Making Country Cool: Meet Willie Jones

You might remember Willie Jones from X Factor back in 2012. He was the young Black guy who surprised everyone, especially judges L.A. Reid and fellow Louisianan Britney Spears, when he broke into Josh Turner’s very country song “Your Man.” To all watching Jones, it was clear that his musical choice was no gimmick. Despite what someone described as his Fresh Prince of Bel-Air look and attire, Jones’s voice was indeed all country.

For almost as long as the Shreveport, Louisiana native can remember, country has been his thing. A lot of folks may regard Ray Charles as a Rhythm & Blues trailblazer, but Jones relates to him as a country artist. “I was listening to Ray when I was like in 5th grade,” says Jones who soon will turn 24.

But as much as he admires Ray Charles, Charley Pride and Darius Rucker, all Black singers who have left their mark on country music, Jones is carving out his own path with a little divine assistance. While Jones never doubted he would be a singer, he thought it would happen more slowly and had decided to pursue musical theater in college. When a friend called him early one Saturday morning to get to the mall in Shreveport for X Factor auditions, Jones, who was recovering from a late night, kept sleeping. It wasn’t until the friend connected with Jones’s mother that Jones finally made it to the mall. And it was just in a nick of time. They were only taking the first 100 people and Jones snuck in at 93. On top of that, only one boy and one girl could move forward. Needless to say, Jones made the cut and it changed his life. And it didn’t stop when his X Factor run ended either.

For some reason Jones has found a home in L.A. Because the city kept pulling him back for one thing or another, he nixed his plans to head to Nashville and settled in the other L.A. And that is turning out extremely well. “I think it’s better for now that I’m in L.A. because I am so different,” he explains. “I feel like L.A. is way more accepting of what I have to offer than Nashville would be at the start. I feel like Nashville would have to warm up to me.”

As Jones works to complete a full album, he is already finding success with his EP, Road Waves. “Windows Down” and “Runs In Our Blood” have particularly resonated. While both are definitely country, they come with an edge. And Hip-Hop is that edge. While Jones keeps it country, avoiding any rap verses in the official releases of these songs, there is an undeniable Hip-Hop aesthetic in both. It’s also evident in the videos for both songs. “They use hi-hats and 808s in country now,” Jones explains. “I think [now] everything’s got a Hip-Hop influence.”

Still there are more traditional influences on his EP. “Lead Me Back Home,” about his mom, is one of them. “I think it resonates with people and they feel what I feel when I’m singing it,” he says.

It’s that range of emotions and sense of family that attracted him to country in the first place. Reflecting on “There Goes My Life,” an early Kenny Chesney tune in which a 16-year-old teenager goes from feeling as if his life and dreams are cut short because he is a soon to be father to seeing later how rich and full his life is because he becomes one, Jones says the storytelling was a major draw. “I was into country music more because of the stories they told,” he explains. “I feel like in country you can hear a song about somebody having a kid.”

Jones, who gets his singing from his father, feels fortunate to have the kind of family he does. They back him unconditionally, he beams. “My parents are really supportive of whatever I do. Literally if I wanted to stop doing this and be a trash man and I was like ‘yeah I want to be a trash man and I am happy about it,’ my parents would be like ‘cool,’ he promises. “My sisters would be like ‘we want you to do music but, whatever makes you happy, do that.’” Lucky for us all, Jones is exactly where he wants to be.