The closest Diplo ever got to country music stardom before 2020 was likely while driving by Billy Ray Cyrus’ then Gallatin, Tennessee-area home while delivering Chinese food as a teenager while living in Henderson, in Nashville’s suburbs.
Fast forward to 2022, and the three-time Grammy Award-winning and Billboard chart-topping producer’s “Late Night in Palomino” event is closing out the 12th edition of the world’s largest country music festival, for 80,000-plus attendees, on Sunday night.
The notable creator’s sonic evolution from Brazilian baile funk fanatic to producing M.I.A.’s unlikely 2008 pop-crossover moment “Paper Planes,” becoming an “Original Don” of running both trap music and the mega-festival circuit to an artist with a yeehaw agenda is yielding many raised eyebrows on stage as it is on the pop charts.
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However, his authenticity in approaching the genre is unquestionable.
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“I always thought I would be anything but a country music DJ and producer,” says Diplo. However, in the past half-decade, his ears — like those of many others — have been piqued by songwriter-driven folk and alt-country artists like Charley Crockett.
“[Charley’s] relatable to me. He’s my age, comes from a background like mine, and eventually mitigated himself into a country lifestyle.”
Diplo’s 2019 set at Stagecoach Festival received a more peculiar response than his closing set alongside Skrillex in tandem Jack Ü in 2015. He has numerous thoughts regarding how he approached his first country DJ set (and what he’s thinking about insofar as how he plans to play on May 2).
“I wasn’t sure of what to do. So, I had the country records familiar to me that I know people like (highlighting how his sister met her husband line dancing in Nashville), plus [house music-friendly] DJ edits of classic country songs,” he says. However, once comfortably in the groove of his 60-minute set, one notion emerged strongest in his mind.
“These are kids who just want to party at the end of a festival. Younger people — regardless of genre — are always just wanting to feel excited.”
Had COVID-19 not struck the world in 2020, Diplo’s May 2020-released country-themed dance-pop album “Diplo Presents Thomas Wesley, Chapter 1: Snake Oil” — alongside a DJ set at a canceled Stagecoach Festival — could’ve sparked unprecedented EDM-to-pop-to-country superstardom much sooner.
The album features artists seemingly much more comfortable in bridging pop and country, including Blanco Brown (“Do Si Do”), Lil Nas X and Billy Ray Cyrus (a double-diamond success propelling remix of “Old Town Road”), plus names including the Jonas Brothers and rap star Young Thug.
However, the album’s two largest hits were two songs favored by streaming radio and DSPs as COVID wore long into the year — the Morgan Wallen collaboration “Heartless,” as well as Thomas Rhett’s unlikely pairing with Young Thug for “Dance With Me.”
“So many people worked with me in country music because they had nothing to lose. Also, so many people in Nashville, because it’s so guarded against ‘outsiders’ like me — and I won’t mention any names — won’t work with me because they won’t sing over electronic music.”
Continuing, he offers a reflection on his collaborator Wallen’s evident comfort with country and soulful trap’s ballad-driven interweaving (between 2020’s “Heartless” and 2022’s Lil Durk collaboration “Broadway Girls,” he’s shown surprising ease in navigating the stylistic cross-section).
“Guys like Morgan grew up driving pickup trucks and listening to hip-hop. To some, a redneck singing on a beat that could also be for [hip-hop superstar] Future sounds forced. But Morgan listens to Moneybagg Yo while playing 18 rounds of golf. He’s different.”
When asked who are artists he wishes he could work with — alive or dead — in the future, his list offers a sense of just how broad his influence in the genre could reach:
Outlaw icon Waylon Jennings, current country chart-topper Luke Combs and rockabilly pioneer Wanda Jackson.
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To some, a house music producer feeling comfortable in country music is bizarre. However, tight, four-on-the-floor drum rhythms have existed twice as long via country music’s western swing and honky-tonk iterations than they have in modern dance music. Diplo names Johnny Cash’s 1996-released version of Australian country singer Geoff Mack’s 1959 “I’ve Been Everywhere,” Dolly Parton’s 1974 smash “Jolene” (“it could easily be a disco record”) and “9 to 5” (“it’s one of the biggest dance anthems of all time…it’s so slick”) as places where country’s ability to translate to modern dancefloors is apparent.
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Past his album — and yes, he has a second Thomas Wesley project forthcoming, for which he quickly namedrops collaborators including Texan Koe Wetzel (“if he sang in any other era, he’d have been the lead singer of Soundgarden”), alt favorite Orville Peck and bro-country leaning HARDY — the depth and scope of Diplo’s desires to involve himself as an interloping agent of alternative-driven change are apparent.
The 43-year-old artist/producer initially counts 90s-era country music video countdown shows as his favorite part of country music.
“Country music is still such an alternative, outlaw thing,” Diplo continues regarding how pop music industry executives and fellow artists view his long-term country aspirations.
He believes this will change.
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“In the past five years, 17-year-old girls scrolling Tik Tok for cool, unique sounds have become responsible for pushing the future of pop music,” says Diplo on how country and pop music will intersect in the future. “So, when I head to Nashville, I want the ‘weird’ songs that songwriters can’t place. I’m learning how to make those [songs great]. I’m going to stand on the outside [of country music] and make viral country hit records.”
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Circling back to closing the Stagecoach Festival, he offers a statement that summarizes his core country music desires.
“It will be like a rave, but crazier — after a rowdy day of drinking beers in the sun, I’m bringing the afterparty.”