Broken Hearts and Auto Parts:
Nikki Lane Takes the Wheel
It’s borderline cliché to slap the “outlaw” tag on upstarts with an ear for the past and no interest in toeing the commercial country line. That said, Nikki Lane’s new album Highway Queen, just out on New West Records, captures the rebellious spirit of the outcasts who’d drop by Tompall Glaser’s Hillbilly Central for late night recording sessions, without sounding like an era-specific homage.
The Nashville-based singer and songwriter’s next release comes at a time when the establishment once opposed by outlaws isn’t the only successful path for country singers. It’s the easy route, like a well-maintained stretch of interstate leading to Nashville. Americana is the backroads crossing through the back woods, existing at times for a relatively small group of local and regional travelers. With the internet making this musical map smaller and more accessible, the longer winding trip can be as viable an option for aspiring artists as the compromise-riddled straight and narrow way, without being cooped into the indie rock or punk worlds.
“We put out a record (2014’s All or Nothin’) kind of at the beginning of this new cycle where people are opening the door to alt-country music,” Lane says. “A lot of the bands I went and opened for on the road then are different from that, like Jenny Lewis and Social Distortion. I wasn’t getting opportunities to open for big country people at that time. I’ll be interested to see what happens this time around when it seems like people are starting to open their vantage point to what we do.”
For her album tour this winter, Lane is bringing along like-minded traditionalists Brent Cobb and Jonathan Tyler. It’s a chance to share the growing Americana spotlight with peers and play headline-length sets that cull from her three studio albums. “Even if the rooms are smaller, I’ve done all this work where I don’t have to open when celebrating the launch of the record,” Lane says.
It’s the younger names like Lane, Cobb, Cody Jinks, and dozens of others who’ve added cosmopolitan appeal to a musical resurgence. They are the 20- and 30-somethings positioned to apply punk fervor, D.I.Y. ethics, and an appreciation for Southern and Western music’s rich pasts to a pre-existing demand for real country music. Plus, they’re too young to have been jaded by the mainstream exploitation of outlaw country, Urban Cowboy wannabes, or downswings in alt-country’s popularity. “We may be the first generation who with a clear head gets to look back to the ‘60s and ‘70s and see all of that as incredible,” Lane says. “Whereas if you were in the ‘60s or the ‘70s, 10 years before seemed outdated. Like our generation begrudges the ‘80s and ‘90s, while younger kids love the ‘80s and ‘90s. It’s far enough away from their memory to enjoy it. We have all of this technology and amenities at our hands, but with the influence of all of those time periods. It’s kind of unavoidable that everyone I know knows who The Byrds are, and like I said that might have been outdated to my mother.”
Likewise, it makes sense for Lane’s peers with a history of performing or supporting punk, garage, power-pop, and indie rock to seamlessly transition into Americana fandom. A lot of those musical styles embrace country influences to some extent, even if it arrives second-hand via the Chris Hillmans and Gram Parsons of rock history. Aesthetically speaking, there’s plenty in that demographic making or collecting the types of jewelry and clothes Lane sells at her Nashville-based High Class Hillbilly vintage store. Members of a lot of underground bands wore cowboy shirts all along. Hell, they might’ve rocked Nudie suits on stage, budget permitting. Some within metal scenes were unironically proud of their Southernness already, so embracing country traditionalists like Lane should be old hat. And let’s not forget the devotees of jam bands and folk musicians beholden to regional sounds. In short, a lot of you are country enough already to blend in when Lane and her caravan of modern-day come to town. There’s no need to rush out and buy a gigantic belt buckle, even if it’s alright to be a little gaudy.
Lane’s appreciation of Loretta Lynn, Jessi Colter, and her other foremothers developed after she left her South Carolina hometown. “I was around a lot of radio country music (in South Carolina),” Lane explains. “All of my cassette tapes growing up at my dad’s house were ‘80s and ‘90s country music. I didn’t listen to old country until I was living in LA and had friends that were spinning vinyl and collecting old records. There were rock nights and country nights.”
Like many Southern-born performers, Lane’s earliest experiences as a performer, singer, and listener were courtesy her local Southern Baptist church. “The only punk rock I could listen to was Christian, so I was a Christian punk fan,” she says. “I also sang in church, which has a huge influence on my pitch and my ability to harmonize and weave around because I’ve been singing in an organized fashion since I was a kid.” Unfortunately for Lane, her church music experience involved praise and worship sing-alongs – called 7-eleven songs because there’s only seven words, chanted 11 times –instead of the classic hymns she’s likely heard since on Tennessee Ernie Ford albums.
Despite her love for the classics, Lane prefers performing original material. To paraphrase George Strait’s terrific new song “Kicked Outta Country,” she lives what she writes and writes what she sings. “Normally if you want me to sing something, I’ll sing something I wrote mainly because it’s easier to remember the words,” she says. “I listen to my favorite songs. I don’t try to cover them.”
The rare cover by Lane coincides with a chance to collaborate with another young country talent. A recent double 7-inch by J.P. Harris titled Why Don’t We Duet in the Road features four covers preformed as duets with four different women. Harris and Lane tackle the hilarious “You’re the Reason Our Kids are Ugly,” penned by L.E. White and Lola Jean Dillon and made famous by Loretta Lynn and Conway Twitty. “More so than doing covers, I love duets,” Lane says. “I get to hop on stage with people whose voices I admire and meld with their voices. I’d been singing in bars with J.P. since about the time I moved down to Nashville. It’s fun to play characters with him. He always throws different things at me. We did ‘You’re the Reason Our Kids are Ugly,’ first at a Christmas party. Loretta is so tongue-in-cheek on that one. It’s all about talking shit, so that one’s fun to do.”
Lane’s raspy voice and rebellious spirit has netted Wanda Jackson comparisons for years now. The two women may be linked for posterity soon, if a song they co-wrote makes it on the album Jackson is recording soon with producer Joan Jett. It’s one of several new songs Jackson co-wrote with young country songwriters, with additional collaborators including Grammy-winning songwriter Lori McKenna and Pistol Annies member Angaleena Presley. “It was one of the more intimidating writes I’ve been on,” Lane says. “I went down to Music Row, and I have a rule I don’t go down to Music Row but for two people. I guess that’s Wanda Jackson and my buddy I keep writing songs with, like ‘Highway Queen.’”
The generation and morality gaps between the young, brazen Lane and the devoutly religious “Queen of Rockabilly” proved to be surprisingly narrow during their brief working relationship. “She’s just so sweet that I just had to watch my mouth,” Lane adds. “I’m trying not to cuss, and meanwhile when we asked her if she wanted to go for lunch she said she’d rather go for a gin and tonic.”
Embracing past sounds in progressive ways has allowed Lane to discover songs of the South and reinterpret them based on her own life experiences. The result sounds like coming home to Mama and Daddy, but not in a sad “I can’t find a job after college” sense. Instead, stories of life on the road (“Highway Queen”), gambling (“Jackpot”), and losing (“Forever Lasts Forever”) paint honest pictures of life that suit the same sturdy canvas used by countless honky-tonk heroes, dating from Hank Williams and Jimmie Rodgers to her equally promising Americana peers.
Photo by Susan Moll.