Each week, its three hosts record inside a log cabin in the Appalachian Mountains of Eastern Kentucky. There is no intro, they just start talking.
“Dolly’s the No. 1 most unimpeachable hillbilly. You’re a close second,” Tom Sexton tells his co-host, Tanya Turner, on a recent episode, referring to Dolly Parton.
“It’s true,” the third co-host, Tarence Ray, agrees. They then riff on the inadequacy of the Democratic presidential candidates, the inner life of President Donald Trump and a local funeral service at which Turner and her girlfriend were informed “we were going to burn in hell for millions of years.”
The Trillbillies, as they call themselves, sit at the intersection of two trends: a podcast boom and a generational divide between older people who are more centrist and young leftists who ridicule them. It’s a dynamic most visible on Twitter, and a point of frustration for the Joe Biden campaign.
But Turner, Sexton, and Ray upend expectations about what those young leftists sound like and where they come from.
“We’re not as well-read as your average, like, Brooklyn socialists, I don’t think,” Ray says. (His cabin is stacked with books.) Fans tell them their podcast offers “a kind of really detailed accounting of people living in late capitalism,” he adds. “Really, we just wanted to describe what our lives are like here, but more than that, we have an analysis of the country, the way things are, that’s informed by our very specific struggles and experiences here … And I think that it benefits the left at large to hear that perspective.”
The podcast, which launched in early 2017, gets more than 100,000 downloads a month, largely from people in Brooklyn, Chicago and San Diego. The Trillbillies think those listeners might be people born in places like Eastern Kentucky, but who moved elsewhere to find jobs. They make about $9,000 a month in donations on Patreon, a site that allows people to donate, like a subscription.
“We’re not rich podcasters yet,” Ray says.
In practice, their podcasts are full of stories about their lives told through a political lens, punctuated by Turner’s wild laugher. In October, their guest was Matt Jones, a Kentucky sports radio host who at the time was flirting with a run against Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. Jones pitched himself as someone able to speak the language of working class people
“You beat Mitch McConnell, it changes the United States of America. It just does,” Jones said. “And in my heart of hearts, I believe I’m the person who could do it.”
After the 2016 election, places like Letcher County, Kentucky, were ground zero for the angry white working class voter that, in the conventional wisdom, elected Trump.
“At that time, I feel like a lot of journalists were writing stories where they lived, in big cities, and calling down here to plug in a name,” Turner says. “If it were one or two, it would have been funny. But it became increasingly sad and offensive. And of course, we’re not new to piss-poor narratives about Appalachia … but it was a pretty big onload for us to deal with.”
Trump won 62.5% of the vote here in 2016. But, Turner notes, her neighbors were not the ones making big donations to his campaign: “His wealth and power is coming from other places.”
The three aren’t shy about their criticisms of the left, though. They say the Democratic Party, both nationally and locally, has made too many moral compromises. And that those compromises haven’t brought them much in return.
“The Kentucky Democratic Party should win awards in losing. Olympic level losers. Absolute gold medal losers,” Turner said in a November episode.
The hosts also have contempt for most of the 2020 presidential candidates. Biden is “a cardboard cutout,” Tuner says, one that, Sexton adds, “is falling apart before our very eyes.” Former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro is “very far down on the list of good Castros,” Ray says. Billionaire Tom Steyer, Ray says, is “part of a rising class of billionaires … who understand that pitchforks are coming. … I think he’s probably trying to get out in front of it.” Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren? “She’s a true believer in capitalism,” Ray says. Sexton cuts in: “By her own admission!”
Still, they show real affection for Vermont’s senator, Sanders. And they say that this, too, is based on their own experiences.
“We are in the unhealthiest congressional district in the country,” Turner says. “There’s no one here that doesn’t support health care for all people. You would have to be a criminal — an absolute billionaire class sociopath — to not want the sick and dying people around you in this community and in your family to not have access to quality health care. And very few people here do.”