Nick 13 Offers California a Lesson in Its Own Country Music History

Punk Rocker Finds Inspiration in Nashville for Solo Debut

Nick 13 is known as the tattooed singer and songwriter of Tiger Army , a “psychobilly” band from Southern California that mixes the explosiveness of punk rock with the heartfelt lyrics and traditional sound of rockabilly. At times, like on the band’s most enduring song, “Outlaw Heart,” he openly took inspiration from Western ballads. But after four albums and more than 10 years of touring, the surprisingly mild-mannered frontman decided it was time to really explore the country genre.

What emerged is a self-titled solo project that harkens back to his favorite era of country music — the ’40s, ’50s and ’60s — and benefits from some of the most highly regarded musicians Nashville and SoCal have to offer. Famed steel guitarists Lloyd Green and Greg Leisz contribute their talents (Leisz also co-produces the record) while Sara Watkins, formerly of Nickel Creek, provides the fiddle tracks. Nick 13 says he simply wanted to make a record of the music that was exciting him at the time, but he doesn’t mind the idea of exposing his Tiger Army fans to country, either.

In a recent interview with CMT.com, he talked about why a punk rocker would be interested in country music, finding more than he bargained for in Nashville and reminding Californians of their heritage.

CMT: Being a recognizable guy in punk rock, what is it that draws you to country music?

Nick 13: I think it’s the pure emotion that you find in stuff like the old honky-tonk records — just completely unvarnished. That’s what really drew me to it in the first place — the electricity of those old records.

I’ve always thought that’s one thing that country and punk share — that rawness.

It doesn’t make sense on the surface to some folks how I could come from that sort of background musically and be as into country as I am, but that’s the real connection. It’s raw emotion, and it’s honest. That’s the thing they really share.

Why did you need to come to Nashville for the solo project?

I had been writing and jamming with some musicians locally in Southern California, and it just wasn’t quite coming together the way I had hoped. So I kind of had to hit the reset button.

I had come to Nashville a few months prior, and I was just so impressed with the atmosphere, the way country music is just literally in the air and the history. The first time I went to the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, it was almost a religious experience for me to stand there and look at Bill Monroe‘s mandolin and be that close to it. There’s just something about the city that’s amazing and very inspiring. So I decided I was gonna come out here and just stay indefinitely, and it really jogged a lot for me.

What wound up happening was I took that old Nashville influence with me, but I finished writing the record there and went back to Southern California. I had the idea to use mostly California musicians and do my version of a California country album. … But I cheated. I definitely recorded [in Nashville] a little bit. I had to get Lloyd Green on the record.

That’s a highlight of the record for me. He’s known as one of the premier steel guitar players in the world. What do you think he brought to your songs?

His playing is just so unique. There are guys who play stuff like he plays but only because they’re copying his records. Nobody thinks as a player like he thinks. And even though he’s been doing it so long, his approach is still so fresh and so unique. So I definitely feel he added an element to those songs in a really good way.

I have to ask the same thing about Greg Leisz. You got two of the best steel players in the world on the same record.

Greg is amazing. He’s one of, if not the best, steel player in California. He’s definitely on a very short list. I met him when I was recording the first Tiger Army album. I had a song called “Outlaw Heart” that was my first song in a sort of Americana/country vein. He came down and just did an amazing job, and the experience of recording with him was so cool. That was actually one of the first things that led me to do this record all these years later.

Was there anything different about the way Nashville players work as opposed to how things are done in other parts of the country?

There’s just an incredible level of musicianship that you even see in the honky-tonks downtown of people being able to adapt to things incredibly quickly and play on things like they’ve known them their whole lives when, in fact, it might be their first run through. It just blew my mind to see how quickly these guys could adapt to stuff. Play stuff that’s really appropriate and really sounds great and not miss a beat.

What did your friends say when you told them you were going to cut a country album?

It’s not necessarily stuff people say to my face … but when I was staying in Nashville, there was definitely a perception that I encountered with a few people, like, “How are you gonna know anything about country music being from California?” And I think a lot of people don’t realize how rural California actually is outside of the cities. Where I grew up, it’s farms and ranches and woods, and it’s not really a lot different than a lot of places in the country in Tennessee. … There’s also the country music history concerning California that gets overlooked sometimes, even in California. After World War II, it was one of the biggest country music markets anywhere in the nation … so I guess I wanted to try to reconnect my own state with that a little bit.

Why is that so important to you?

Well, in California, I feel like there’s at least a whole generation that just isn’t aware how great traditional country music from the ’40s, ’50s, ’60s is because they’ve never really been exposed to it. It’s pretty common to meet people who say, “Oh, country music. I hate country music.” And then you say, “Well, do you like Johnny Cash?” And they say, “I love Johnny Cash.” And you say, “Do you like Hank Williams Sr.?” And they say, “I love Hank Williams.” And they don’t associate those names with country music. But there’s so many other artists who are deserving of that recognition, whose music these people would enjoy if they only heard it.

Chris lives in Nashville and has written for CMT.com and CMT Edge since 2007. The devil made him do it the first time, the second time he done it on his own.