When I set out to see Mason Ramsey, the 12-year-old Walmart yodeling sensation and featured artist on “Old Town Road,” I had no idea what to expect.
I had so many questions. What would the performance look like? Who would open for him? What songs would he sing? Would it just be a two-hour loop of his “Old Town Road” verse? Wouldn’t this show be keeping him up past his bedtime?
What I found myself wondering most, however, was who would be there? What sort of person chooses to spend $15 and a Friday night at Newport Music Hall listening to drawling prepubescent power ballads?
As it turns out, just about anyone. Despite the venue being only about half full, the attendees ranged in age from toddlers to retirees.
I set out asking people why they were there, and their responses were just as diverse. Small children remarked that they loved “Old Town Road.” High schoolers were there “for the meme.” One asked me to be in a TikTok with her. College students were, like me, morbidly curious as to what exactly was going to happen. One young professional, decked out in an only semi-ironic sleeveless flannel and cowboy hat, insisted that Ramsey was going to be the “next big thing” in country music. A parent gave me an exhausted, blank stare as they hoisted their toddler onto their shoulders. An elderly couple looked legitimately and deeply offended that I would ask them something as insulting as why they were paying to see a tween yodel.
The energy in the room was jarring. The small children, arguably most genuinely excited, were falling asleep on the floor by the time the show kicked off. The college-aged audience, definitely the least invested, were mockingly hooting, hollering, chattering and screaming for Ramsey to come out on stage.
When the lights finally went down, some of the most thunderous and deafening applause I have ever heard erupted from the crowd. The eardrum-shattering volume of the attendees was a recurring staple of the evening.
That applause died almost immediately when everyone realized an opener was coming out. Jenna Paulette, a small-time country singer from Texas trying desperately to seem like an arena-filling powerhouse. That night, I found just one person who had previously heard of her.
That didn’t stop her from trying very, very hard. A single guitarist strummed on stage while a pre-recorded backing track of drums and strings finished the calcified exterior of what was a hollow shell of a country performance. Paulette crouched at the front of the stage and reached out to the crowd who had absolutely no idea who she was. She sweetly crooned in a calculated and lifeless impression of Kacey Musgraves. Every song sounded like a cover of “The Climb.” A canned clap track kept time. Nobody in the audience clapped along.
My worst fears for this concert had been realized. Frat boys jeered explicit comments while smug high schoolers mockingly wailed with faux enthusiasm. Most people loudly conversed over the music like it was just a particularly noisy house party. Children were confused by the factory-produced pair of doe eyes standing between them and Ramsey. A couple was continuously grinding in front of a family of five. It was the most cynical and dark concert experience I have ever encountered, made entirely surreal by the Splenda-sweet demeanor of Paulette. At the very least, the set was blissfully short. Within half an hour, she waltzed off stage, seeming very pleased with her performance.
When Ramsey finally took the stage, yet another cheer erupted, with a rocket-launch-esque decibel rating. He bounded out after his backing band in his trademark boots, leather jacket, and 10-gallon hat, all comically oversized. His piercingly high yet perfectly pitched voice rang out over the speakers as he yodeled and warbled his way through originals and country classics alike. Say what you will about the ironic meme-worthy origins of his explosive fame — the kid has got some serious pipes.
Even the audience seemed to acknowledge this. The children finally perked up from their cranky fits, the attendees sang along to some of his more popular originals (they clearly did more homework than I did), and everyone swayed in time to the classic country tunes that are admittedly sorely lacking in the mainstream music scene. Never did I think teens would become wise to the artistry of Johnny Cash by way of a middle-school internet sensation.
After a quick water break and some adorable knock-knock jokes, Ramsey and company played the song that made him famous: Hank Williams’ “Lovesick Blues,” to the delight of everyone. It was around this point that I finally saw some of the morbid cynicism of the evening fade as people actually got into the music.
Ramsey is undeniably charming and aware of his position in the popular consciousness, and he plays into it masterfully. This was further driven home when he finally busted out the long-awaited highlight of the night: “Old Town Road.” The crowd almost drowned Ramsey out as he sang an altered version of the record-breaking hip-hop smash hit. He performed a Fortnite dance, and the audience went absolutely nuts. This was what I came here to see. It would have been perfect if that couple wasn’t still grinding next to me.
As if the crowd wasn’t raucous enough, Ramsey signed shirts toward the end of his set and tossed them to the crowd. I couldn’t bring myself to buy one of the $30 garments at the merch table, no matter how funny it would be to own, so this was my chance. After kindly making sure the children on the sidelines got some, Ramsey tossed one out to the young adults at center stage, who fought like rabid wolves over the prize. Getting into a physical altercation over a shirt seemed like a steeper price than $30, and I thought better of it.
Then, it somehow got weirder. Before his final song, “Twang,” Ramsey asked that the audience members bow their heads. Before I knew it, he was leading us all in a prayer, thanking God for such a wonderful evening. And people actually prayed. It was at this point that I lost all touch with reality and crossed over into the astral plane on an out-of-body experience. It was a lot to handle. As soon as the show ended, an Alvin and the Chipmunks rendition of “Bad Day” by Daniel Powter played over the loudspeakers, which seemed fitting.
At the end of the day, there was an undeniable mood of irony to even the most sincere moments of the event. Ramsey is a meme, and the concert represented a chance for people to participate in it. His performance was the set up, and their enthusiasm was the punchline. The inherent self-awareness in a culture laid bare on social media has led to the trendiness of self-deprecation, with layer after layer of irony beginning to collapse in on themselves under their own weight like a dying star. I felt like I was witnessing the event horizon. Leaving the venue, I saw people my age dancing and drinking at popular campus bar Midway on High, and felt like I now lived on another planet.
I am trying to think if I would recommend this concert, or if I even enjoyed it, but that feels like the wrong question to ask.
I don’t know. I just don’t know.