The US EDM superstar Diplo (aka Thomas Wesley Pentz) is a canny operator, but he also has an indefatigable spirit. In April of last year, with Lil Nas X’s ‘Old Town Road’ ubiquitous, the DJ/producer/walking meme dropped a foot-tappin’ country-pop single, ‘So Long’ (featuring Cam), under his real name, Thomas Wesley. Pentz promised more to follow. He donned a cowboy hat, styling himself as everybody’s fave outlaw (or bro). Diplo DJed after hours at California’s Stagecoach Festival, Coachella’s ‘sister’ event, with Lil Nas X and Billy Ray Cyrus joining him for a live rendition of ‘Old Town Road’. He subsequently issued his own remix of the country-trap banger.
Originally tipped to arrive before Christmas, Diplo’s ‘country music’ album, Chapter 1: Snake Oil, might seem opportunistic. But, Diplo being Diplo, he’s actually interested in country’s potential for disruption, and celebratory kitsch aesthetics, rather than reproduction. In addition to Nashville figures like Cam, the ever-communal Diplo has solicited vocalists as idiosyncratic as the Jonas Brothers, Noah Cyrus and Young Thug. Yeehaw!
With the COVID-19 pandemic closing down the tour circuit, Diplo has emerged as the King of Quaran-streaming. He’s programmed a packed schedule of sets from his Hollywood Hills crib – the most unexpected the Corona Sabbath sessions alongside Rhye. “I was like, ‘I don’t want to be at home just reading the news all day because that’s probably not good for my mental health,'” he told The New York Times. The DJ has plugged Snake Oil’s “boot-scootin’ boogie” by way of The Thomas Wesley Show, swaggering akin to Kenny Rogers’ fabled gambler. Somehow, Diplo’s home party broadcasts afford an intimacy missing from September’s Listen Out appearances.
I wanna play boot scootin' boogie in every single one of my sets pic.twitter.com/zGZos8Iot9
— diplo (@diplo) May 22, 2020
A Southern boy, born in Mississippi and bred in Florida, Diplo has country roots – but his outlook has always been global. This curator has latched onto trends – although he’s started them, too. In 2004 he released his debut solo album, Florida, on Ninja Tune’s Big Dada subsidiary – traversing trip-hop, post-DJ Shadow. (Tricky’s ally Martina Topley-Bird cameoed.) Then largely unknown, Diplo supported MIA’s ascent. In the meantime, he instituted his Mad Decent label, championing regional genres such as Brazil’s baile funk. Diplo developed myriad projects, beginning with the dancehall outfit Major Lazer. Plus, of course, he became a top producer. He is credited on Beyoncé’s LEMONADE. Importantly, he broke barriers. Diplo rejected purism, working early with teen idol Justin Bieber.
Diplo isn’t the first DJ, let alone electronic dance act, to fiddle with country. The Brit Jeremy Healy enjoyed a cowpunk hit, ‘John Wayne Is Big Leggy’, with the ’80s New Wave combo Haysi Fantayzee prior to his rebrand as a super-DJ. Alas, three decades later, when Avicii showcased fresh country-EDM songs like ‘Wake Me Up’ at Miami’s Ultra Music Festival, it was controversial – fans venting online. The Swede was belatedly hailed an innovator on his passing. Fortunately, Diplo won’t experience a backlash. After all, country-fusion is hip. Coincidentally, Zac Brown, who performed Avicii’s ‘Broken Arrows’, resurfaces on Snake Oil.
Traditionally, country music trades on authenticity. While Diplo has sagely used his personal monicker for Snake Oil, he’s inherently a postmodernist. Possibly, he’s EDM’s equivalent of David Bowie, Prince and Madonna, their careers defined by dramatic phases. Yet the restless Diplo reinventions are increasingly concurrent. Even now, he’s airing Major Lazer material – the single ‘Lay Your Head On Me’ with UK folkie Marcus Mumford country-esque. However, Snake Oil conveys sincerity.
Diplo relies on feature artists to serve as his alter egos, expressing country emotion. Snake Oil provides scant clues about his inner-life (he recently welcomed “an entire ass baby” with model Jevon King). Conceivably, his country pivot wasn’t supposed to be deep. But, similarly to Dua Lipa’s coronavirus-era Future Nostalgia, Snake Oil has assumed a wistfulness and hope for both resilience and a return to carefree days. Notably, Diplo’s choice of guests is inclusive. Snake Oil‘s camp ‘Intro’ is semi-spoken by Canada’s Orville Peck – the mythic, masked gay country crooner who toured Australia over summer. Inevitably, Diplo subverts tropes.
Snake Oil has already spawned hits besides ‘So Long’. The hummable ‘Heartless’, sung by the Florida Georgia Line associate Morgan Wallen, recalls Chris Cornell’s underrated cross-exchanges with Timbaland. (The album likewise encompasses the alternative version, Wallen duetting with Julia Michaels.) The reunited Jonas Brothers boost their cred with the lilting ‘Lonely’.
There are surprises. Diplo partners Thomas Rhett and Young Thug, the pioneer of country-trap, on ‘Dance With Me’, which is less country than Major Lazer-mode pumpin’ reggae (comparatively more country-trap is ‘Real Life Stuff’ with Michaels and Alabama rapper Clever channelling his mentor Juice WRLD). Most revelatory? The rhinestone-studded country-soul ‘On Mine’ with Noah Cyrus, Miley’s slept-on younger sister. Imagine Mark Ronson collabing with a young Tammy Wynette.
For all Diplo’s enthusiastic country fashioning, only the hoedown ‘Do Si Do’ (with Atlanta’s Blanco Brown, harmonica and whistling) lapses into parody – or irony. It’s barn rave for the TikTok Gen. In fact, Snake Oil succeeds where Justin Timberlake’s Americana foray Man Of The Woods failed, Diplo delivering playful interpretation over pretence. Country hybrids are here for now.