17 Memphis Look to Shake Up Country Music With 'Leather & Levi's': Exclusive Premiere

Jimmy Fontaine
17 Memphis

At the start of 17 Memphis' "Leather & Levi's," a mandolin cycles gracefully through a delicate, pretty riff. You know where you are -- an intro like this almost guarantees that you are listening to a country song. But then the bassline oozes in, juicy and programmed, pushing the track far from Nashville tropes.

So it goes with the impressive second single from 17 Memphis, the duo of pop producer Felix Snow (Kiiara, Terror Jr.) and Chelsea Todd, which is premiering today on Billboard. The lyrics, full of Corona, weathered denim, and southern skies, along with the male/female harmonies -- husky from Snow, weightless from Todd -- are straight from the country playbook. But the production, riddled with darting, rat-a-tat drum programming, leans toward the cutting edge of pop and hip-hop, as if Lady Antebellum set up shop in an Atlanta rap studio for a week.

It's the type of track that's sure to infuriate country purists, a fact that Snow readily admits. "I think it's going to rub some people the wrong way," he says. "There's this whole thing where it's, 'that's country music' or 'that's not country music.'" But, he continues, "that's a ridiculous way of looking at music in general."

"That's a ridiculous way of looking at art," adds Todd, picking up the thread. "The whole point is to fuck things up a little bit and make a statement. That's exactly what we're trying to do."

Snow and Todd see 17 Memphis as an extension of their pop collaborations: Todd has released several tracks on Snow's Effess Records as TYSM in addition to contributing songwriting for Terror Jr. and backing vocals on some of Snow's other productions. The pair, who are now dating, wrote the first 17 Memphis track in a Memphis hotel room -- the Madison, if you're wondering -- on a freshly purchased acoustic guitar during a cross-country road trip.

Though both have been working on pop's front lines, this project didn't come completely out of nowhere: the two have longstanding connections to stolid, rootsier forms of music. "I'm from Texas -- I grew up singing country music and was singing every Patsy Cline song I could find when I was nine," explains Todd. "And same with Felix. He grew up listening to The Grateful Dead and playing classic rock and roll."

Snow's rise as an in-demand producer means that's he's been unable to indulge his inner singer/songwriter until now: 17 Memphis marks the first time you can hear him carrying the lead vocal. "I've always sang, but not like this," he says. "This is sort of a big coming out party. It feels great."

Snow and Todd aren't aiming for the wastelands of "alt-country" with 17 Memphis -- they want the project to resonate in Nashville's mainstream. And "Leather & Levi's" has already been co-signed by at least one member of Music City's songwriting community: The Cadillac Three's Neil Mason helped pen the track.

"There needs to be some aesthetic risks being taken [in country]," Snow asserts. "Some of the production on [Florida Georgia Line's] Dig Your Roots album is definitely forward-thinking for country music. Sam Hunt -- that 'Body Like a Back Road' thing is definitely a crossover moment. Some people are toying around with that; not as many people as there should be."

"We're at a point where people have their arms open to new shit musically," he adds. "Country music as a genre just needs to be fucked up."