Willie Jones is nearly a decade past being a teenage X Factor contestant in 2012, performing such tunes as Josh Turner’s “Your Man" Now, the 26-year old African-American Shreveport, Louisiana native -- who combines free styling and a hip-hip inflection with traditional country elements (with his baritone even drawing comparisons to Randy Travis) -- is leading the conversation as he moves country music toward the future.

“Country music has predominantly been a white-male-dominated musical sound where people sing with a twang. Ain’t nothing wrong with that,” he says. “I love drinking and tuning up to a lot of those classics. But it’s also cool to see people like myself who do not fit that expectation tell their stories, too. Music brings folks together.”

Today, Jones, who signed with Sony Music Nashville in partnership with The Penthouse in March, released “Down By The Riverside.” The swaggering country-trap track celebrates his Red River-bordering hometown with harmonicas, crunching electric lead guitars, and a cautionary underpinning of Jones’ rap warning that “there’s a real thin line between snakes and angels.” Jones’ angelic charisma slyly slithers to the forefront of the production when he also sings about eating Louisiana delicacies like crawfish and cornbread at the “ratchet zydeco rodeo.”

The song follows his January Empire Records 12-track album Right Now, which included the Black empowerment anthem “American Dream.”

"Grateful is an understatement on how we feel about our Empire family. They believed [so much] in Willie and our vision from day one that they started a division around him,” says Jones’ manager, The Penthouse’s Jonnie Forster, before addressing one of the reasons Jones made the shift to Sony: “The fact remains that country music is still so heavily dependent on the radio format. Amongst many other things, Sony was well prepared to deliver that final knock-out punch when decision time came."

Freshly settled into his new apartment in Nashville after years of traveling between Shreveport, Los Angeles and, as he calls, it, “Nashvegas,” Jones talked to Billboard about his relaxed and organic songwriting process, the controversial cover to Right Now, and what inspired lighter fare such as “Down By The River,” as well as the political breakout song, “American Dream.”

“Down by the Riverside” has a certain excitement to it that feels like an evolution of what we’ve heard from you since the start of the year. What inspired this sound progression?

Heck yeah! I was hyped up in the studio that day! I wanted to write something big, braggadocious and super hard that’s different from what I usually write. So “Down by the Riverside” started with me freestyling the [century-plus old, plantation-borne] children’s rhyme “Down by the riverside, hanky panky,” then I broke into some verses about growing up in Louisiana. Then I did a pass on crafting the melody over a beat, and chased the vibe that [emerged from that]. But other times, it’s the pen, paper, and a guitar. It depends on whatever my mood is.

The song that sounds the closest to it in feel is your Right Now’s “Bachelorettes on Broadway,” in the sense that it lyrically delivers as advertised. Was the process of crafting these songs similar in some fashion?

They’re similar but different. One of my friends and I were walking up Broadway [in Nashville] and saw a party busload of bachelorettes. He suggested I write a song about it. On the spot, I started singing “Bachelorettes on Broadway, dah..dah dah dah dah…,” you know, what became the hook. Then, we went to the studio with [Grammy-winning producer and songwriter] Dave Audé, and he had a beat that damned near matched the hook perfectly. From there, the lyrics -- even the rap verse -- were some of the fastest I wrote, because the vibe of what Broadway is like is so strong.

There’s a growing sense in country music that the traditional and neo-traditional roots are less important to the genre’s hit-making process than ever before. If so, what part do artists like yourself have to play in this evolution?

As a country artist, there’s less desire than ever to be held in by boxes that the country music industry and country music’s listeners have created for us. I believe that if a song sounds [great] to an artist, it will likely be great to everyone else. Growing up, I listened to, loved, and was inspired by everything from pop and show tunes to rap and rock. So, for me, pushing the envelope of what “country music” can be -- alongside so many different types of artists right now -- it all sounds so clean. I just love it.

When Right Now was released in January, the album cover caused a bit of a stir because it appeared you were urinating onto a firepit. What inspired that?

I was chilling, smoking, and hanging out with a photographer friend of mine in the backyard of my childhood home in Shreveport, writing music. He brought his lighting equipment, and I set a fire in the fire pit. Right Now was released during COVID, so I wanted the cover to be a real image, true to where I was at during that moment. Basically, I was trying to say that I’m “adding fuel to the [creative] fire,” so to speak.

I’m not a big fan of album covers where it’s just a picture of the artist. The lighting was cool, the vibe was dope, and I ended up making a lot of S’mores while we were shooting.

That’s all well and good, but you were urinating on the fire. That was... unexpected.

See, that’s just it. It wasn’t urine! I mean, I have peed in a fire in the very pit where that photo was taken before, but this wasn’t that. [Laughs.] Once we finished shooting and were going through what we’d shot, we found this candid shot of me messing around while I was pouring lighter fluid on the fire in the fire pit. When we saw the shot, we stopped, looked at it, and right there, I decided that was the cover shot. [My friend, the photographer] agreed. That shot spoke to me artistically. It’s just a dope photo.

Earlier this year, “American Dream” crystallized a number of empowering moments for African-Americans in not just country music, but America overall. What is the story behind the song?

At the time, Empire Records was doing a compilation album where they wanted artists to speak out on certain topics. “American Dream” was written a few days after the Fourth of July. I had wanted to write something that spoke to the times. But also, I wondered what a country-style patriotic song like Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless The USA” would sound like if I wrote it. When I was finished writing and recording it, I listened to it over 1,000 times and felt like I didn’t need to go back and change anything, except adding background vocals.

Leaving out of the studio that day, I knew that it was something special. Whether a billion or 100,000 people listened to it, I said everything I wanted to say about my perspective on the Black experience in America. I don’t think I had heard anyone say it like that before. “American Dream” is so proudly Black and hopeful for the future. It empowers people to keep creating progress.

You’re also doing some work with the newly opened National Museum of African-American Music (NMAAM) in Nashville, too. What about the venue and its message has proven to be the most inspiring to you?

It’s a necessary and educational place. The history of Black music is the history of music in general. I’ve taken my entire family to the museum, and I performed “American Dream” at its grand opening in January. Alongside that, I’m excited about myself, Breland, Reyna Roberts and Tiera working with [NMAAM]’s partnership with the Country Music Association to discuss the impact of African-American artists in country music with Nashville public school students.

How would you characterize “Down By The Riverside” in the context of where you are artistically and personally at present?

On “Down by the Riverside,” I’m telling the truth about where I’m from, and it feels good. At this point, the success I’m having feels like a blessing. It’s been a long time coming. I’ve been in Nashville, I’ve been in Los Angeles, too. I’ve also spent a lot of time in and out of songwriting rooms, rubbing shoulders and building relationships with people. I’m hopeful for a long, successful, and fun career. I’m surrounded by people I love and also people who love and care for me.