Music

How Kid Rock Turned Into A Republican Mouthpiece And Trump’s MAGA BFF



W
HEN YOU VISIT
BOB RITCHIE at his home in the jagged hills outside Nashville, the guy who will likely greet you at the door is a tall, well-dressed, exceedingly polite gentleman who goes by “Uncle Tom.” Because of course he does. Ritchie makes his living as Kid Rock, but a big part of being Kid Rock these days involves doing things that are simultaneously provocative, offensive, and, at least to him, funny. It tracks, then, that a middle-aged white guy who began his career more than three decades ago in thrall of a Black art form, but who has since thrown his lot in with an overwhelmingly white political movement criticized for its racist rhetoric, would have a white butler named after a racial slur aimed at Black people who are overly accommodating to the white establishment. It’s all a little dizzying. Like so much in the world of Kid Rock circa 2024, it leaves you wondering, “Is he serious? Is he fucking with me? Does he himself even know?”

At any rate, there I am on a Thursday afternoon in April, being ushered by the aforementioned Uncle Tom into a house that itself feels like a joke devised to test whether its visitors get it. Modeled to look like the White House, the extravagant, airy mansion is decorated with taxidermied hunting trophies and neon beer signs. The bathroom hand towels are monogrammed with an “R,” and a mirror near the sink has a naked woman in a “Liberty” headband painted on it in pink. Images of Kid Rock’s platinum records adorn the garage doors. Ritchie’s entire sprawling 214-acre compound, which includes a saloon, a studio, and a cavernous hangar with a pickleball court, a basketball hoop, and the original General Lee from The Dukes of Hazzard in it, feels like what a 13-year-old boy might sketch if you asked him to design his dream home.

Tom procures a can of Miller Lite for me from the fridge in the kitchen, then leads me to the back patio, where Ritchie is sitting with a charcuterie board on the table in front of him, and the breathtaking panorama of the surrounding countryside staring him in the face. Ritchie stands, shakes my hand, and asks Tom for a white wine with ice and a cigar.

“That’s his real name, by the way,” Ritchie says with a sharp laugh. “Don’t give me some shit in the article.”

Ritchie is wearing dark sunglasses, a black shirt, jeans, and boots that he says “may or may not be snakeskin.” His stringy blond hair runs straight to his shoulders from underneath a white-and-red baseball hat with the phrase “This Bud’s for You” emblazoned on the front of it, framing a face that, at 53, looks more weathered than boyish. He claims he didn’t realize he was wearing the hat — something he’ll claim again two hours later to Fox News host Laura Ingraham, when he insists I join him in the back of an unmarked van in his driveway to record an appearance on her show — but I find this difficult to believe. The hat gives him an opening to retell the story of his beef and recent reconciliation with Anheuser-Busch.

Last year, Ritchie responded to the company’s decision to partner with transgender social media influencer Dylan Mulvaney for a Bud Light promotion by posting a video of him shooting up cans of the beer with an MP5 submachine gun, and declaring “Fuck Bud Light. Fuck Anheuser-Busch.” The partnership between an iconic beer company and a trans woman had already prompted a right-wing boycott of the beer maker, and Ritchie’s stunt fanned the flames. He was criticized for encouraging anti-trans bigotry and violence. Far from being repentant, Ritchie viewed the company’s subsequent stock-price wobble as vindication, and claims its top brass reached out to him personally, eager to mend fences. As he puts it to Ingraham, even though the company “messed up,” he’s moved on from the boycott. (Anheuser-Busch didn’t respond to my request for comment on this meeting.)

“We’ve got bigger targets,” he says, referencing Planet Fitness, which is currently in the crosshairs of the right-wing outrage machine for its trans-inclusive policies, and Ben & Jerry’s, a perpetual bugaboo among conservatives. “I don’t want to hurt people’s jobs and stuff like that when they don’t have any dog in the fight, but there’s a whole lot of other companies we should be going after.” Bulldozing past the inherent contradictions in that sentence, Ritchie uses the rest of his Fox appearance to inveigh against “DEI crap,” predict electoral victory for Donald Trump in Michigan, and suggest that listening to the national anthem will make “liberal tears fall like rain.”

Kid Rock wasn’t always like this. When he first broke through with Devil Without a Cause in the late Nineties, on the heels of an alt-rock era whose biggest stars — Kurt Cobain, Eddie Vedder, Chris Cornell — were often cripplingly conflicted about the very idea of stardom, Ritchie made rap rock full of swagger, bravado, and party-starting anarchy. Even as he began hinting at a rightward political lean in the late 2000s, he still managed to inhabit a cultural middle ground, crossing boundaries between musical genres and political ideologies with an easygoing, can’t-we-all-just-get-drunk-together nonchalance. Whether he was performing with Run-D.M.C., (briefly) marrying Pamela Anderson, or getting into a fight at a Waffle House at 5 a.m., Kid Rock’s very existence felt like a 100-decibel reminder that rock & roll was supposed to be fun. Rolling Stone itself was all-in on this version of Kid Rock, twice putting him on the magazine’s cover solo and declaring him “the king of old-school partying and take-no-prisoners boasting.”

Over the past decade, though, he’s grown increasingly polarizing, eager to troll liberals and engage in one culture-war dust-up after another. He’s wrapped himself in all things Trump and become as much a fixture of the MAGA Cinematic Universe as Steve Bannon, Mike Lindell, or Kari Lake. In fact, just before we crowd into that van for the Fox News appearance, Ritchie flashes his cellphone toward me to show he’s calling the man he now winkingly refers to as “one of my besties.” Trump doesn’t pick up. “I was going to tell him I’m going on Laura Ingraham,” Ritchie tells me. “He loves to watch when I do Fox hits.”

I’d started working on a story about Kid Rock’s transformation from everyone’s favorite life-of-the-party rock star into this fervent MAGA warrior nearly a year earlier. Until a couple of days before our meeting at his house, I’d given up hope that he’d talk to me. I’d reached out repeatedly to his manager to try to set up an interview but got no response. As I began contacting others in his inner circle — friends, bandmates — Ritchie was telling them not to talk to me. I pressed ahead and spoke to more than a dozen people who’d been close to him at various points in his career. Many were dismayed at the extreme political turn Kid Rock had taken.

Producer and engineer Mike E. Clark, who has a long history with Ritchie going back to the late 1980s, compared it to “losing a family member,” and said he no longer hung up his Kid Rock platinum records “because of what it represents now.” Kenny Olson, who played lead guitar for Ritchie for more than a decade starting in the mid-1990s, was just perplexed.

“I don’t understand where a lot of this came from,” he told me. “I’ve always felt music should inspire people, not divide people. A lot of people from back in the day ask me, ‘What’s going on?’ I don’t know.”

In an age when many people have a story about a relative who arrived at Thanksgiving in a red MAGA hat, and shortly thereafter started forwarding BitChute videos and QAnon memes, the idea that a rich white guy would become a die-hard Trump supporter is not exactly shocking. But Ritchie always seemed to be in on the joke of his outrageous Kid Rock persona. These days, though, it’s hard not to wonder who’s at the wheel.

Obviously, the best person to address this is Ritchie himself, so I sent one last Hail Mary to his manager. Much to my surprise, this time, I got a response: an offer to meet Ritchie two days later for what was supposed to be a 90-minute tête-à-tête.

I’m not really sure what changed his mind. It could be that he knows a contentious story in Rolling Stone will give him a platform to shout about liberal-media bias and bolster his status on the right. Or it could just be that he’s got something to promote, a new festival he co-founded called Rock the Country that’s playing in seven smaller cities and towns across Appalachia and the Southeast this spring and summer. At any rate, by the time we’re done with Laura Ingraham, we’ve blown way past our allotted time, but he’s just getting warmed up. Soon enough, he’ll get drunk and belligerent, and the evening will go way off the rails, but at the moment, things are still pretty cordial. He tells me that until a few weeks ago, he’d done very few interviews in the past decade.

“I don’t sugarcoat shit, but everything became this gotcha moment,” he says. “That’s why I’ve been turning you down for so long. I don’t need it.” He motions with his hand back toward his house and then forward toward the stunning view of the deep, green valley in front of him. “Look around. I live in my own world. And it’s great.”

TO UNDERSTAND WHERE Kid Rock ended up, you need to understand where he started. Although Romeo, Michigan, is often described as a Detroit suburb, when Ritchie was growing up there in the Seventies and Eighties, such a designation was a stretch. The Detroit suburbs were geographically sprawling even then, but most people probably would have considered Romeo at the distant edge of that sprawl. The Ritchie family home was on the outskirts of Romeo itself, around an hour’s drive from downtown Detroit.

I grew up in the Detroit suburbs in that same era, and when I first sit down with Ritchie, we reminisce a bit about living there back then. In the 1980s, Detroit was in the midst of a long, painful, and still ongoing transition. The auto industry had built the city into a cosmopolitan hub in the first half of the 20th century. Well-paying factory jobs drew workers from the South and nourished a thriving polyglot middle class. By 1940, it was one of the largest cities in the U.S. Starting in the 1960s, though, a string of developments — higher gas prices, the rise of foreign automakers, the shuttering of factories, the 1967 riots, and disastrous city-planning decisions — changed Detroit’s trajectory. The city’s population began to contract. Specifically, white families and white-owned businesses moved to the suburbs in droves, shrinking the tax base and further accelerating this trend.

It’s hard to overstate how frantic the white flight from Detroit has been. In 1940, the city was more than 90 percent white. Today, it’s barely more than 10 percent. The exodus fueled a sense of fear, resentment, and distrust between the white suburban population and Black residents of the city. During the years Ritchie and I were growing up, the divide between Detroit and the surrounding region hardened into a fixed color line drawn right at the city’s northern border, Eight Mile Road.

Culturally, Romeo had more in common with small towns in rural parts of the state that became infamous for making Michigan a hotbed of militia activity than it did with Detroit. As much as the auto industry had drawn Black workers from places like Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi, it had also attracted a steady diet of white workers from below the Mason-Dixon Line and parts of Appalachia. They brought with them a romanticism about the South and fostered an enthusiasm for country music that endured in the area. Bobby Bare’s 1963 Top 10 country hit, his version of “Detroit City,” describes an autoworker homesick for “those cotton fields and home.” Twenty-five years later, it wasn’t hard to find white kids in the Detroit suburbs driving pickup trucks adorned with Confederate-flag bumper stickers, blasting country music.

Ritchie tells me that his grandfather had family from Kentucky. “They grew up on mountain music and hillbilly music.”

Although Ritchie often describes his upbringing as “middle class,” it was beyond what most people would ascribe to the term. His father, Bill, who died in February, owned a large, successful Lincoln-Mercury dealership in the northern suburb of Sterling Heights, and for a time was president of the Detroit Automobile Dealers Association, an influential trade group. The family lived in an expansive 5,628-square-foot estate, built on more than five acres that included apple orchards, an in-ground pool, tennis courts, and a horse barn.

“He had a guesthouse bigger than my family home,” says Wesley “Wes Chill” Gandy, a local rapper who met Ritchie when the latter was only about 14. At the time, Ritchie was just a skinny kid who knew how to operate some pretty basic recording equipment. Gandy would come to Ritchie’s house to record nearly every weekend, and occasionally Ritchie would visit Gandy’s home on the west side of Detroit. “You didn’t see white kids in my neighborhood,” says Gandy. “It was me that brought him into the city and introduced him to the Detroit culture. Bob is like a sponge. He absorbed a lot.”

Ritchie began DJ’ing at parties and impressed with his turntable skills. He connected with a group of artists known as the Beast Crew, and with them started rapping, too. In the mid-Eighties, Ritchie’s interest in hip-hop felt like a repudiation of his privileged upbringing and caused a rift with his father. “You could tell his father wasn’t happy about him being around kids from the inner city,” says Gandy. “His mom, his sisters, his brother, they were nice. But his father really was upset about him pursuing rap.”

Ritchie’s dad loved music, but his taste ran toward rock & roll and classic country. “He didn’t understand what I was doing, rightfully so,” says Ritchie, “this white kid from an upper-middle-class family running around the hood doing all this stuff.”

Bill Ritchie, a registered Republican, had been president and sales manager at Crest Lincoln-Mercury before he bought the dealership outright in 1972. According to testimony he gave to the Federal Trade Commission, unionized mechanics and employees at his dealership went on strike in 1971, the year Bob was born, and the strike turned violent. Bill said his family was threatened. While driving home one night, he was run off the road by a couple of cars. After his next-door neighbor’s front porch was bombed, police apparently told Bill that his house had been the intended target. Bill threatened to hire nonunion workers to replace his striking employees, and ultimately, Bill claimed, the strike ended without him making any concessions.

When I relay this story to Ritchie, he’s never heard it, but it fits comfortably with the man he knew. “He was conflicted on unions,” he says. “He’d always say they started as a great purpose. But at his heyday of the dealership, he was anti-union. I remember him being like, ‘Fuck those unions. They’re all run by fucking crooks.’”

Ritchie has talked a lot about his troubled early relationship with his father and poured it into the 1993 song “My Oedipus Complex.” “I never liked my old man,” he sings. A few verses later, he describes his father advising him to “keep with your own and don’t fuck up our gene pool” by “play[ing] the fool with a different color,” a reference to Ritchie fathering his only child with a Black woman, which he did during this era.

“That’s how I was feeling at the time,” Ritchie says now of the song. “That was a stressful time when my son was born. A white kid, not married, bringing home a half-Black kid to a Catholic well-to-do family.” Ritchie’s father struggled to adapt at first. “There were borderline things, like maybe using the n-word at times, but my son and my dad became best friends. People say that people can’t change. Yes, they fucking can.” He says he was proud to see his son, who is now a father himself and lives nearby, tearing up at his father’s funeral.

Ritchie’s own relationship with his father would eventually turn around. “Ironically enough, when you make some money, it makes it a whole lot easier for people to understand,” he says.

In 1990, Ritchie headed to New York and signed with Jive Records. Back in Detroit, there was grumbling about Jive elevating a white rapper out of what was often called the Blackest city in America. The perception that Ritchie did little to help those who’d given him safe passage in the Detroit rap community left a bad taste in the mouths of some of his compatriots. According to Brian Harmon, a rapper who goes by “Champtown” and who was one of the leaders of the Beast Crew, Jive was interested in signing him as well, but claims Ritchie undermined the deal. “This is the worst ZIP code in America,” Harmon says. “We get a bag of chips, we share it amongst each other. We get a Faygo two-liter, we get five cups. Kid Rock, growing up around rich parents, didn’t quite understand sharing.”

When I ask Ritchie about this, he shakes his head. “I’ve got a lot of love for Champ, but he’s full of shit in more ways than you can fucking imagine,” he says. “I’m not going to get into it because I’m sure he’s got his side, but I’d take everything there with a grain of salt.”

Kid Rock’s Jive debut, Grits Sandwiches for Breakfast, a sex-obsessed goof equally indebted to the twin poles of late-Eighties party rap, the Beastie Boys’ Licensed to Ill and 2 Live Crew’s As Nasty As They Wanna Be, didn’t connect with audiences, and amid a subsequent Vanilla Ice-induced backlash, he was dropped from the label. Back in Detroit, licking his wounds, Ritchie experimented musically, leaning more on classic rock and metal. The Clark co-produced result, The Polyfuze Method, was released on an independent label in 1993. The same year, he recorded an amped-up version of Hank Williams Jr.’s “A Country Boy Can Survive.”

STILL THE KID
A 19-year-old Ritchie with D-Nice of Boogie Down
Productions and Big D of Ultramagnetic MCs
(from left) at Heavy D’s NYC birthday party in 1990

Al Pereira/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

“Kid Rock gravitated toward his audience,” says Chris “Doc Roun-Cee” Pouncy, another Beast Crew member. “If his audience was predominantly white, which they were, he was going to play to them.”

Harmon recalls a conversation with Ritchie around this time about his change in artistic direction. “He straight-up told me, ‘I need to get back in touch with my whiteness,’” says Harmon. Gandy remembers Ritchie using the same phrase.

“That sounds like something I’d say,” Ritchie admits. “I don’t give a fuck how people take it.”

The Detroit music scene during those years was small and felt a bit like a cultural backwater. Motown had long since decamped to California, and the city hadn’t produced a credible star in more than a decade. There was a feeling then that mirrored the city’s depopulation trend: The only way to succeed was to leave.

“It was hard to get a record deal in Detroit then,” says Olson. “Chad Smith from the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Joey Mazzola from Sponge, and I all migrated out to California at different points.”

But the relative isolation bred creative freedom. Ritchie’s ambition and his omnivorous taste in music attracted a diverse crew of artists into his orbit in these years: Lonnie Motley and Shirley Hayden of Funkadelic; R&B singer Thornetta Davis; horrorcore-rap pioneer Esham; Michael and Andrew Nehra, who co-founded the soul-rock outfit Robert Bradley’s Blackwater Surprise; Vinnie Dombroski from Sponge; Tino Gross of blues rockers the Howling Diablos; Matt O’Brien of funk-inflected post-punk group Big Chief; Eric Hoegemeyer of the glammy dance-rock outfit Charm Farm.

“I was the joke,” says Ritchie. “It was not cool to be a white rapper.”

Although Kid Rock’s music was assiduously apolitical back then, there was an inclusive, open-minded approach to it that many of those involved found inspiring. Ritchie assembled a live band he called Twisted Brown Trucker that embodied that spirit.

“We were into funk, R&B, rock, the blues, swampy Southern country sounds,” says Olson. “We had this fearless way of approaching the music.”

Devil Without a Cause, released in 1998, was the product of this approach. The album eventually sold more than 11 million copies. At the time, Ritchie’s main ideological commitment was to the doctrine of sex, drugs, and rock & roll. From the stage at Woodstock ’99, he told the audience, “You want me to get political? Well, this is about as deep as Kid Rock thinks: Monica Lewinsky is a fuckin’ ho, and Bill Clinton is a goddamned pimp!”

Over the decade or so that followed, Ritchie seemed more enamored with the spectacle of politics than any particular issues. He met Clinton and performed at an inaugural event for Barack Obama. Even though he backed Mitt Romney, a fellow Michigander, in his bid to unseat Obama in 2012, when he saw Obama at the Kennedy Center Honors the following year, Ritchie said there were “no hard feelings.… You respect the office of the president of the United States, and the great thing is, in four years we get to choose again.”

Even as he grew more confident speaking about himself as a Republican, Ritchie consistently criticized the party’s stance on issues like abortion and gay marriage. As he told Rolling Stone in 2013: “I tend to vote Republican, but I don’t like the hardcore views on either side. I’m not in bed with anybody. I’d probably be more libertarian, but I’m a firm believer you have to pick a side. If you think differently, that’s fine. I’d love to grab a beer and hear why you think that way.”

During the time Ritchie was stumping for Romney, he was living part-time in Malibu, where one of his neighbors was the actor and progressive activist Sean Penn. The two unlikely friends were drinking scotch at Ritchie’s house one night, along with Jameson Stafford, who’d begun working with Ritchie in the late Nineties as a videographer. Penn and Ritchie argued constantly over politics, but in the increasingly heated political environment saw their enduring friendship as an example to emulate. They decided to make a short film called Americans, which Stafford co-wrote and directed. It opens in a bar, and within a couple of minutes Penn and Ritchie are lobbing politically tinged insults at each other. As they’re about to come to blows, a news report appears on the bar’s TV, announcing the deaths of 26 Marines in Afghanistan, which prompts them to hug it out. The message is clear even before it flashes on the screen at the film’s conclusion in big, block letters: “Don’t Let Politics Divide Us. Thinking Differently … Is What Made This Country Great.”

Ritchie says he still believes this. “That thing’s more relevant now than when we made it,” he tells me between puffs on his cigar. “The message isn’t getting across.”

I ask whether he thinks he’s helping much on that score.

“I’m part of the problem,” he acknowledges. “I’m one of the polarizing people, no question. Sometimes I bitch about other people, then I look in the mirror and I’m like, ‘Oh, yeah, why don’t you shut the fuck up too?’”

So, is this mostly an impulse-control problem?

“It’s a rich-guy issue,” he says. “No fucks left. I’m not going to get it right every time, but I know my heart’s right. I want the best for this country.”

Back in the early 2010s, a sort of radical centrism was still baked into Kid Rock’s brand. He’d banked enough goodwill to be able to get away with occasionally performing in front of a Confederate flag. When I mention it, he immediately grabs a photo album sitting nearby, flips it open, and points to a shot of himself from the early days of his career, wearing a shirt designed to look like the rebel battle flag. Next to him in the photo are all three members of Run-D.M.C.

“Nobody said a fucking word,” he tells me. “No one. That was the thing until all this woke shit started happening.”

Some Black members of his band gave him a pass. Misty Love, a former longtime backup singer for Kid Rock from the mid-Nineties through the mid-2000s, says the flag “didn’t mean anything back when he used it. It was just part of the backdrop.”

Ritchie insists there was no deeper intent than that. “I was using the Confederate flag because I love Lynyrd Skynyrd, and I think it just looks cool.”

CONFEDERACY OF DUNCES
Ritchie performing in front of a Confederate flag at the Trump Taj Mahal Casino in Atlantic City, New Jersey, in 2004. “I never flew the flag with hate in my heart…. I love Black people,” he said in 2011.

Chris Polk/FilmMagic

In 2011, when he received an NAACP Award in Detroit, protesters marched outside, denouncing his association with the flag. Right before he walked onstage to receive the award, he says, the head of the organization’s Detroit chapter, the Rev. Wendell Anthony, asked him if he’d really performed with the flag. After Ritchie admitted he had, he says Anthony told him, “Oh, you ain’t racist. You just dumb.” (Anthony did not respond to my request for confirmation.) Once onstage, Ritchie told the audience, “I never flew the flag with hate in my heart.… I love Black people.” But four years later, outside an exhibit Ritchie funded at the Detroit Historical Museum, where protesters returned to raise the same issue, Ritchie told Fox News host Megyn Kelly, “Please tell the people who are protesting to kiss my ass.”

Looking back on it now, he’s resolute: “I wasn’t going to bow down and fucking apologize again. I’d already been through this fucking shit.”

According to Love, Ritchie’s political coming out put the Confederate-flag controversy in a different context. “It wasn’t until he started tripping with Trump that it started looking bad,” says Love, who still considers Ritchie a friend. “The Trump situation changed the whole vibe. People say he’s prejudiced. He’s not. How can you be prejudiced if your son is Black?”

Others made the same point. “I never got the racist, homophobic vibe from him,” says Barbara Payton, a backing singer who toured with Kid Rock in the 2000s. “As a gay woman, I wouldn’t have worked for him if I did.”

Even some, like Harmon, who’ve had personal gripes with Ritchie are inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt, at least to a point. “Do I think Kid Rock is straight-up racist? No,” Harmon says. “Do I think Kid Rock is a dickhead? Yes.”

RITCHIE WAS ONE OF the first entertainment figures to declare allegiance to Trump, in an interview with this magazine. “I’m digging Donald Trump,” he said in early 2016, before the Republican primaries had begun. “My feeling: Let the business guy run it like a business. And his campaign has been entertaining as shit.”

What began as a mild flirtation quickly bloomed into a full-blown love affair. Love wonders half-seriously if Ritchie’s “been brainwashed. The Trumpsters are attracted to him, and I think they’re absorbing him,” she says. “Because the Kid Rock people know now isn’t the Kid Rock I was around for years.”

Over the past few years, Kid Rock shows have started to resemble Trump rallies. Clark, who helped craft Kid Rock’s last major hit, “All Summer Long,” worked as a monitor tech on tour with him in 2018, and was alarmed by what he saw. “He started throwing Trump up on the giant screen, like, ‘This is your president now, so deal with it!’” he says. “I was horrified. It’s a hate machine. It’s all these white people, and it’s like, ‘What hasn’t this country given to these people?’ Especially Bob Ritchie. What hasn’t this country given him? What are you so angry about?”

Two days after meeting with Ritchie at his house, I’ll see this dynamic in person at a huge fairground in Gonzales, Louisiana, at the first installment of Rock the Country. Amid a sea of American flags, Trump 2024 merch, and more than 25,000 fans, Kid Rock will be introduced onstage by Tucker Carlson, then launch into a set that will include riffs about open borders, high taxes, and a declaration that “Joe Biden can kiss my motherfucking Anglo-Saxon ass.” At one point, a video of Trump will appear on the screen behind Ritchie, lauding Kid Rock and his fans as “hardworking, God-fearing rock & roll patriots,” before exhorting them to “make America rock again.”

Even as Ritchie grew more politically outspoken during Trump’s presidency, he’d nearly always kept politics off his albums. That ended with his 2022 release, Bad Reputation. On the blustery first single, “Don’t Tell Me How to Live” — a title that sums up his political philosophy as well as any — he rails against snowflakes, fake news, participation trophies, and easily-offended millennials. “We the People” recycles far-right Covid talking points — “Wear your mask, take your pills/Now a whole generation’s mentally ill/Fuck Fauci!” — then turns the anti-Biden meme “Let’s Go Brandon!” into a shout-along chorus.

It would be easy to see his rightward political turn as a cynical business decision. After all, Kid Rock is nothing if not a crowd-pleaser. The same way he gave his fans what they wanted musically, shifting from hip-hop toward rock and country, he’s also met them where they are ideologically. “This is a guy who has always had his pulse on who his audience is,” says Thomas Valentino, who was Ritchie’s lawyer for more than a decade, starting in the mid-Nineties. “Right now, he recognizes 90 percent of the people who come to his shows are buying into what he’s doing and saying politically. He also leans that way, but he’s a smart business guy. If he thinks he’s going to make money taking a certain position, then I think a lot of those things are driven by business.”

Stafford, who remains close with Ritchie, says Ritchie is “definitely not faking” his political allegiance. “But I don’t think he’ll miss a good opportunity for some publicity.” Ritchie, he believes, is aware of the trade-off he’s making. “A lot of longtime fans have said, ‘Look, I can’t do this anymore.’ But he’ll probably tell you, ‘For every one that leaves, another three will come.’ If you go through comments sections, you’ll find a lot that are like, ‘I didn’t even like Kid Rock, didn’t like his music, but damn if I’m not going to go to the shows and support this guy.’”

Ritchie has always had an intuitive understanding of marketing, promotion, and how to make money. He tells me that once Trump was in office and the vehemence of the opposition to him became clear, he realized it was risky to be so publicly supportive of him. “When I doubled down on it, I knew that could be a career ender,” he says. “But I was betting that there were a lot of like-minded people out there.” The bet paid off. Whatever he does now, he says, “half the country says, ‘Fuck yeah!’”

Ritchie seems flattered that Trump has returned his affections. He rarely misses an opportunity to mention hanging out or golfing with the former president, and is quick to rise to his defense. When I bring up Trump’s divisive rhetoric about immigrants, about Democrats, about nearly anyone who crosses him, Ritchie embraces this aspect of his character as a feature, not a bug.

“You think I like Trump because he’s a nice guy?” he says. “I’m not electing the deacon of a church. That motherfucker likes to win. He likes to cheat in his fucking golf game. I want that guy on my team. I want the guy who goes, ‘I’m going to fight with you.’”

Ultimately, his attachment to Trump feels more personal than ideological. Sure, he will parrot Fox News talking points about immigration, foreign policy, or the economy, but what he seems most drawn to in Trump as a rich, famous, attention-hungry loudmouth whose cartoonish persona was once universally celebrated but is now toxic to half the populace is a reflection that looks a lot like his own.

Several people I interviewed believe that as a business-minded, country-music-loving, stuck-in-his-ways conservative, Ritchie has essentially become what he once despised: his father. “I just don’t think the apple ever falls far from the tree,” says Clark.

Ritchie doesn’t really disagree. “Man, the stereotypes are true. I turn into more of him every day.”

THE MAGA WHISPERER
Ritchie and Trump ringside at a 2023 UFC fight in Miami. The rock star is proud of his relationship with the former president and, in addition to golfing with Trump, frequently calls him to chat, especially when Ritchie is about to appear on political talk shows. “He loves to watch when I do Fox hits,” Ritchie says, and refers to Trump as “one of my besties.”.

Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC/Getty Images

THE MUSIC RITCHIE TELLS ME he’s been working on lately isn’t political at all. He wants me to hear some, so after the Fox News hit, we climb into an ATV and he drives us down a steep hill, through the woods, about a half-mile to the large building that houses his home studio.

Ritchie can’t find the right cable to connect his phone to the studio’s sound system, so we go to a lounge area where he plays a couple of new country-tinged rock songs on his phone. This is about the point when shit starts going decidedly sideways.

For the first two hours that we talked, Ritchie seemed eager to argue politics, but I tried not to take the bait. Yeah, we got into it about trans rights (“I can coexist with anyone in a public space. I used to go to those clubs with them fuckers in New York. They were a hoot”) and the 2020 election (“I’m going to say this on the record: It was stolen … by a bunch of fucking jackasses that voted for Joe Biden”), but for the most part, it didn’t seem productive to shout at each other about things we were never going to agree on. Besides, debating Ritchie is maddening. He skips from topic to topic like he’s flipping channels, and says intentionally outrageous shit in a way that it’s never clear whether he’s joking, serious, just trying to irritate you, or maybe all three. And he likes to do it all at high volume. This exchange was fairly typical:

RITCHIE: You can’t stop evil, but you don’t have to let them in so easily either. We want great fucking immigrants, people that want to come here, have a better life, work. They’re Christians, if you’re talking about Mexico.

ME: But when Trump says these people are—

RITCHIE: They are!

ME: … not humans.

RITCHIE: They’re murderers! They’re rapists! They are! MS-13! They just did the girl over here! They just did the girl in Nashville!

ME: Those are anecdotal. If you look at crime stats, immigrants commit crime at a much lower level than citizens.

RITCHIE: It only takes 10 of them!

ME: What?

RITCHIE: 9/11!

ME: Those are two different things.

RITCHIE: No, it’s not! It only takes a few of them! Why can’t we just have a system where we’re going to vet you first—

ME: We have one!

RITCHIE: … then we’re going to welcome you and help you out! I have no problem spending my tax dollars on that.

ME: When Trump gets up and talks about immigrants as rapists and animals, that creates an environment where the guy who came across the border running from violence or trying to support his family is now treated like shit.

RITCHIE: So, with that thinking, you’d say gangsta rap is contributing to all these young Black men shooting each other and going to jail.

ME: How are those things equivalent?

To be fair, Ritchie could just as quickly downshift, turn on the charm, and dish up self-deprecating stories or offer me earnest advice about my finances or my girlfriend. But once we’re sitting in the lounge, all he wants to do is squabble.

By this time, I’ve long since quit drinking, but Ritchie has exchanged his white wine for Jim Beam and Diet Coke. He proceeds to drain at least three or four of them in pretty quick succession. He’s sitting in a dark leather chair, shouting at me about something or other, when he reaches behind the seat, pulls out a black handgun, and waves it around to make some sort of point.

“And I got a fucking goddamn gun right here if I need it!” he shouts. “I got them everywhere!”

This was the tenor of the next hour or so. We start talking about American history, and he rightfully brings up slavery and the genocide of Native Americans as stains on that history. I ask him if he worries that in the modern day he might be on the wrong side of history.

“No. It was the Republicans that freed the fucking slaves!”

“Yes, but the Republicans were the progressive party back then.”

“I know where you’re going with this, and I’ll tell you why I don’t,” Ritchie says. “Because Trick Trick, the hardest-hitting n—-r in Detroit, was like, ‘Dog, you had that shit right. We need Trump.’ I’ll call him right fucking now.” He dials his phone, but Christian Mathis, the pioneering underground Detroit rapper who goes by Trick Trick, doesn’t pick up. Ritchie turns back to me. “I’m telling you. These dogs are calling me like, ‘Yo, n—-r, you had that one right!’” (Mathis didn’t respond to subsequent messages asking for confirmation of his support for Trump.)

It’s worth mentioning these are not the only times Ritchie drops the n-word during my visit. It’d be easy to label this as the rantings of a drunk racist, but as with everything that Ritchie does, it’s hard to know how calculated it all is. Is he just trying to get a reaction? Is he begging to be pilloried when this story comes out so he can launch into a very public tirade against “cancel culture”? Is this all just a play for more attention? Would any of that make it less shitty? 

The strange thing is, despite his rhetoric, Ritchie’s politics aren’t uniformly regressive. He considers himself socially liberal. And the longer we argue, the more I can see the faint outlines of reasonable stances on things like immigration, government regulation of corporations, and tax policy. But here’s the thing: Nobody will ever hear any of that over the shouting, the name-calling, and all of his other attention-grabbing bullshit. I don’t think he really cares because the shouting, the name-calling, and the attention-grabbing bullshit are who he is now. It’s as if the blurry line between Kid Rock and Bob Ritchie has disappeared entirely.

One theory several people I interviewed offered is that Ritchie’s right-wing awakening is as much about managing the emotional fallout of a waning career as it is about any deep-seated beliefs. He’s always longed for the spotlight, and now, as a 53-year-old more than a decade removed from his last big hit, he’s doing whatever he can to keep it on him. Although he remains a big live draw, when you’re accustomed to the endorphin hit that comes with being at the white-hot center of pop culture, you may find playing a casino in Sacramento or the fairgrounds in Gonzales doesn’t provide the same rush. That’s not to say Kid Rock’s politics don’t reflect Bob Ritchie’s beliefs, but yelling them so loudly feels performative. The real question is whether he’s satisfied doing that.

At one point in the evening, the MAGA veil falls for a moment, and he seems to lament becoming such a reviled figure among so many music fans. “No one’s ever going to say, ‘Fuck Prince,’” he tells me. “As soon as he goes” — and here, Ritchie breaks into song — “‘I never meant to cause you any sorrow,’ you’re like, ‘Ahh!’”

“Yeah, but Prince wasn’t out talking shit about everyone, spouting political opinions.”

“I don’t care. ‘Purple Rain’ is probably the greatest Prince song ever written. Prince is known for ‘Purple Rain.’ I’m known for shooting up Bud Light cans!”

“But do you want that? You don’t want that to be your epitaph.”

“I don’t care.”

“Yeah, but you do.”

“No, I don’t. You don’t understand. I really don’t give a fuck.”

“If that was true, you wouldn’t go on Laura Ingraham. You wouldn’t talk to me.”

He tells me that’s just business. If he can make “shit tons more money,” he can give it to friends, family, his band, and to the MD Anderson Cancer Center, which took care of his father when he was sick.

“But it’s not about money anymore, right?” I ask him. “You’ve got money.”

“Finances make a lot of decisions.”

“I get that, but my whole point is whether you want to be the guy on Fox News or whether you want to be remembered for the music.”

“Fox News,” he says, deadpan. Then he laughs.

I shrug, thank him for meeting with me and tell him I’ve got to go. I need to be back in Atlanta tonight, and have a four-hour drive ahead of me.

“No, you don’t,” he tells me. “You can stay.”

“Really, I’ve got to go.”

“You can crash here tonight. I’ve got room for you.”

“I appreciate it, but I can’t.”

“Well, you need me to drive you to the house.”

This is true. My car is at least a half-mile away, up a steep hill, through unfamiliar woods, and by now, it’s dark outside. “Well, I can walk if I have to, but, yeah, it would be nice if you could give me a ride back.”

“You won’t make it,” Ritchie snarls. “Just watch this one YouTube video and then I’ll take you up there.” After some fidgeting with the remote, he loads a video of himself performing “Born Free” at a 2011 charity event onto the flatscreen in the lounge. The audience at the show includes Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, George H.W. Bush, and George W. Bush.

“Don’t you miss being that guy?” I ask him.

“No. I can do that any day of the week.”

“Not anymore. Because you couldn’t be in a room with—”

“I don’t give a frog’s fat fuck! Look around. I got a butler named Uncle Tom. Do I look like I give a fuck?”

When the video ends, I stand up to go, but he wants to watch another one. And then another one after that. This goes on for more than half an hour — me telling him I need to leave, him insisting on watching just one more video, all while goading me into arguments about Gaza, Trump, whatever. He pulls an acoustic guitar off the wall and plays along with shaky fan footage of himself performing “Maggie May.” I start to wonder if I’ll ever get home. Finally, I pick up my backpack.

“OK, I’m out.”

Ritchie shakes his head. “You’ll just stay over.”

“I can’t. I really have to go.”

“All right. This is the last one we’ll watch.”

“No, the last one was the last one.”

“This one is the final final. That’s what my dad used to say, the final final.”

“I’ve got to go.”

“You can’t get anywhere without me.”

“I’ve got legs. I can make it up the hill. I’m leaving.”

I start walking toward the door.

“Sit down.”

“No.”

“One more and that’s it.”

“You said that 10 fucking minutes ago!”

“Final final. You haven’t even asked me about my jewelry.”

He shoves his hands toward me. He’s got heavily jeweled rings on two fingers. One says “D,” the other “KR.”

“Detroit and Kid Rock,” I say, pointing at each of them. “Can I go now?”

Ritchie mixes himself another drink and starts picking up the threads of arguments we started hours ago. He calls me a “college snowflake.” He asks how much money I made last year, and when I tell him, he tells me I need a new job. Then he complains about his tax dollars supporting “Black women having children they can’t afford.”

“Look,” I tell him, “there are people who abuse the system but—”

“We call those Black people. Would you agree?”

“No.”

“So, you don’t like Black people?”

“I don’t think Black people abuse the system.”

“You hate Black people?”

At this point, I don’t know whether he believes anything he’s saying, or if he just wants to keep me there fighting with him. By now, we’re chest to chest and he’s up in my face, but I think I can detect a sly smile creeping from the corner of his mouth. He’s just baiting me, but I’m surprised at how dedicated he is to the task. Is he lonely, or just bored? It’s not as if he’s holed up in his giant mansion, Norma Desmond-style. He’s got people around — among others, his manager, his long-term fiancée, Audrey Berry, and, of course, Uncle Tom — but I get the feeling what he wants isn’t companionship but a sparring partner.

“All right, take me home, man. We’re not getting anywhere with this. You just fucking love to argue.”

“No.”

After another five or 10 minutes of this back-and-forth, he finally seems to lose steam and agrees to drive me back to my car. As he pours himself one more drink for the road, he looks me up and down.

“Do you think you could whup the shit out of me?” he asks.

I laugh. “Probably not.”

“You can take a shot if you want.”

“No, thanks. I’m good.”

As we ride up the dark hill, he’s quiet — well, not exactly quiet, but quieter. He’s still needling me, but his heart’s not in it anymore. We turn out of the woods, in sight of his gargantuan house, and he asks me what I think of everything he’s built on his property. “Do you think it’s cool or excessive?”

I glance at him, and he suddenly seems strangely vulnerable. As much as I find so much about who Bob Ritchie has become highly problematic, at that moment, I’m worried about hurting his feelings.

“I think you’ve created your playground,” I tell him. “This is what you wanted.”

“So, you like it?”

“I like it. It’s fun. If I had $240 million, I don’t know if I would’ve done the same.”

“I have $370 million in cash.”

“All right. I don’t want to shortchange you.”

He stops the ATV. I get out and we shake hands. Then he motions for me to come close, as if he has a secret he wants to tell me.

“Would you do me a favor?” he asks, practically whispering. “Just write the most horrific article about me. Do it. It helps me.”

I walk toward my car, and just before I get to it, he calls out one more time.

“Will you tell everyone that I was halfway cool?”

I tell him he’s all right, we just disagree about lots of things.

“That’s because you’re gay,” he says cackling, as I climb into my car and start the long drive home.



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