If, as Kinky Friedman once said, "an artist is a man who's ahead of his time and behind on his rent," then consider Wheeler Walker, Jr. the Michelangelo of country music. Now, of course I'm biased, being a dear friend of the man's for going on damn nea...
If, as Kinky Friedman once said, "an artist is a man who's ahead of his time and behind on his rent," then consider Wheeler Walker, Jr. the Michelangelo of country music. Now, of course I'm biased, being a dear friend of the man's for going on damn near thirty years now. But keep in mind: I'm an official Colonel of the Great State of Kentucky. They don't hand that shit out to just anybody.
You can't begin to talk about Wheeler without first talking about the Bluegrass State. We ain't talkin' 'bout the Ashley Judd, Rosemary Clooney, Billy Ray Cyrus version of Kentucky. Wheeler comes from that special Kentucky dirt, the dirt that brought us Hunter S. Thompson, Loretta Lynn, the Everly Brothers & Johnny Depp (Just his good movies of course. Not that lame Pirates dogshit.)
I still remember the first time I laid eyes on young "Wheels" (as he was known back then). A local talent contest in nineteen-eighty something. The kid had a gift. Singin' those Hank Jr. and George Strait songs better than the originals. He didn't win that day, on account o' him changing the lyrics of "All My Rowdy Friends are Coming Over Tonight" to "All My Rowdy Friends Will Blow Each Other Tonight". But a friendship was sealed, and in some ways, the Wheeler I met that day hasn't changed a lick: Pissin' people off, can't win for losin'... but making sure nobody who saw him would ever forget the name Wheeler Walker, Jr.
So it came as no surprise to me (or his lovely, supportive parents) that when I went off to the University of Kentucky, Wheeler decided to skip the whole college thing and instead boarded a bus to Nashville. (I graduated with an English degree. Most Colonels do. Diction is the forte of all Kentucky Colonels, and an integral part of what makes us who we are.)
Wheeler got his first breaks early. Famed country A&R man Ronnie Phillips heard him playing at the Bluebird Café and signed him to Capitol Nashville. He was partying with the new "young bloods" in town: Brad Paisley, Blake Shelton, Keith Urban. I remember envying his life in those days: Stayin' up late, drinkin' beer, smokin' grass, knee deep in that sweet Tennessee muff. Wheeler had it all.
Unfortunately Wheeler could never quite get along with "the man". Wheeler doesn't like being told what to do. Never has. That's what his heroes Waylon, Willie, Johnny and Hank taught him.
After refusing to censor his songs, Capitol dropped him. (Wheeler being Wheeler, he broke into the studio to steal back his master tapes – but those studios are dark at night, and he ended up stealing some shitty Lee Greenwood album instead. I've still got a framed portrait of the both of us pissing on it while it burned.)
It was the same scenario with RCA, Giant, Arista... and so on and so forth. The stories became the stuff of Nashville legend: Wheeler signs record deal, Wheeler raises all kinds o' hell, Wheeler threatens to murder the CEO, Wheeler fucks the CEO's wife... and the cycle repeats itself. Country music's most talented artist, and not even a damn single to show for it.
And listen, even I'll admit it's a hell of a story. But it took the focus away from the music. And that's a damn shame. Because for all the folklore that surrounded him, everyone knew Wheeler was the best singer-songwriter in Music City. It's just that the rest of the world didn't. Because there was no way for them to hear him.
Yes, I know that Wheeler's debut album is already being called "the filthiest country album in history". But to merely label it as that would be a crime. It's one of the finest country albums ever put to wax (or files, or whatever). Eleven songs of the most ass-kicking, moving and heartfelt real country you'll ever hear.
Produced by the great Dave Cobb (who's produced Jason Isbell, Chris Stapleton, Jamey Johnson & Wheeler's old pal Sturgill Simpson) and backed up by a crack band of Nashville's finest players, this is what country music is supposed to be.
Or why not just take it from Wheeler himself, on account of the fact that he's sitting across from me, yelling at me to get this shit done so we can hit the town and raise some hell: "Booker, this ain't a fuckin' joke. This is real music. Real songs. It's about something. Sure, I talk about clits and farts and shit, but it's only because I can finally say what the fuck I want, without some old fuckin' shithead tellin' me I gotta tone it down. This album just gushed outta me... like a jerk you've been holdin' in for five days."
So, what happens if the album doesn't sell? Wheeler paid for it himself (distributing it through the fine folks at Thirty Tigers). And even he'll admit, it's all the money he's got left.