Depending on the way a person first encounters Willie Jones—whether through promotional photos on a music website, from the reel of an organized photo shoot, or solely aurally, through Jones’ debut LP, Right Now, his artistic presentation and subsequent first impression may vary. But it’s worth noting that kind of flexibility is par for the course for Jones, who often lives with a go-with-the-flow mentality.
“Coming up, I was into a lot of different things as far as music [is concerned]. Kanye [West] in his whole era, was one of my favorite vibes in music. And yeah, coming up I was always a standout guy. You know what I’m saying? In the whole city of Shreveport, [Louisiana] I really get down out here.” says Jones.
Many parts sonically modern country—from the compressed and tone polished twang of the banjo in “Trainwreck,” to the openly ringing strums of a pure acoustic guitar on “Whole Lotta Love”—Jones also embraces thematically familiar territory through party anthems and emotive ballads with classic drum machine backing beats that have become a staple to hits of top 40 country artists. Still, Jones knows how to stand out in equal measure through additional means, thanks to his embrace of fashionable variation that goes outside the staples of country aesthetics of cowboy hats, boots, and flannel.
“Oh, [my look] really depends on the day,” Jones says. “I mean, like Lil’ Wayne said when it comes to styles—I got several. But, yeah really, I’m a jeans and sneakers kind of guy, you know with a nice little t-shirt and a hat. You can have so many different styles and those things.”
Though the decision to keep a solid arm’s length apart from the default of leather and spurred cowboy seems like a mildly shocking one given Jones’ genre of choice, the open potential surrounding what Jones could say, look like, and sound like, reveals itself as an already well treaded path when recalling that the Louisiana songwriter first found a place in the public’s consciousness thanks to the limitless creative potpourri that is The X Factor.
“I mean, at the time, it was 2012 and I was like 17. Music was always the goal for me, and writing, and you know, being an artist, was always the goal. But I think [X Factor] definitely opened a lot of doors for me after the fact, even though it’s been all these years, it’s opened a lot of doors and I learned a lot coming out of the show,” Jones says.
While no one would deny the ultimately positive part the show has played in Jones’ career arriving at the place it is today, many routes certainly existed to start carving a path in music and one wonders if that would have remained Jones’ choice of action if public discourse around topics like genre fluidity, Black lives, country music, and the intersection of the latter two were as lively and prioritized as they are now, back then.
“I think I definitely would have kept the same energy. I always wanted to be that representation. I made up my mind and was like, ‘I’m going to do country, and it’s going to be my style of country,” Jones says.
“I still didn’t see any artists like myself in the game (of) country,” Jones continues. “And then also, (I would’ve done it) just for other people in general who wanted to get into the genre because I mean the genre’s dope. And I think just, yeah, over time just, it’s opening up, you know? (We’re) gettin’ different artists, different shades, different sizes, you know, different races. And, I mean, in music, (and) I think life in general, I think we are just growing as a world (and) as a nation, so it’s cool to see that we can actually see (that) in music.”
That said, what’s past is past and for Jones and the matter of the moment is his new LP, fittingly titled, Right Now. The 11 track release from Penthouse / Sony bears unexpected twists and turns that cut directly through the kind of listening experience that often runs on a cruise control level of attention and contemplation. The clear frontrunner in this regard is Jones’ latest single, “American Dream” – a pre-recorded performance of which was tapped earlier this week to commemorate the grand opening of the National Museum of African American Music in Nashville, Tennessee.
Meanwhile, on the other side of Right Now’s same coin, are songs like “Bachelorettes on Broadway,” “Back Porch,” and the LP’s title track, which tend to give rise to a recurring guest role for alcohol. It’s often placed in the mix of what drives these and other songs’ narratives forward, which begs curiosity around where Jones feels the substance fits in the hierarchy of his creative repertoire.
“A lot of the songs that I did write (for Right Now), were just stories about, you know, what I was (thinking) at that time when I recorded those songs.” Jones says. “I mean, (fun) was what I was (about) when I was in (Los Angeles) man. I was just partying, you know I’m saying? Music is just, it’s (about) feeling good in life sometimes.”
Forging ahead with the understanding that some songs are externally driven, while others are much more about the internal emotional satisfaction of the artist, the ceiling of this contrast can’t be more pronounced than with looking at a song about wanting chemical intervention for connection, and then back over to the harsh realities of modern day social disparity through a song like “American Dream,” Right Now’s boldest track.
A song based unquestionably in the reality of U.S. life in the present – specifically lives of young Black men – Jones draws listener attention squarely to a place of unfiltered perspective that instantaneously grounds him amid the more recreational fare of surrounding track list. It’s noteworthy how Jones is able to apply such catchy choruses and smooth slogan of a refrain to make his points about the gap in the daily, lived experiences of Black and white folks in the country, all without clouding the song’s raw honesty (Young man Young man / better watch how you step when you step off the front porch / Young man, young man, if you don’t know your rules then you don’t know what you stand for).
“It really just flowed out of me,” Jones explains. “When the guitar chord just started being strong, I’d literally free styled out the first couple lines, ‘Young man, young man, got the heart of a lion, got the drive of a wild horse’,”
That said, what’s most interesting, is thinking about where a song so understandably unfiltered in its stance on many topics of social justice and race, would fit in the mainstream country music space. It’s no secret a good portion of the artist and fan base is conservative in its socio-political views. Thus, one has to wonder how Jones navigates the possible cognitive dissonance that can arise from trying to promote “American Dream” within a space that holds an audience with perceptions of daily life that potentially diverge in a big way from Jones’ own.
“I’m excited about (releasing the song) because I mean, that was my theme in going into write this one. I’ve always wondered, and I’ve always heard, those patriotic country anthems, you know, in country music. (They’re) about America, and about how great America is, and how much (people) love America and being American. And I’m like, ‘Cool. Let’s see what that sounds like coming from a 26 year old Black man in 2020.’,” Jones explains.
“Like, bro, I was born and raised in this country, you feel me? Like, my people built this country, you feel me? Like, this is what it is,” he continues. “So, how do we express that in a country (music) way, you know? And so, yeah, we just built the song and I really, really love it.”
If anything, it’s admirable seeing that Jones is fully aware of the room his new album is in and will be playing to, but chooses to push ahead anyway with an optimistic and hopeful mindset at the forefront of his decision. While the thought of taking on an uphill battle in any aspect of life sounds unpleasant from a distance, for Jones, it’s well worth putting in the extra work to ideally get new folks to consider the tough topics so that those important stories can share the space with the lighter and more fun side of country music too.
“You know in a lot of life I will say (Black people) don’t rock (with) country but, they do their have a favorite, you know what I’m sayin,’ little jam here and there. But also (it’s) because there hasn’t been many people that they can really relate to in the genre,” explains Jones.
“(But) I’m just happy to be doing me honestly, I mean, ’cause I think being in a position (of influence), I really can’t, give two, excuse my language, f–ks, about, you know, what people really think. Like, I can’t. So, honestly, I’m just making music that I love and hopefully it inspires people to just think the same and just rock with their gifts and just walk in love.”