On his right arm, to remember his time in the service of the Country Rap King, Jerry Kuntz wears a tattoo. It’s the head of a dead-eyed Texas longhorn. On one horn hangs a high school varsity letterman’s jacket, like the one Robert Underfinger used to wear all the time, when he and Kuntz worked together on the Maverick Dirt Road Street Team. Underfinger was only 18. Taylor Nixon was 19, like Kuntz was. He loved diesel trucks, so there’s a heavy-duty tire on the other horn.
Driven through the longhorn’s skull is a highway sign, Route 273. That was the last road the three of them took, after miles and weeks as traveling CD salesmen, working hand to hand around the interior of the country, hawking the music of Mikel Knight.
Knight is a white rapper and singer from Nashville via San Antonio, whose music, in the words of his own promotional biography, “bridges the gap between the grassroots of country culture and the grimy city streets.” Like “Cowboy”-era Kid Rock or the “Dirt Road Anthem” songwriter Colt Ford, Knight raps about pickup trucks, whiskey, and girls in Daisy Dukes, accompanied by booming drum machines and Southern-fried electric guitar.
Among his most popular songs are “Last Night in Texas” and “Saddle Up Shawty,” one an old-fashioned country yarn about a man on the run from the law over a killing he committed in self-defense, the other a club anthem about tequila shots and Jägerbombs. What sets Knight apart, though, isn’t so much his music as the distribution system: a squadron of young men in a fleet of vans emblazoned with his black-hatted image, driving from small town to small town, pushing product in gas stations and convenience-store parking lots on a relentless and exhausting schedule.
It’s hard work by the Country Rap King’s own estimation, harder work than that by the estimation of some of the young men who do it, who say they’ve been ridden through 18- or 21-hour days, beaten up for missing sales quotas, or left unpaid by the roadside. Multiple former team members said in interviews that they’d regularly gone weeks with no days off, sleeping in mostly in the vans. Knight himself categorically denies these claims, calling them fabrications and exaggerations by disgruntled ex-employees out to sully his name.
Either way, the Maverick Dirt Road Street Team has made Mikel Knight a direct-marketing musical superstar. For Kuntz, a shaggy aspiring guitarist, it looked like a way out of rural Missouri. Instead it left him back in the state, with five broken vertebrae and some big hospital bills, and with a memorial inked into his forearm. He walked me through the symbology as we sat at a Dairy Queen.
Branded between the steer’s lifeless eyes is the leviathan cross, an occult mark often used to represent the devil. That’s for Mikel Knight.
“I’m not a religious guy,” Kuntz said. “But Mikel Knight is fucking Satan.”
The seat of Mikel Knight’s peculiar empire lies behind a Tractor Supply store in Hermitage, Tennessee, on a stretch of roadside commercial sprawl that could be plucked from almost anywhere in suburban America. It encompasses a recording studio, offices, and a large garage that doubles as a rehearsal room for Knight’s band and warehouse for his stock of CDs and other merchandise.
Surrounded by his entourage in the studio’s dimly lit control room this month, Knight was wearing nearly the same outfit he sports in “Cowboy Way,” a recent music video: Budweiser NASCAR jacket, baggy camouflage pants, his ever-present black cowboy hat. “I know that’s what God wants me to do,” he said, referring to running the Maverick Dirt Road Street Team.
Knight is a tall, stocky man, with a bearing that mixes a rapper’s rowdy bravado with an evangelist’s earnestness. He told me he loathes the reality TV-watching America of today, then said he believes he should have been born in an earlier era—not to avoid that lazy decadence, but because back then men were allowed to settle their disputes in physical fights and duels to the death.
Each of Knight’s CD covers and the vans in the street team’s fleet is adorned with a Bible verse, and Knight regards himself as a saved Christian. As such, he is enamored with the idea of the second chance, a phrase he often employed as a compound modifier while talking about himself and his employees. He gave a list of the sorts of young men he tends to hire as touring salesmen—convicted felons, drug abusers, second-chance guys who can’t get hired for even menial jobs—then considered the nature of his work.
“We know that we are a second-chance program. Our music speaks of it,” he said. “Every day, when they walk in, I tell these guys, ‘This is what my life was. I made many mistakes. I had to change. I was late at learning, but look what God did for my life, and he can do it for yours.’”
Nearly two decades ago—before there was a Maverick Dirt Road Street Team, and with no cowboy hats in sight—a white San Antonio rapper named Jason Michael Cross, using the name A-Gee, released his debut album, Suthern Comfort Life of A Gee, which he’d written during a yearlong prison term he served for an attempted robbery charge. The record and its follow-up, Strugglin’ to Hustlin’, aimed not at the heartland but toward Houston, a four-hour drive to the east, roughly mimicking the music being made there by Bun B and Pimp C of UGK.
One tongue-twisting A-Gee single, “Peckawood,” got some national airplay, but he didn’t have what it took to break through. Cross went to jail for another few months after 1999’s Strugglin’ to Hustlin’, this time on assault charges stemming from a fight at a nightclub where he was promoting his new single. In 2001, he released another album of workmanlike Texas-style rap, Hardest Wood Outha Forest, under a new name: Mikel Knight, an apparent reference to David Hasselhoff’s suave Knight Rider protagonist.
On album, Mikel Knight’s early work was hard to distinguish from A-Gee’s: funky synth, references to cell blocks and to getting high on lean, and a flashy Pen & Pixel cover. He recorded a collaboration with Bun B, and another with local star Paul Wall. None of it signified popular country music, but a deeper reinvention was underway.
In early adolescence, Knight said, he’d noticed a pattern at Blue Bonnet Palace, a roadside country-western bar in the San Antonio suburb of Schertz. The Blue Bonnet DJs played country music in the early evening, but as the night grew later and families with children filed out, the soundtrack switched to rap, and patrons in denim and 10-gallon hats who’d just been listening to Alan Jackson started line-dancing to Sir Mix-A-Lot. He says he saw the same thing happen as he grew older and visited more bars, but when he talked to people the morning after going out, no one would cop to enjoying hip-hop.
“I was the first person to think in my head that country people like rap music—or they like the beat—but they just don’t identify with the artist that is singing that song,” he said. “That’s why it never gets past midnight and makes it to the next morning, and they don’t want to enjoy it again. So I decided that I would put a face they could identify with to something that they enjoyed in the late nights.”
Knight altered his look according to this revelation and began using the twang that is now a hallmark of his sound. In 2001, he created his own independent record label, 1203 Entertainment, which releases Mikel Knight albums and those of the Duke Boyz, a country-rap trio of which he is a member.
As at the Blue Bonnet Palace, the changeover came with a certain amount of denial. On the 1203 website, there is no mention of Knight’s earlier recorded output, and he calls the A-Gee albums “the most horrible music I’ve ever made.” His official discography now begins in 2010, with The Country Rap King, which bears considerable residue of his past as a non-country rapper: On its opening track, Knight quotes T-Pain and makes it known that he “ain’t no Conway Twitty,” in between rhymes that shout out two-step dancing and the state of Nebraska. After that, in 2014, came Urban Cowboy: Where the City Meets the Country, a considerably glossier and more Nashville-oriented affair.
Between those two country-rap albums, Knight had an even more career-defining inspiration: In 2012, after what he calls a divine epiphany, he launched the Maverick Dirt Road Street Team, a single van selling 20 albums a day. At first, he also marketed tickets to his performances at country bars like the Blue Bonnet Palace, but the sales of his CDs surpassed his revenue from shows, and soon he stopped performing live altogether. (He said he plans to return to playing concerts this year.) He added vans and employees, and by 2014, the team was selling over 35,000 Mikel Knight and Duke Boyz albums per month and had generated $3.1 million in total revenue, a press release claims. Knight’s role on the road diminished alongside this growth, and he has not traveled with the street team in about a year, he said.
At 39 years old, Knight now commands a position that combines obscurity with ubiquity. He’s not on mainstream radio, and unless you’re a fan of country rap, otherwise known as hick-hop—a genre whose audience is fiercely grassroots, finding unsigned new artists on YouTube and at mud-bogging festivals—you’ve likely never heard of him. But his tour bus and vans have covered the country, and if you believe 1203's internal sales numbers, he sells enough CDs and merchandise to compete with the heavyweights of both country and rap.
In a conference room that abuts Knight’s studio, a map of the continental United States hangs on the wall, next to a whiteboard full of promotional ideas for an upcoming tour of live concerts. A forest of pushpins protrudes from the map, each marking one of the many small towns the street team has visited over the years. Thomas Hairston, the senior vice president of 1203—a slim veteran of the mainstream record industry, wearing a blazer and jeans, who goes by “Fat Thomi”—waved an arm at the abundance. “We ran out of space on the map to stick the pins, so we stopped sticking them,” he said.
“It’s just 10 bucks, that’s not that bad,” Jerry Kuntz would say, making his sales pitch to a potential new Mikel Knight fan, in the spring or summer of 2014. Name recognition was an obstacle. Back in April of that year, Kuntz himself had never heard of the Country Rap King or listened to a beat of his music. He liked Slipknot and Deftones, hard rock. He was living in small-town northeast Missouri, working at McDonald’s.
Then, one day, a panel van pulled into the gas station next door to where Kuntz was manning the grill. The side carried a larger-than-life portrait of a tattooed man with a black cowboy hat pulled low over his steely gaze. The name with the picture read MIKEL KNIGHT.
Kuntz does not remotely resemble the corn-fed young men seen in country rap videos on YouTube, or in promotional photos and videos of the Maverick Dirt Road Street Team. I first met him in person on a buggy Saturday evening, at the Louisiana, Missouri, house he shares with his girlfriend and her parents. A litter of tiny kittens rolled around in the overgrown driveway. He wore all black despite the sultry August weather: skinny jeans, pentagram bracelet, skateboarding sneakers, Bauhaus t-shirt. His earlobes bore the unmistakable sag of recently removed gauge plugs, and a septum ring dangled from his nose.
When guys from the van approached him about buying an album, he told them he wasn’t interested. They played him some, and he hated it. In retrospect, he would find it a little unnerving how quickly they changed tacks: Instead of trying to make the sale, they invited him to join the sales team.
But as a guitarist, he connected with a guy nicknamed Cooter, who claimed to play guitar in Knight’s band. Cooter pitched Kuntz on joining the Maverick Dirt Road Street Team as a salesman by appealing to his ambition as a musician: If he joined up, Cooter said, he might be able to go into the studio with Knight and record a few tracks for his new album. Plus, there was supposedly an MTV reality show in the works: The Maverick of Music Row, which would document the cross-country exploits of Knight and his crew.
There were reasons to be skeptical, but Kuntz had little attachment to anything he’d be leaving behind. His father, who he calls a “racist asshole,” was a construction worker and member of the Aryan Brotherhood, the white supremacist prison gang. He died in an accident in 2003, and Kuntz’s mother left home shortly after that, leaving eight-year-old Jerry bouncing around the homes of various extended family members.
Why not try touring the country, meeting new people, and making real money working for a professional musician? “I didn’t really care about country rap,” Kuntz said. “But I would have the fact that I could say I played guitar in a studio. So I figured that’s definitely a way to step my way into the music industry instead of flipping burgers.”
Cooter’s knowledge of the guitar turned out to be a little shakier than what you’d expect of a touring professional—he couldn’t even say how many strings were on the instrument when Kuntz got suspicious and brought it up. And though Kuntz didn’t know it at he time, the MTV show was apparently a fabrication, devised to lure starry-eyed young men like himself onto the street team. Knight had placed two songs in an episode of the short-lived MTV reality series Buckwild a year before, but according to network spokesman Jason Shumaker, The Maverick of Music Row “was never a show here at MTV.”
So Kuntz quit his McDonald’s job, and a week after first encountering the street team, he drove two hours south to St. Louis to join up with them. His new coworkers told him on one of his first days that Mikel Knight would not approve of his piercings. They were eager to spread their leader’s reputation as a man who had little patience for frivolity, and he was worried that his unconventional look might present a problem.
But when Kuntz crossed paths with Knight himself, the Country Rap King was understanding about his nose ring, even a little charmed. “Hey, I used to have a ring just like that,” Knight said to Kuntz upon first meeting him, then walked away with a smile.
At first, Kuntz found that his new boss was as gentle and approachable as that initial interaction suggested, not the irritable and aloof superstar his coworkers told him about. There were rumors of violence among street team members, but he didn’t see anything firsthand. Everyone got along, and though the hours were long, the thrill-seeking side of Kuntz’s personality was happy to feel like he was living on the edge. He learned how to effectively cajole someone into buying a record, and became one of the street team’s top sellers, sometimes unloading 80 albums in a single day.
It’s just 10 bucks. Kuntz couldn’t really sell the music on its merits, but he knew how to pitch it on economics. “It makes you feel bad because you’re selling shitty music to people who probably didn’t do anything wrong in their lives,” he said with a laugh later, reflecting on his tactics.
“A week ago, I’m flipping burgers, and now I’m in Illinois, at a random-ass gas station, selling CDs,” he remembers thinking. “I was kind of along for the ride. I mean, I’m kind of an adrenaline junkie. So like, ‘Fuck yeah, let’s do this.’”
From a purely business perspective, for an artist who has pursued a sales and marketing path that is probably without precedent in modern pop music, the Maverick Dirt Road Street Team is a success. Ever since the rise of Napster in the early 2000s, nearly every working musician has shifted his or her gaze from album sales as a primary source of revenue to things like live performances and licensing songs for movies and television. Mikel Knight still sells albums. Lots of them.
Knight has theories about the reasons for his good fortune, and none of them involve alleged exploitation of his labor force. A recurring theme is his self-proclaimed reluctance to ignore a segment of society that everyone else has left behind. For instance, Knight believes the mainstream music industry made a grave error when it neglected CD sales in favor of streaming and digital downloads. Until 10 or 15 years after cars stop coming equipped with CD players, his thinking goes, there will be a market for the format, because poor people in rural areas listen to music in their cars, not on smartphones, and they drive cars that are 10 and 15 years old.
Fat Thomi shares this view. “To download music, you have to have a computer, and you have to have a credit card,” he said. “And you’ll find a lot of people in this world who don’t have credit cards.”
Knight speaks forcefully, in jerky rhythms, often in torrents that last for minutes at a time. Occasionally, in his studio, he broke out of the monologue to gently or harshly press for an answer to what had seemed at first like a rhetorical question. “Take me out of the equation,” he said to the room at one point. “Could you guys deal with all of these guys every day? Could you? Would you do it without me? They won’t do it. I don’t even think they can do it. That’s what I’m asking: Do you think y’all could do it without me? Remove Mikel Knight from that equation?”
To a man, each of his lieutenants shook his head.
In May of last year, 1203 Entertainment took out a double-page spread in Billboard magazine announcing that the Maverick Dirt Road Street Team had sold 1,012,155 CDs over a 24-month period. According to Hairston, the Maverick Dirt Road Street Team sold roughly 10,500 units of merchandise per week on its last stint on the road, and has sold 1.4 million units in the 45 months of its existence.
Fat Thomi pulled out Nielsen Music album sales charts for the previous week for comparison. The message was that the 10,500 figure, if accurate, would have put Mikel Knight number eight on the country chart and number two on the rap chart for that particular week.
The methodology could have been better. Because the vast majority of Knight’s albums are sold hand-to-hand by the street team, his sales are not verifiable through Nielsen or Billboard. And where an artist like Drake or Luke Bryan earns his spot at the top of the chart with the sales of a single album, Fat Thomi’s numbers lump together all three Mikel Knight and Duke Boyz albums that the street team sells on the road—along with t-shirts and other merchandise. Units are units.
Still, they’re selling. Fat Thomi took me from the studio to the parking lot, dotted with a multicolored array of vans, 20 in all, each with a nickname and matching decor: The van labeled Rebel displays a Confederate flag, Longhorn is Texas-themed, Ron Burgundy is painted the same color as its namesake’s three-piece suits.
We crossed the parking lot and went into the rehearsal space and storage garage. Dozens of van tires were piled behind an elevated stage and a Confederate battle flag bearing the text “HERITAGE NOT HATE” hung on the wall. Further back were chest-high stacks of boxes filled with CDs. Hairston showed me the three wooden pallets of stock that the street team would take on the first leg of its next 25-day tour: 5,000 copies each of Country Rap King and the self-titled Duke Boyz album, 6,100 copies of Urban Cowboy. He anticipated that the team would sell out and be replenished with an identical load about halfway through the trip.
According to Knight, 15 to 17 of the vans go out on each sales tour, carrying roughly 40 employees in total on a 25-day trip. Apart from 10-day breaks between tours and certain holidays, the vans travel year-round. Knight acknowledges that the work is difficult and turnover is high, and estimates that between 700 and 900 young men have worked for the street team in the four years of its existence.
As the size of the fleet has increased, so has the production quality of Knight’s recordings and music videos. In 2008, he uploaded a low-budget clip for “Cowboys and Cadillacs,” the earliest video on his YouTube account. It consists almost entirely of Knight rapping to the camera in front of a single modest house. “There’s a Party Goin’ On,” a 2015 video by the Duke Boyz, takes place in a mansion and features aerial shots and a cameo from the veteran rap producer Jazze Pha.
However much braggadocio goes into the self-reported figures, the Maverick Dirt Road Street Team’s operations testify to a strong revenue flow. As does Knight. A former employee named Tony Nichols said that one predawn morning last fall, as the street team members were preparing for their shifts, the Country Rap King gave a motivational speech, telling them, “You’re looking at a man who made $6 million this year so far.”
Mikel Knight received an unwelcome publicity boost in July of 2014, when an 18-year-old former employee named Ky Rodgers posted a lengthy Facebook missive about his experience working for the Maverick Dirt Road Street Team. The post alleged that Knight “slapped the hell” out of workers who didn’t meet his expectations for selling CDs and left others behind without paying them or allowing them to take their belongings.
“His work ethics were so evil, the way he treated us was like we were slaves,” Rodgers wrote. That post was eventually deleted—the text has been republished on another Facebook account—but before then, it had been shared thousands of times.
Other former employees have similarly used Facebook to make their cases against Knight. A popular page called Public Awareness of Mikel Knight and the Maverick Dirt Road Street team, which has also since been deleted, functioned as a kind of online support group for ex-workers and their families, and was the main forum for voicing complaints against Knight. A post from July of 2015, in which a woman alleged that her brother had been “dropped off in the middle of no where with no money no food or any of his belongings” while working for for the street team, was typical.
Kyle “Trigger” Coroneos, an independent music journalist who has written about Knight, believes the rapper’s legal team may have served a cease-and-desist letter to the operators of the Public Awareness of Mikel Knight page before it was taken down. Coroneos himself received one such letter after Rodgers’ account inspired him to publish a 3,000-word blog post detailing the allegations against the Country Rap King on his website Saving Country Music in May of last year, which marked the first time those allegations had been publicly aired at length besides in Facebook posts from workers.
Ex-employees allege that when Knight was absent from his tours, he remained present to them in the form of shouted phone calls and profane, all-caps text messages. “WHEN YALL HAVE 20 sales by 1pm it’s either give me some of your Friday and Saturday money back or someone kicks you in your ass and drops you off where you wanna be BY YOURSELF IN THE MIDDLE OF NO WHERE TO FUCK AROUND AND PLAY!!” reads one message apparently sent by Knight to employees, which Coroneos published to his blog after it was screencapped and posted to the Public Awareness Facebook page.
Another screencapped message, apparently from a street team manager and member of the Duke Boyz who goes by Kool Whip, reads “I ain’t fuckin playing anymore...it’s Friday there is no excuse at all...me,Mikel,and Fyngaz will deal with underachievement accordingly....18 mill. By the way. Whose gonna be the next person to get dropped off on the side of the road????”
The allegations against the street team are bad for business, and sales growth began drastically slowing when Rodgers’ post gained traction online, Knight said. A quickly disproven rumor that the team was responsible for the disappearance of two attendees at the Rocklahoma music festival last spring has also dogged Knight. The two men were later found dead, their minivan submerged in a lake that was flooded at the time of the concert. Authorities found no evidence of foul play.
I began attempting to contact Mikel Knight in July of 2015, after coming across Rodgers’ Facebook post about his time on the street team and beginning to interview former workers. Emails to an address on his website and calls to phone numbers associated with him went unanswered for months. Eventually, a publicist said that Knight was not interested in being interviewed or giving comment about his ex-employees’ claims, even over the phone or by email.
Finally, on the day before I’d planned to publish a story about the claims of abuse, I gave the publicist a detailed list of allegations and asked once more if Knight would like to weigh in. Suddenly, I was invited to travel to his headquarters outside Nashville, on a specified date two weeks later. I was assured that the visit would dispel any false notions I might have acquired about what life on the Maverick Dirt Road Street Team is like.
The version of the street team experience that Knight presented in our subsequent interview contains none of the abuse alleged by Rodgers and others, but it is far from a breezy road trip. Knight acknowledged that fights are not uncommon among Maverick Dirt Road Street Team employees, but claimed that anyone who does fight gets fired. Any allegations about underpayment or beatings issued as punishment are untrue, he said.
He said that the street team occasionally leaves a member behind while traveling, but only when that member has broken the law. He offered an anecdote about a group of workers who he alleged were caught stealing street team vans as an example. “You stole my van, or you were cracked out at a light, asleep in the middle of the street, and we stopped the cops from arresting you, but that’s the best we can do,” Knight said. “Sir, we don’t have to take your 28-year-old drugged-out ass any further. We’re not your mommy and daddy. That’s how they get left behind.”
Knight believes Rodgers’ Facebook post was an attempt to extract money from him after Rodgers refused to settle a dispute over a van crash through insurance. More broadly, Knight said the allegations against him are a result of his decision to hire young men with troubled pasts. If an employee is fired for relapsing into criminal behavior or any other reason, he said, a made-up story about an abusive boss provides a good explanation for why he lost his job. The idea gains crediblity each time a new worker is fired and corroborates it, until eventually it is accepted as the truth.
At headquarters, Knight introduced me to Luke Love, a three-year veteran of Knight’s employ. Love has had perhaps the ideal career arc for a street team member. He joined in 2013 with hopes of making it in the music industry, and after about a year of work, Knight heard the hook to a song Love was working on and decided to cut it for an album. Love still tours with the street team selling CDs, but now he also works in Knight’s stable of songwriters.
Love said the accusations against his boss differed greatly from his own experience. “If you don’t sell, you don’t make money. It’s that simple. You’re not promised a $5,000 paycheck. You’re going to work, and you’re going to earn what you’re going to get. These guys come out because they hear they’re going to make good money out here, but they don’t want to put forth the work,” Love said.
“The whole thing about ‘you get beat up’—anything that happens out there gets blamed on Mikel Knight,” he added.
Fat Thomi Hairston, who counts time at Rick Rubin’s American Recordings and Clive Davis’ Arista on his resume, makes a convincing case that Knight’s operation is cleaner than it may seem. When Hairston was offered his current position at 1203, he said, “They told me the sales numbers, and my wife laughed and said ‘They’ve gotta be selling drugs.’”
Hairston, who serves as a contemplative foil to his combative boss, said he visited the street team on tour before taking the job and found that the hardest product being peddled was a Mikel Knight-branded mp3 player. On his frequent visits to the team on the road since then, he said, he’s dealt with two drug-addicted employees who went into withdrawal while traveling, but never seen anything else untoward.
Asked whether he believes it’s possible that some of the misconduct that ex-employees allege against Knight went on before he joined the organization, but ceased before or around the time he came on in April 2014, Fat Thomi said, “No. I don’t think so. The system was and still is in place.”
Standing in the parking lot of Mikel Knight HQ, he discussed a spat he recently had with a neighbor over the wrapped street team vans that surrounded him as he spoke. “At this point, I’m protecting this brand’s image to the point where I don’t even want people saying we’re taking up too many parking spaces,” he said, exasperated.
According to ex-employees, a day in the life of a young man in Knight’s employ begins sometime between 6:00 and 7:00 a.m., with a bang on the window of the panel van in which he probably spent the night. Motel rooms, and the opportunities for bathing and clean sheets they provide, are rare for street team members, and a full night’s sleep is even rarer. On an exceptionally good day, workers said, they may awaken after six hours of rest, but three-hour nights are not uncommon.
Knight and Fat Thomi tell it differently: Days often start as late as 9 or 10 a.m., they said, and if a worker got less than seven hours of sleep it’s because he chose to stay up long past the end of the work day.
That discrepancy is indicative of a larger split between the ways in which Knight’s inner circle and the former employees interviewed for this piece describe working for the Maverick Dirt Road Street Team. Both groups acknowledge it is a demanding job, and that a hardworking salesman can come away with thousands of dollars after a few weeks of work.
But while one side sees the hyperbolic complaints of those who aren’t cut out for the grueling schedule, the other sees an organization that routinely overworks, underpays, and abuses its employees. Where Knight and his organization describe tours of 25 days, with 10 days between, employees said that Knight regularly extends them at a whim for days or weeks more.
After the wake-up knock on the window, workers emerge from their vans into a Walmart parking lot somewhere in America. Employees at the jumbo retail stores tend not to raise a fuss about the convoy of Mikel Knight-branded vans, making Walmart the Maverick Dirt Road Street Team’s de facto campground of choice. After a quick group prayer and a few jumping jacks, street team members reload all the vans with merchandise, hop into one with two or three other guys, and head off in the direction of the town they’ve been assigned to work for the day.
Their destinations have been carefully selected for their demographics. The ideal area for selling Mikel Knight’s music is 80 to 100 percent white, with a household income between $30,000 and $50,00, according to Kuntz, who said he was often placed in charge of finding suitable locales. Street team members have a word for the process of finding customers who fit the bill: sniping.
“As you’re driving down the road, you’re looking for big trucks, or jeeps, or anything like that—redneck. We call it ‘snipe a redneck,’” said Nicholas Bailey, a former employee from Washington State. Once you snipe a redneck, you pull into the parking lot where he’s hanging out and try to make a sale.
Everyone is expected to sell at least 40 CDs per day—a high bar, considering Knight’s lack of popular exposure and the widely presumed death of physical music sales. They are motivated by the promise of a payday, but also the fear of going home with nothing: If a street team member hits the 40-CD quota, he is theoretically entitled to half of the revenue he brings in—$200 a day, for 40 CDs at $10 each. But if a seller misses the quota, former employees said, Knight sometimes pays him nothing at all for that day’s labor. Again, Knight himself disputes this notion, saying employees are always given half of their personal revenue, no matter how many units they sell.
Workers are told they will receive a lump sum for their sales at the end of the tour, but several I talked to believed they were severely underpaid, and others claimed that they were never paid at all. They are also entitled to a $15 per diem advance on their paycheck, but they said that too comes only after they make their daily sales quota. (Knight denies that employees are underpaid and claims the per diem is offered regardless of whether a salesman has hit his quota.) All of this, combined with the precarious financial situations that some workers begin with, means that they often go hungry, they say. “There’d be times where I’d go two days and just get a bag of chips, and maybe a Mountain Dew,” said Tony Nichols.
Staying awake on the road is a near-constant concern, and nearly every person I talked to mentioned consuming copious amounts of caffeine, and sometimes other stimulants. “People will do anything to stay awake out there. They’ll trade CDs for Vyvanse, Adderall,” Kuntz said. “Apparently people started eating Chapstick out there. I don’t know if it works.”
After a full day’s selling, workers receive a text from one of the street team leaders with the address of another Walmart. Luke Love, the current street team member, said that text usually comes at around 9 or 10 p.m., while ex-employees said it sometimes came at midnight or later. Both sides agree that the new camp, where they reconvene with the crews of the other vans, could be as far as one or two hours’ drive away. Upon arriving, each van’s “captain”—the driver—hands over the day’s revenue to a street team leader or Knight himself. Before Knight stopped traveling with the team, he could often be found relaxing on his tour bus during these evening meetings, ex-workers said.
Accounts and discipline matters are settled between one night’s arrival and the next morning’s departure. Adrian Melton, a 25-year-old from Wesson, Miss., recalled an incident in early 2013 in which he confessed to his manager one night that he’d been smoking marijuana. The next morning, as he was loading inventory, he said he heard someone shouting his name. The manager, Melton said, “came up with his fist and started hitting me. Knocked me on the ground in front of everybody. I couldn’t count how many times he hit me.”
Like many of the young men on his street team, Knight comes from a background no one would ask for: His father left his family before he was born, and his mother followed suit when he was a teenager. Like the second-chance guy that he puts forth as the archetypal Maverick Dirt Road Street Team employee, Knight himself has been to jail three times.
Thanks in part to his own jail time, Knight speaks passionately about what he sees as the evils of the American prison system, and one of the reasons he believes the street team is a divine calling is that it gives work opportunities to those who might not be afforded them otherwise. Convincing strangers to buy an album takes the same skill set as selling a dime bag of weed, he jokes, so many of his ex-con employees are already well-suited to a job on the team when they walk in the door.
Knight sees himself as a champion for the impoverished or working-class citizen of the American heartland. His music nakedly appeals to rural, and largely white, sensibilities. (When he talks about giving country listeners a rapper whose face they can identify with, it’s hard not to consider the implications of his switch from wearing a bandanna and throwback jerseys on his A-Gee albums to a cowboy hat and boots on Urban Cowboy.)
On the day of my visit to Knight’s studio complex, the founders of an Alabama-based nonprofit organization called A Cut Above the Rest, which provides construction and lawn-care training and jobs to recently released felons, had traveled from Montgomery to Nashville to present Knight with a certificate of appreciation for his monthly donation of $5,000. Juanida Pitts and Melinda Ricketts, A Cut Above the Rest’s co-founders, also brought a sheaf of letters from the program’s alumni thanking Knight for his help.
In a moment so well-timed it almost seemed orchestrated in advance, a student called Pitts on her cell phone while we ate lunch and evidently asked if he could thank Knight himself. Knight happily obliged. “He’s helping ex-felons by contributing to us,” Ricketts said. “Without his donations, a lot of our students wouldn’t have been able to come to the program.”
Poverty and cultural estrangement help get the team members on the road, according to Kyle Corneos. “Real small towns, in the South and the Midwest and such—this is where they come into town and they set up shop,” Coroneos said. “These people feel lost in time.”
To a 19-year-old working a job he hates, the Maverick Dirt Road Street Team has the outward signifiers of a major musician’s tour—the wrapped tour bus, the big entourage—and Knight’s music and videos are slick and well-produced. “They feel disenfranchised from what’s going on, and here’s these guys that roll into town, and they look like they’re from the big time,” Coroneos said. “They’re high-profile, famous individuals, and they’re coming to their town, that nobody comes to, and they’re giving them attention.
“These kids, a lot of times, don’t have education. They don’t really feel like they have a future. They’re like ‘Wow, I can go work for this guy, and I can be a part of something.’”
The actual payoff of the experience can be disappointing or worse. For Tony Nichols, who worked at Hardee’s before joining the street team, the end of a five-week tour through the southeast in late 2014 meant not a long-awaited paycheck, but a bewildering bus ride back to his home in central Tennessee with nothing in his pockets. He believed that he’d sold enough CDs to be paid several thousand dollars, but he claims that on his final day, he was driven to a Greyhound station, handed a $100 bill, and told that it would be the only payment for his work. Knight said that this sort of thing only happens when an employee has not earned enough commission to pay for his per diem advance or his van’s gas bill.
Dustin Farmer, a former Knight employee and aspiring country singer, told me that after he missed sales quotas for several days and briefly dozed off at the wheel of a van, the street team abandoned him on the side of the road in Freeport, Illinois, without paying him the $9,000 he believes he was owed. A sympathetic church purchased a Greyhound ticket to Cleveland for Farmer, but he had no way of getting from there to his home in Kentucky, and was briefly stuck in Cleveland, homeless, during the dead of winter. “I hate Mikel Knight’s guts and I hope soon I get my money he owes me,” Farmer said.
Nicholas Bailey, who worked on the street team for about five months in 2015, received a call from Mikel Knight himself on his third day on the job. Bailey had been riding in a van with another staffer who somehow ran afoul of Knight’s policies. “Hey, you’re the captain of that van. You’re in charge of that van,” he remembers Knight telling him. “Tell that guy to get his shit and get the fuck out. Leave him where he’s at, right now.”
Bailey promptly abandoned the man at a gas station, a decision he now regrets deeply. “I just met him that day, but whether I was tight with him or not, that’s not how I was raised,” he said. “And it just bothers the hell out of me.”
Knight tells a different story. It was Bailey who acted improperly—stealing a bag of cash, intentionally damaging a van—while working for the street team, he said.
When discussing Bailey, Knight is quick to note that his former employee was found guilty of attempted rape, a conviction Bailey received as a juvenile. Bailey claims he was charged wrongfully after lashing out against an abusive foster mother as an 11-year-old. “I’ve lived with it for 12 years. I know what happened,” he said. “And if to beat [Mikel Knight], I have to go up and talk about this stuff, I will.”
In July of 2015, I called the police department in Muscle Shoals, Ala., after hearing from a nearby department that officers there may have encountered Mikel Knight recently. The officer on the other end of the line gave a laugh as he answered my question. “That’s the guy with all the buses selling CDs?” he asked. “I believe we did have some contact with him. I believe every police department in the area did.”
The month before, Sheriff Boyd Hicks of Logan County, Arkansas, published a statement on his Facebook page warning residents about the street team, which had recently been through town. “I heard some concern about Mikel Knight and just wanted to let people know who they were dealing with,” he told me later. In Benton County, 125 miles north, police lieutenant Kevin Russell was also concerned after reading allegations against Knight online.
But when the Maverick Dirt Road Street Team came to town, their only apparent violation was failure to obtain a sales permit, he said. A Tuscumbia, Alabama, police officer—whose chief expressed worry about Knight to local TV station WTVM that month—told me the same thing.
April Weatherly, a police spokesperson in the Maverick Dirt Road Street Team’s hometown of Nashville, provided a recent mugshot of Knight/Cross and a list of his past arrests, and said that she did not know whether the department had any open investigations into him. If it did, it would not comment on them, she added.
Fat Thomi acknowledged that failure to obtain permits was a “hiccup” due to the do-it-yourself nature of the street team’s early days, and he showed me a binder filled with what appeared to be permits for every state and municipality the team now visits. He also has a form letter that he sends to police departments, informing them that the street team will be coming to town, and another that goes to state governors. A response last year from the office of Wisconsin governor and erstwhile presidential candidate Scott Walker, wishing Knight and the team a happy and fortunate 2015, is a particular point of pride for him.
If a police department were interested in pursuing allegations against Knight, they might have a hard time getting the street team members to talk to them. In June, Sergeant Brad Holmes of the Florence, Alabama, police department responded to calls from residents about Maverick Dirt Road Street Team members who were using “allegedly very aggressive” sales tactics, he said. Holmes’ conversations with the street team employees he met gave him no pause, however, and he wasn’t aware of any other reasons to be concerned until looking Knight up on the internet after his encounter.
“Nothing about our contact with his employees indicated that they were in any danger,” Holmes said. “Obviously, talking one-on-one with our officers would have been a prime opportunity to relay that information.”
Adrian Melton, the street team member who claims he was beaten for smoking pot, said he saw many police officers while working in the days following the assault. He considered telling them about what had happened to him, but could not overcome the fear that there would be retribution against him or his loved ones if he did. “I was afraid about what Mikel Knight’s team was going to do about it,” he said.
Kuntz and Nichols expressed similar sentiments. “When you first sign up, you have to text him your address and send a picture of yourself,” Kuntz said. “So when they got my address—that kind of sketched me out. I’ve got a little sister and my aunt and my cousins live there. And I’m not about to go try and start some shit so they get some revenge.”
“You give them your information when you start. Your address, your phone number, your name, your mother’s name, your mother’s maiden name, emergency contact. So if they were to jump you and leave you somewhere, and you were to somehow call home, and they were to find out about it, they could come to your house and hurt you and your family,” Nichols said.
Another ex-employee declined to speak with me on the record because he feared that Knight would find him and exact retribution. “I would love to tell you my story,” he wrote. “But out of safety for me and my family, I have to decline.”
In a 2007 interview with the German hip-hop blog UG Rap, Mikel Knight was asked to describe his own character. “My friends would call me crazy. Most people that know me know I’m a good dude but I have I have a zero tolerance for disrespect and bullshit. I have a scary temper,” he answered.
His arrest record backs up this suggestion of hotheadedness. In the 1990s in Texas, he did time for assault and attempted robbery. Years later, in Nashville, his record suggests a pattern of domestic abuse.
In February 2010, Cross and his then-girlfriend broke up after an argument, according to an affidavit for Jason Cross’s arrest issued that month. When she returned to the house a few days later, after what an affidavit describes as a torrent of harassing phone calls, she found it ransacked: “All electrical cords from all appliances were cut from the appliance; 22 garments of clothing appeared to have been cut; the couch upholstery had been cut and the dining room table surface had been gouged.”
In June of that year, after hearing cries for help, neighbors called police, who found Cross with blood on his hands and “a gash on his right middle knuckle,” as well as splatters of blood on the walls of the dining and living rooms, according to an affidavit. His partner, the affidavit said, had blood “running down her face and her chest,” and said that after she told Cross she was going to leave him, he’d hit her hard enough to cleave open her lip and knock out her right front tooth. Friends said that she had been hospitalized with injuries inflicted by Cross nine days before, a second affidavit reads.
The pair is now married, with children. “Everybody in this room is more scared of my wife than they are of me...she will punch any man in the face at any time she wants to,” he said of the incident. “That was a time of emotion, a passion-filled moment. That wasn’t pre-planned. This lot that I’ve built in my life—I have a lot of things that I’m sorry for, that I have to make up for.”
In August 2010, Cross was sentenced to 8 months in prison and five years probation on a variety of charges from the February and June incidents. He says his spiritual awakening came during that time in prison, and credits everything about his life today—including the Maverick Dirt Road Street Team, which he founded about a year after his release—to his embrace of Christianity.
“I couldn’t say the domestic altercation with my wife was all that bad, because my life was changed when I went into prison...When I went there, I gave my life to God, and everything changed from that moment,” he said. “My children, my wife—everything that’s good about our life started in that jail.”
Three weeks into his second tour with the street team, on June 10 of last year, Jerry Kuntz was traveling through the night in Utah. His early enthusiasm for the job had waned a bit. A week or two before, he said, his cousin had joined the team and earned a beating from two of Knight’s associates on his very first (and very last) day. Still, Kuntz had been paid well after his first tour, and he was determined to keep his head up.
The driver that night was supposed to be Ky Rodgers, the 18-year-old whose Facebook post about Knight would later go viral. Rodgers was tired, however, and asked another man to take the wheel. According to Kuntz, the van’s passengers were passing a joint around.
“I layed the passenger seat back, and went to sleep, having no idea what was about to happen,” Rodgers wrote in the post. The substitute driver soon fell asleep as well.
Rodgers’ post continues:
I wake up to the driver screaming his head off and us being in mid air and suddenly smashing into something sending me flying to the back of the van. We had flew off the road, off a 3-4 story drop off, the van laying on it’s side. I couldn’t stand or walk. I remember looking around and seeing blood everywhere and I looked into the window above my head from the door and seeing blood pouring out my nose.
Rodgers, who declined to be interviewed for this story, wrote in the Facebook post that he broke three vertebrae, his pelvis, and his sacrum in the wreck, and was airlifted to a nearby hospital. “Mikel Knight, our manager, or anyone on our street team never called to check on me, the whole time I was in the hospital. I mean nobody,” he wrote. He alleges that the wreck led to $39,000 in hospital bills, which Knight refused to help cover, and that he was never paid for the three weeks of work he put in before the wreck.
Kuntz was unfazed after the crash. The injuries he’d received were minor—enough for a precautionary hospital visit, but not enough to keep him off the road for long. When he returned to work the following day, he was named the second in command of a new van, with two newcomers, Taylor Nixon and Robert Underfinger, as teammates.
Kuntz, Nixon, and Underfinger bonded quickly. They had a common affinity for goofing off instead of doing work. Kuntz and Nixon were 19; Underfinger was 18. All three young men were fond of Justin Hoskins, the 30-year-old captain of the van.
In Amarillo, Texas, one of them noticed that a regional fair was taking place nearby. The three younger men suspected that patrons would be too busy playing games and riding the Ferris wheel to spend their time and money on country rap CDs, but they wanted to visit the fairgrounds themselves. They convinced Hoskins that it would make a perfect venue for selling, and when they arrived, no one was interested, just as they’d thought. But a day spent amid lights, music, and thrill rides was a crucial respite from the toil of the road.
A few days later, on June 16, Hoskins stopped at a gas station in the Texas panhandle to refuel just before 8 a.m. He could tell that Kuntz, his best seller, was lagging from lack of sleep, so he told him to get some rest on the van’s rear bench, which was Underfinger’s usual spot. Underfinger reluctantly gave it up, and Kuntz dozed off quickly.
He awoke to chaos about 30 minutes later. Hoskins had fallen asleep at the wheel, and Underfinger probably had dozed off too, or he would have roused the driver. Their Chevrolet van was drifting across the highway at 75 miles per hour. According the accident report, Hoskins veered into a ditch on the right side of Highway 273, then awoke and began overcorrecting, careening across the highway toward another ditch on the opposite side. Then he overcorrected again, to the right, and the van began rolling.
Kuntz watched as Nixon was ripped from the vehicle and thrown onto the roadway. Two or three flips later, the entire front seat—Kuntz’s usual spot—was torn out and mangled, with Underfinger still sitting in it. Kuntz is certain that he would be dead today if he hadn’t forced his friend to trade seats with him. They continued to roll.
The van hit a barbed-wire fence and came to a halt on its left side. Its windshield had been shattered and one of its doors completely removed. “It was just me and Justin, screaming,” Kuntz said. “I couldn’t move. I couldn’t move at all.”
When the EMTs arrived, they pried open the back doors and removed Kuntz and Hoskins, then brought Kuntz to an airlift helicopter for a 45-minute flight to Northwest Texas Hospital in Amarillo. On some level, he understood that Nixon and Underfinger were dead, but he held out hope that he was wrong. While the EMTs were placing him onto a stretcher, he asked if his friends were OK, and they assured him that Nixon and Underfinger would be fine. As he was being loaded into the helicopter, he overheard one of the technicians speaking into a walkie talkie: “We’ve got two fatalities.” That’s when he knew for sure.
According to Kuntz, neither Mikel Knight nor any member of the Maverick Dirt Road Street Team bothered to tell Nixon’s parents how their son had died. About a month after the crash, Kuntz received a Facebook message from Shannon Baseman, Nixon’s mother. “She was really pissed because her kid came home in a box and she had no idea how he died,” he said. “I called her, and I had to tell her how her son died a month later. After they already had the funeral and everything. She had no idea.” (Baseman declined to be interviewed for this story through her attorney, citing the possibility of legal action relating to her son’s death.)
Kuntz spent about two weeks hospitalized and rehabilitating his broken vertebrae. For about a week after that, he lived with his aunt, who drove him back from the hospital and begged him not to go on working for Knight, to whom he still felt strangely loyal. Then he and his aunt got in a fight, and Kuntz lost his only place to stay. For months, he was homeless, crashing on couches with friends who lived in Pike County, Missouri, where he’d grown up. The last of his devotion to Knight ran out when he realized that not only was his old boss not helping with his hospital bills, but he’d docked money from Kuntz’s paycheck as compensation for the wrecked van.
Bitter and unable to find work, Kuntz spent most days wandering around on foot and wondering what he would do next. His luck turned just as the onset of winter was starting to make his transient life more difficult. In November, his new girlfriend asked him to move into the house she shares with her parents in Louisiana, a city of about 3,000 that sits on the western banks of the Mississippi River. At around that time, he began working his current job, as a traveling maintenance man with the Peggs Company, a shopping cart manufacturer. In some ways it’s similar to his last gig: He’s on the road all the time, and he often puts in significantly more than 40 hours per week.
“But, I mean, it’s legal,” he said. Now, Kuntz and his girlfriend are saving up for a place of their own.
The song “Cowboy Way,” released in December 2014, is among Mikel Knight’s catchiest and most accomplished recordings. A banjo- and handclap-adorned number with an EDM-style pulse and soaring melodic hook, the track wouldn’t sound out of place on a playlist next to Pitbull and Ke$ha’s “Timber” or Avicii’s “Wake Me Up,” songs that similarly mix big-tent pop sounds with rootsy acoustic instruments.
The clip presents a fictionalized version of the Maverick Dirt Road Street Team: young men in t-shirts and aviator sunglasses loading cardboard boxes into Mikel Knight-branded panel vans and making cash sales in a convenience store parking lot. Watching the team from afar are two law enforcement officers with binoculars and a telephoto camera. It’s clear that the cops believe a crime is being committed, but not what that crime might be.
Knight, resplendent in his Budweiser NASCAR jacket and cowboy hat, then raps in front of a rowdy crowd of men who sing along and jump up and down in time with the music. The cops are on his tail once again, assembled in an office and poring over surveillance photos of the street that they’ve taped up to a whiteboard.
In light of the accusations against Knight and the Maverick Dirt Road Street Team, the “Cowboy Way” video plays out as both a brazen joke and an evasion. The ostensible gag seems to be that the cops are confused: Knight’s humble, hustling business has made them mistake him for some sort of drug kingpin.
But it’s hard not to read it as an acknowledgement of the precariousness of his own situation. If allegations from former employees are true, the authorities may have plenty of good reasons to go after Knight and his street team; it’s just that none of them happen to be portrayed on screen.
At the video’s climax, shotgun-toting officers in SWAT gear storm into a dusty warehouse where Knight has just been performing, hoping for a high-profile bust, and find only boxes full of promotional t-shirts. Mikel Knight, one step ahead, is long gone from the scene.