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Willie Jones credit Jabari Jacobs 0399 R

On the Rise
Willie Jones

15 March 2022, 09:00
Words by Jen Long
Original Photography by Jabari Jacobs

From challenging prejudices to getting the bag, Willie Jones is the self-proclaimed godfather of the New Wave of Black Country music.

“Black folks sing country where I’m from. Not a lot, but we do exist,” says Willie Jones from his Nashville home. It’s the morning after the superbowl and he’s groggy, laughing at his hangover and sipping from a can of coffee. “It’s like, Charley Pride, Linda Martell, we honour all of them, but as for the new wave, I’m the godfather of this new wave country. Ten years in the game, you all need to respect me.”

In 2012 Jones auditioned for The X Factor. Just seventeen-years-old at the time, stepping out on stage in front of the judges and a packed studio audience he looked a little nervous, a little exhilarated. “I love your style, it’s very Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” said judge Demi Lovato, as he grinned back at her. And then he launched into his song, a charm-filled rendition of Josh Turner’s “Your Man”, his bassy vocals rolling over the backing track. Simon Cowell’s eyes widened, L.A. Reid turned in shock, the audience gave him a standing ovation. It was a moment of surprise, but one that also exposed a deep prejudice; no one expected him to sing a country song.

“It really was a moment that opened a lot of people’s eyes. Maybe it just woke them up, they were still asleep,” says Jones. “I was shocked by the love I was getting. I had a whole bunch of country songs in my head, and “Domino” by Jessie J. In my head it was something that I just do. To me it wasn’t that groundbreaking.”

Jones was born and raised in Shreveport, Louisiana. His father was a preacher, and growing up gospel music was all he was allowed to listen to. “I feel like that really helped shape my core values,” he says. “Love people, treat people the way you want to be treated. That really is the core of gospel music.”

From as young as four-years-old, he remembers his desire to become a singer. “I never had a plan B or a plan C. My plan was always, I'm gonna be a singer,” he smiles.

As he got older, he took an interest in musical theatre, becoming a “showtunes kid.” For Jones, it was the aspect of storytelling that drew him to the genre. “I was just really a fan of live performance, whether that be the VMAs or a church play or a show on Broadway, I just really enjoyed watching people get on stage and tell stories,” he explains. “And tell them well, because some people suck at it.”

The day after his community theatre group’s senior party, The X Factor were holding auditions at his local mall. His friend phoned him, encouraging him to go down and audition. Still wiped out from the night before, Jones fell back asleep three times, until said friend called his mum instead. Unsurprisingly, Jones made it on to the televised show, progressing through the bootcamp and judges houses stages, into the first week of the contest.

After his elimination, Jones went straight into the studio, working and writing with different producers, trying to find his sound. “I knew what I wanted it to be, I knew how I wanted it to feel. I knew what I wanted it to look like when I sang it, but I just had to find the right people,” he explains. “Finally, I started coming to Los Angeles and I met my guy Sean Cook.”

Together, they wrote the song “Feelin’ Like The Man”, an acoustic guitar-driven story that mixes pop production with a country vibe. “People would tell me, people weren’t ready for black cool pop country type shit, and then fast-forward two years, Lil Nas drops “Old Town Road” and I’m like damn. The world was ready,” he says. “But even when that dropped, people were freaking out. I’m like, he’s just doing what he’s doing. But what a time.”

For Jones, pigeon-holing is a pointless endeavour. As his sound flexes across genres, his storytelling prowess and unmistakable gravel baritone are constants. You know a Willie Jones song when you hear it. “I’m so thankful to have figured out what I want now. Yes it is RnB, yes it is pop, yes it is country, yes it is hip-hop, but at the end of the day, all of that is Willie Jones,” he says. “I’m really just excited for my future.”

Jones was ready to drop his debut full-length Right Now when the pandemic hit. Based in LA at the time, his release schedule kept being pushed further and further back, the record’s immediate title suddenly steeped in irony. “I know, right? Right Now? This was supposed to drop a year ago,” he laughs.

But even during that time of stasis, Jones continued to write. One of the tracks from that period, which became a late addition to the record, was “American Dream”. Jones says it was “a song that I always wanted to write; an American anthem, a patriotic song.” Written right after the death of George Floyd, still in the midst of Black Lives Matter protests and painful conversation, it’s a powerful message of hope. “We still have a lot of growing to do, and we’re always gonna have to grow. It ain’t gonna stop,” he says. “I’m just excited to have been a part of the uniting of black people, white people, and people just opening their mind up to things, and people just realising their prejudices too.”

Across the album, Jones slides from the frivolous to the impactful, from upbeat party anthems to honest sentiment rolled around a backbone of pulsing, slick production. Following the record’s release, Jones made his own switch, from his former label Empire to a bigger deal with Sony Music, dropping two new tracks last year. “I had to pick up the phone for that bag,” he smiles. “Hello? Is this the bag? I’m on my way.”

With new releases under his belt, Jones is also heading back out on the road. “I love performing in the UK, I feel like y’all listen better over there. Even going out there, I’ll be in the club and they’ll be playing some new Migos, then switch it to some new Adele, then play a Ciara deep cut from 2007 and then go over and play “Domino” by Jessie J,” he laughs. “It’s so much good music and appreciation for artists.” Jones will fit right in.

Willie Jones's latest tracks "Slow Cookin" and "Soul Food" are out now
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