Some performers have breakthrough moments. For Trae Crowder, he refers to it as “until all this …”
That is how he occasionally refers to the point when he went from a relatively unknown stand-up comedian to an Internet sensation known as the Liberal Redneck, whose DIY viral video rants on political issues ranging from Donald Trump to transgender bathrooms have garnered tens of millions of hits on social media and YouTube. He is now taking his brand of comedy to stages across the country as the current headliner of his wellRED Comedy Tour, which comes to The Burl, a new venue in the Distillery District, Thursday.
The character Crowder is best known for is not too far off from the person behind it. He grew up “with nothing in the middle of nowhere” in the small town of Selina, Tenn., near the Kentucky line. Between living in poverty and having a beloved uncle who came out as gay when he was growing up, he found himself adopting more liberal positions.
“To me, I always feel like it should be the default position of the poor to be left-leaning,” he said.
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His political identity soon started to mesh with his love of comedy. He remembers being a huge fan of Chris Rock’s stand-up special Bigger and Blacker when he was a teenager, and he was always coming up with comedy bits in his head all the way through college, as he earned both a bachelor’s degree in psychology and his MBA from Tennessee Tech University. He later landed a government job working for the U.S. Department of Energy in Knoxville, and he finally decided to try out some of his comedy on stage on the weekends, performing at open-mic nights in Knoxville and Chattanooga.
This was how he met his current left-leaning tour mates, Corey Ryan Forrester and Drew Morgan, and Crowder eventually became a touring comic himself, playing clubs, independently organized shows and comedy festivals across the Southeast.
He said his comedy early on was a lot louder and cruder, but with a few elements involving politics.
“There was always stuff about my background and my hometown,” he said. “(It’s) more societal observations, but from my perspective — the Southern perspective.”
Crowder eventually thought about ways to get his material out to more people. He had plans to have a YouTube series with a big production value, but that changed when he saw a self-made video on the Internet of a youth pastor — in the woods atop his pickup truck — ranting about the issue of the day from a more conservative angle.
“I was watching that and it hit me: If this guy and this thing right here is what I’m trying to satirize, I can do mine exactly the way he did,” Crowder said.
Crowder uploaded his first video as the Liberal Redneck in a similar aesthetic, which he said is both his liberal and redneck sides “cranked up to 11.” The topic of that video was his views about his home state’s debate on making the Bible Tennessee’s state book. (Be advised: This and all subsequent links are to videos that contain explicit langauge.) Premiering this past spring, it received 70,000 views on Facebook. Crowder was excited about the response and, donning a camouflage ball cap and no shirt, he uploaded a video about the then-hot-button issue of transgender bathroom laws. That one was viewed on Facebook more than 25 million times.
It can be hard to pin down what makes certain online videos so popular, but Crowder said he has a good idea why the video and his persona became a hit when it did.
“It was that the subject was what everybody was talking about at that specific time and what I said about it, the actual words, resonated with people,” he said. “But I think they resonated a whole lot more because of the source of them. When it goes the completely opposite way of what they are expecting, and it’s funny, ... I think it struck a chord with people.”
Crowder’s comedy career hasn’t been the same since his second video went viral. He has uploaded subsequent videos since then and has collaborated with the New York Daily News for a video series highlighting his comic take on political issues. His popularity and his social media following allowed him and his tour mates/friends to develop the wellRED Comedy Tour, an idea they’ve had since they were simply hitting the stages in Tennessee.
The tour’s May kickoff show in Atlanta was attended and praised by legendary comedian George Wallace, who Crowder said stepped on stage to do an impromptu set. Other stops have resulted in sold-out shows or the need to add performances to accommodate demand.
Crowder said he would ideally like to get his comic viewpoint out there in projects that aren’t limited to club stages and computer screens, but this tour is helping to show that so-called “redneck” comedy can also have a blue shade to it.
“My material has always been that: trying to show a different angle from an explicitly Southern comic like me,” he said. “I would say that is one of the central themes or points of the tour itself and our ‘brand,’ or whatever it is you want to call it. It’s showing people another side of the South.”