Discovering a new Southern voice in comedy

With all of this talk of viruses, pandemics and vaccinations, I’ve recently gotten a hold of some of the best medicine, thanks to Nashville-based comedian Dusty Slay.

I have reached the point in life when my entertainment choices can be guided by my children rather than the other way round. During the recent Christmas break, our oldest was at home for an extended period. Barron is always on the lookout for good comedians, and he introduced us to several he had discovered that he thought we would like. Among them was a gravel-voiced, bearded, bespectacled, long-haired dude in a trucker hat named Dusty Slay.

Comedian Dusty Slay

I was skeptical when the YouTube clip first appeared on the screen. It’s a shame, but I must admit I judged the book by the cover. I felt like my son’s tastes may not be as refined as mine and expected the four-minute clip of Slay’s standup would be mildly amusing at best, cliched and offensive at worst.

I was wrong. The clip, in which Slay talked about putting in your two weeks notice to quit a job, was genuinely funny to me. I LOLed, as the kids would say. Barron then took us down a YouTube rabbit hole for the next hour showing us clip after clip from Slay’s appearances on Jimmy Fallon, Jimmy Kimmel and Comedy Central.

When we watched the clip of Slay demonstrating how the trucker hat changes people’s estimation of him, I was hooked. That’s when I realized there was a method to his madness, and his appearance wasn’t meant to be a cartoon. He was making a statement: “Don’t judge me by my looks, listen to what I have to say.” And for the last six weeks or so, I have been listening.

The child of divorce, Slay grew up rotating between his mom’s place in a trailer park in Opelika, Ala, and his dad’s farm near LaFayette, Ala. He was poor, but never lacked for food, clothing and shelter. He had all of the best and worst experiences you might expect from living in a trailer park: having lots of playmates AND getting into lots of scrapes. Not academically motivated, Slay did not go to college. He had a run-in with the law that kept him from the Army, and in his late teens and twenties dealt with drinking and drugs.

Still in his late 30s, he appears to have his life together. It’s been about nine years since he gave up drinking. He’s married and settled in Nashville. He’s been performing comedy steadily for the past 10 years and in 2018 he started to break through.

Driving back from my parents’ house in Florida at Christmas, we listened to both of his albums on Spotify, “Son of a Ditch” and “Makin’ That Fudge.” I laughed so hard at his stories about drinking gas, having your identity stolen and the rivalry between letters of the alphabet, I had tears. I released life’s stresses in a way I hadn’t been able to in a long time.

Since then, I’ve been catching up on his weekly podcast, “We’re Having a Good Time.” I went all the way back to 2018 when he and his Canadian comic wife, Hannah Hogan, began recording it. (I can’t help myself, I have to start at the beginning.) As a result, I’ve heard the evolution of his voice and delivery, learned his story and listened firsthand how his professionalism and identity have solidified with practice.

His YouTube series, “Dusty Slay’s Top 5 Country Songs About…” are worth your time if you, like me, appreciate the best of ‘90s country. He genuinely likes country music, and isn’t just making easy jokes at its expense.

I’m not ready to put him in the pantheon of Southern comics like Andy Griffith, Jeff Foxworthy, Bill Engvall, James Gregory, Ron White, Jerry Clower or Minnie Pearl. But he does have strong Southern bona fides, a recognizably Southern rhythm and pacing to his storytelling, and an authentic Southern voice that isn’t a caricature.

He generally works clean, though sometimes his content has “adult themes.” I don’t expect everyone to share my reaction to his comedy. What people find funny is subjective. All I can say is right now, I’m into it.

Maybe my fondness for Slay’s work is all about timing. We are, after all, in a pandemic, and I am in need of the best medicine in the worst way. His jokes aren’t necessarily universal. It helps if you have worn a NASCAR T-shirt or are related to someone who wears NASCAR T-shirts.

I haven’t lived his life. I don’t know what it’s like to wait tables or pass out drunk. What I appreciate is that he finds the humor in the situations he’s found himself in. He possesses an infectious humility that draws me in. The truth is, Slay tells jokes I find clever. There is something very smart behind his self-effacing storytelling.

I can’t wait to see what he does next. I’m hoping for good things because we could all use a good laugh right about now.

When I’m listening to Dusty Slay, it’s hard not to be convinced of his signature line: “We’re having a good time.”

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