-school teacher. Knowing how genetics work, that makes me an alcoholic.” Then he builds the entire first half of his routine with a series of jokes built on what he calls his “questions about the church.” Much of it centers on his experience at church “lock-ins.”
“That’s where we go,” he says. “If you don’t know about lock-ins, that’s because it's a felony in 46 states to lock babies in a room and make ’em learn about Jesus! But I had fun at lock-ins.” What follows is a graphic and hilarious description of the carnal things that can happen — you know, underneath the blankets — when teenagers are locked inside a church.
He smiles at the memory of lock-in sex, shakes his head slowly, and concludes, “Our God’s an awesome God.” The crowd falls out laughing.
“Drew refuses to take the easy route with his material,” says Crowder, 30, the headliner. “He has to challenge the audience, or he's just not satisfied, which I respect the hell out of. He challenges me and Corey, too, and it makes us all better.”
As for Crowder himself, maybe the closest stylistic analog is his first comic hero, Chris Rock. He doesn’t pace the stage incessantly, as Rock does; the physicality of his comedy comes instead from the upper body: his eye movements, shoulder shrugs, and hand gestures. These days, he builds a chunk of his routine around how his redneck credentials have been questioned over the last year by an odd pairing of groups: first, other rednecks, and second, their polar opposites, “liberal Portland baristas,” as Crowder calls them.
“I’m a different kind of redneck, sure. OK?” Crowder says on stage. “But I love drinkin’ beer, I love football, I love my truck, I love my mama. And guys, my mama cooks the best crystal meth you’ve ever had in your life. So good.
“That’s a joke. I’m kidding. My mama never cooked meth. She sold pills, a totally different thing. That’s 100 percent true. That’s not a joke. My mama feels about pills the way Wes Anderson feels about whimsy. So my mama’s a pillhead, and last fall, when Tennessee got beat by Alabama for the 11th straight time, I got hammered drunk and went in the backyard and tore the treehouse down. But yeah, I’m not a redneck.”
Outside the club, after the show, I overhear a group of fans talking about the time Bill Maher performed in Huntsville, how it felt like a coming-out party for the local liberals.
“I remember looking around this crowd at the Civic Center, like, holy shit! Look at all these people …”
Another fan finishes the sentence, “… that I didn’t know were here.”
“But he wasn't a voice from us,” the first fan replies. “He was a Northern person coming down here, and he's playing on all of the redneck conservative jokes. And there's a ton of them there. But this is different, because these are people that have grown up here. They know.”
As Crowder often says, “We ain’t unicorns.”
When that fan says the boys just know, there is a deeper, unspoken message. What he’s saying is that when he watches the WellReds, he can tell by the way they talk and what they talk about that they understand what it’s like to grow up feeling a misfit in a strictly proscribed culture.
But do they really know? It’s probably appropriate now to establish the redneck credentials of Trae Crowder, Drew Morgan, and Corey Ryan Forrester.
Let’s start with Forrester. He grew up around plenty of rednecks in Chickamauga, but, as he writes in their “Manifesto,” “I’m not going to even act as though I have any idea what it’s like to grow up poor. Just wasn’t the case for me.” He did, however, have an Uncle Keith (who turns up in Forrester’s routines quite regularly), and Uncle Keith fits the pill-popping redneck bill entirely.
“My uncle drew the fuck out of a crazy check,” Forrester writes, “and I’ll be honest with you guys: I think he deserved it.”
If Forrester knows the untreated mental illnesses of redneckdom, Morgan knows the violence sometimes inherent in rural life. His older brother is in the middle of a long prison term for a violent crime. Although Morgan got out of Sunbright, got through law school at Boston College, and served as a public defender in Miami and Knoxville before the trio’s comedy breakthrough, his entire family remains haunted by the violence committed by one of their own.
“Literally no one's ever been on the fence about whether or not my brother was a redneck,” Morgan says.
Mental illness, addiction, and violence. All checks on the redneck list. To check the poverty box, you go to Crowder. His early life in Celina was typical of Southern small towns that still had industry and thus employment. In Celina, the economic engine was a textile plant that had been churning out OshKosh B’Gosh clothing for kids since 1954.
“It left and went to Mexico after NAFTA,” Crowder remembers. “So, in 1994 when I was like 8, my dad owned a video store. His dad, my paternal grandfather, owned a car lot. My maternal grandmother owned a country restaurant. Kat's Café, it was called. It was awesome. My gay uncle Tim owned a kinda hippy-dippy like deli on the square in Celina called the New Day Deli. And they were all doing well, so we were a family of small business owners basically, and especially by Celina standards we were fine. We were totally fine. But I barely even remember any of that. When I was 7, my mom and dad got divorced. I didn't really understand any of what that was or what that meant or what the hell was going on. So, I’m 7, they get divorced, but the family is good. We got money and stuff like that. But you fast forward to five years later, and my mom is, you know, strung out on pills and never really even around. The video store is closed down, my uncle's deli is closed down. My grandma had to sell her restaurant, and my grandpa is hanging on by a thread with his car lot. That is what happened to the whole town. The whole town just died. That factory left, and that was the center of the town's economy. Everybody had money to spend, you know, and suddenly it was just all gone. So when I think about my childhood stuff, that's what I remember. I barely even remember any of the prosperous times, the good times.”
So, have we established the qualifications of these gentlemen to speak from the redneck perspective? That fan was right. These guys? They know.
In case you think a comic’s life on the road is rock-star glamorous, I have evidence that suggests otherwise.
There are no five-star hotels for the boys. Many comedy clubs, it seems, have invested in “comedy condos” instead. I got this email from Trae when we were making arrangements for my time with them:
“You ever heard of comedy condos? Oftentimes clubs will maintain a residence for the comics coming thru in lieu of messin’ with hotels. They're infamous for being dens of filth.”
But over this three-night, five-show stand in Huntsville, the boys and I got lucky. Stand Up Live, aside from being a spacious, comfortable club that actually has great food and drink, has a comedy condo that’s rather sweet. Still, the glamor factor was low. There were two bedrooms and four of us. Drew got a solo bedroom, Trae and Corey bunked side by side in a queen bed, and I got the couch.
My fondest memory of the whole trip, if I am to be completely honest, is waking up one morning to the sound of Trae and Corey chattering and laughing like hyenas in their bedroom. I figured they must already be up and dressed, so I stuck my head in the door. There, I found two pasty-white rednecks in their underwear, lying side by side on the bed, cracking jokes.
Truth is, the whole trio shares an easy camaraderie. Essentially, when they're not on stage making other folks laugh, they're almost always laughing at each other's jokes.
And in the years before Trae’s Liberal Redneck Facebook fame, they dreamed together, too.
“We sat around on porches dreaming of all of this,” Morgan remembers. “We did.” But a couple of years ago, their view of whether their dreams might become real started to shift. All three of the WellReds started feeling something in the air that suggested their time might be coming.
“We would say, ‘The timing is right for this. The iron is hot,’” Crowder says. “Because we were lookin' around and seeing things like — and I'm not just blowing smoke up your ass — we were seeing things like The Bitter Southerner gaining traction, and then also, in the music world, acts like Jason Isbell and Sturgill Simpson havin' breakthroughs and sellin' all these tickets and winnin' awards. And all those things to us were like, ‘OK, this is very overtly Southern culture or art. But it's not at all stereotypical Southern stuff. It's real Southern culture, as opposed to the caricature that you usually see in popular media. We saw that happenin' in other avenues but not in comedy at all.”
All of them are quick to pay their respects to Stewart Huff, the brilliant but little known Kentucky-born comic who has been working the same vein as the WellReds for a couple decades. They also are quick to tell anyone who asks that they believe Jeff Foxworthy has been a brilliant comedian.
“Jeff Foxworthy just happens to view the world a little differently than me,” Morgan says. “But the South is changing. What the South wants and what the world wants to hear out of the South are changing. I think there's a generational difference.”
Morgan’s theory, in my view, is correct: When the WellReds hit the road together in 2016, the broader world still saw “Southern comedy” in the Foxworthy/Blue-Collar Comedy framework. The WellReds represent the younger generation, kids who grew up on Outkast and the Drive-By Truckers instead of Lynyrd Skynyrd. Instead of playing into Southern stereotypes, they challenge them. Foxworthy said you might be a redneck “if you ever cut your grass and found a car.” His rednecks were simple, slovenly curiosities, their prejudices hidden.
But the Crowder video that first went viral brought the redneck ugliness out into the open, going to a place where the Blue Collar Comedy guys would never tread:
“I been seein’ all these Facebook posts about transgender bathrooms, and ever’ one of ’em comes down to the same shit: ‘Well, hell! What’s to stop some pervert from wrapping a skirt around his wiener and goin’ in the ladies’ room with my baby girl? I ain’t havin’ that! We gotta watch out for the kids, the kids, the kids!’ Meanwhile, these are the same motherfuckers that put Mountain Dew in sippy cups and beat a 6-year-old with a wire hanger for standin’ in front of the TV during ‘Dr. Oz.’ I mean, y’all are so full of shit.”
Forrester sums up the WellRed boys’ generation of Southerners perfectly: “Turns out we’re more complicated than we’ve been given credit for.”
Fame has come at Crowder, Forrester, and Morgan very fast.
Within days of posting the Facebook video that made him “internet famous,” Crowder was asked to appear on “The Last Word With Lawrence O’Donnell” on MSNBC. Soon after came appearances on ABC’s “Nightline” and on CNN. Bill Maher asked Crowder to appear on the first episode of HBO’s “Real Time” after the November presidential election.
By March, Whoopi Goldberg had become a fan and invited all three to chat it up with Joy Behar on ABC’s “The View.” A month later, Goldberg turned up at one of WellReds’ sold-out shows in Brooklyn, New York, and did a dressing-room chat with the boys on Facebook Live. Goldberg ended the broadcast encouraging viewers to attend the WellReds’ upcoming shows.
“You will come out of there so glad,” she said, “because it’s, like, you’ll have another way to think about shit.”
Earlier this year, Crowder moved with his wife, Katie, and sons, Bishop and Benton, to Los Angeles so he could spend his days between tour stops working on the television plans brewing as part of his development deal with Warner Bros. Over the July 4 holiday, Crowder and his family went back to his hometown of Celina. I called him in L.A. a couple of days after they returned to see how it went.
“There was part of me that was kind of dreading it. I haven’t really gone back and spent time there since all this shit,” Crowder told me. “The joke I always use is ‘There’s a lot of people there praying for me.’ But I didn’t get any shit at all.”
Out with friends and family, floating on the waters of Dale Hollow Lake, he found something far more complex and puzzling to him than he expected.
“We had a redneck yacht club going on out there, people with their boats tied together,” Crowder told me. “One of my good buddies, who’s very conservative but who has always been cool to me about this whole thing, and his wife, who is also very conservative and very, very religious, were there with their kids. I had decided, ‘I’m not bringing up none of my shit. I’m not bringing up politics, I’m not bringing up Jesus, I’m not bringing up anything this whole trip. If they ask questions, I’ll answer them. But I ain’t gonna be the one that starts it.’
“But she was the one bringing it up to me,” he continued. “She asked me, did I think people in other parts of the world judge us down here? And I said, ‘Yes, absolutely. That’s definitely a thing.’ And then she just starts talking about how people just don’t understand what it’s like for somebody like her. She says, ‘I went to church all my life. I go to church because I have to. In my family, you just go; you don’t have a choice. I didn’t have a choice. People don’t understand what that’s like to be in a family like mine. It’s just what you are. You don’t think about it. You just do it.’”
“Yeah, I hear you,” Crowder replied. He grabbed a beer and let the moment pass, determined to leave the pot unstirred while he was home.
“But I got to thinking about it later,” he told me. “And I think she was kind of commiserating with me a little bit or something, because she knew that I’d be all right with what she was about to say. Like, she ain’t gonna say that to all the people who go to church with her. She ain’t gonna say it to them, but she knew she could say it to me. It was like this hidden narrative.”
Young people in the rural South who decide to stay where they were raised adapt to the norms of their friends and family. That’s natural. But for many of them, deep questions remain underneath the veneer. They may never speak them aloud, but they are there. Crowder, Forrester, and Morgan’s comedy creates a place where those questions can come out into the open, even in small moments.
Clearly, bigger fame awaits the boys. But even if the TV shows and all the other opportunities were to disappear tomorrow, they could take great pride in the fact that they’ve chiseled a few cracks in the hard shell of rural, Southern life. I hope the boys remember what Leonard Cohen told us: The cracks are important.
They’re how the light gets in.