Wheeler Walker Jr.’s brand of hard country isn’t for audiences 18 and under. And it’s definitely not for Sam Hunt fans who are easily offended or can’t take a joke.
At least twice during his recent sold-out album release show for ’Ol Wheeler at Nashville’s Exit/In, his rabid audience broke out into a chant, shouting “[Expletive] Sam Hunt,” repeatedly. At first, Walker didn’t encourage this behavior from the stage.
Instead, the moment revealed a major undercurrent of hatred toward today’s pop country. After the second round of chants, Walker suggested that if they ever heard Hunt’s new song “Body Like a Back Road” on the radio they should turn Hunt off and throw on ’Ol Wheeler.
“All that shit is going to end with me right here tonight,” Walker said. “You guys remember in Chicago in Comiskey Park when they smashed all those disco records?”
Walker was referring to the 1979 Chicago White Sox doubleheader against the Detroit Tigers which hosted a disco demolition that detonated thousands of disco records in an explosion on the field. At the time, organizers were hoping to draw 20,000 people with their 98-cent admission. Instead, 50,000 people showed up to watch disco vinyl go up in smoke. The event is remembered in pop culture as one that marked the end of the late ’70s disco era.
“Everyone says they were there, man,” Walker continued onstage. “But the night pop-country ended, man, was right here tonight. You know what I’m sayin’?”
Walker continued the show with live selections from his breakout albums Redneck Shit and ’Ol Wheeler, which are full of explicit language mostly about one of his favorite subjects — sex.
Entering a rock club packed with mostly male fans singing at the top of their lungs about such debauchery can be intimidating for someone who isn’t used to it. Backing him onstage were members of the local punk band Republican Hair, which is fronted by hitmaker Luke Dick (Eric Church’s “Kill a Word,” Miranda Lambert’s “Highway Vagabond”).
But to the mainstream country artists Walker skewers onstage and online, that’s pretty much his way of saying, “Hi, I’m Wheeler Walker Jr. It’s nice to work with you.” He name drops a few acts including Kelsea Ballerini, Luke Bryan, Reba McEntire and Blake Shelton in the ’Ol Wheeler closer, “Poon.”
“I want to spend less time making fun of Florida Georgia Line, and I want to be sitting next to them at the Grammys,” Walker said during our CMT.com interview at the Bongo Java coffee shop next door to the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum in downtown Nashville. “I want to be high on the charts and compete with this horrible music. So my thing is now with Sam Hunt, Florida Georgia Line, you’re not the enemy. You’re my peers. I didn’t want to just be known as the guy who makes fun of other artists. I’m here to win.”
A foul-mouthed Walker can be trusted to watch his language around children.
At one point during our 30-minute conversation, a little girl, who looked no more than 5 years old, walked up and sat a coffee table away in a chair across from us. She sipped quietly on her orange juice while waiting on her grandmother who was busy picking up their breakfast order.
“My five-year-old nieces and nephews know that I do country,” Walker said under his breath noticing young girl. “But they ain’t heard it.”
The grandmother eventually came to get her granddaughter and they moved to another table. For the record, Walker only dropped eight F-bombs during our chat, and most of them were drowned out in the noise of baristas frothing milk and brewing coffee for customers.
CMT.com: Since we’re here next to the Country Music Hall of Fame, do you see yourself getting in there one day?
Walker: What’s interesting is one of the songs I wrote on my new album, I wrote with Shane McAnally [a singer-songwriter who co-produced Hunt’s Montevallo album]. The Hall of Fame was doing a talk with him, and he invited me to stop by. I go upstairs, and there’s a Dave Cobb exhibit, who produced my record. I’m thinking, “Why am I the pariah?” I should be in the Hall of Fame. The guy I co-wrote with this year is here, the producer’s upstairs, and so I’m not that outside the system. It just drives me crazy. It’s just language.
I’m not saying they need more disgusting country, but it’s just become very overtly clean. And that’s not what the kids want, I don’t think. Kids are listening to Kendrick Lamar, who’s way dirtier than me. I just don’t like using that example because it becomes racial, and that’s not my intention.
At the end of the day, it’s not like my album is hardcore pornography. I always say, we went through this 20 years ago with 2 Live Crew, and I thought it was done then. My thing is, I just want to write the best songs I can write, and that’s my natural voice when I write a song. But if it’s real country, it ain’t going to get played on the radio anyway. So I may as well not clean it up. Why clean it up if they’re not going to play it?
For people who are just now getting into your music, what can new fans expect on ’Ol Wheeler?
The first record was just a little all over the place because I could choose from 40 years of life, and then the new one was very specific about my life. I just wanted to make a record about growing old. I go out on the road and girls come up to me, and they want my Snapchat. And I don’t know what they’re talking about. It’s like this old man in a young man’s game. Being a traveling musician is a young man’s game. And I’m feeling it.
And then there are the headaches of people getting offended. I just want to sing the way I talk. Obviously, there’s a large group of people who like that and there’s a large group of people who don’t. But country music used to be all about honesty.
Regardless, the way you exercise your right to free speech is relevant now more than ever before.
It’s what keeps everything going. It’s the most important thing we have. It separates America from everywhere else. When you go to a third world country, and they’re not allowed to speak out against government, you want to be able to say, “I live in a country that’s so free that you can go up to the front of the White House and burn the American flag.”
That’s how free we are. I’m not saying I’m going to do it. No one wants to burn the American flag. But I just don’t want my dad to go to jail for sitting his front porch, smoking a cigarette and his flag accidentally burns. Obviously, it gets more ironic that the president of the United States is dirtier than me.
I’ve never liked authority at all. I think that’s probably really obvious. You can fight authority if you’re allowed to say what you want. Sometimes you’ve got to go over the line to let people know that you’re allowed to.
What elements of the human condition do you like to write about most?
I consider myself a genius, but what if I could use really filthy language to bare more of my soul? Songs can be more emotional with dirtier language. I think “Summers in Kentucky” is a perfect example. I don’t think could have written that song with the clean lyrics.
It’s as serious as any song I’ve ever done. I would argue that it was as serious a song in country music right now about getting older and the girls you grow up with getting older. I use filthy language talking about it, but that is how guys talk to their friends. And even women who are fans are like, “Is that how you guys talk when women aren’t around?” I’m like, “Yep.” So I’m almost the guy who’s spilling the secrets. Women can listen to my record and find out how guys talk, which ain’t always pretty. At least it’s real.
Have you encountered any kind of haters on the road, like picketers? And do you anticipate something like that happening on one of your tours?
Unfortunately, no. I want to. I’ve had things get a little rowdy at the wrong places. The last tour was a very volatile time. It was during the election and people were adding politics to my music that wasn’t there. I felt a volatility in the audience, but I’ve never had protesters or anything like that I think because I’m the only guy doing what I’m doing. You either love it or you hate it. That’s the reaction I want.
I’ve got a lot of friends who do well in country music who are like, “Music Row needed a kick in the ass,” and I wish I could say I was smart enough to have I picked my time in music. But this needed to come out. It’s therapy, in a way.