Exclusive: Wheeler Walker Jr. Swears (A Lot) That He’s Country

Wheeler Walker Jr. Photo: Robyn Von Swank

Wheeler Walker Jr. Photo: Robyn Von Swank

Wheeler Walker Jr. is the latest country artist to put out a record produced by Dave Cobb. Wait, you haven’t heard of him? Not even his single, which can be abbreviated to “FYB”? (If you need to know what the F-word and the B-word are, you probably wouldn’t be interested in buying his upcoming album, Redneck S—.)

Bantering in the conference room at Nashville’s indie-minded music company Thirty Tigers, which is releasing the album on Friday (Feb. 12), Walker is often “on.” You’d expect this from a comedian who used to have a show on Comedy Central. This was in 2013, when he was better-known as the sketch comedy artist Ben Hoffman. With a bushy, graying beard and mirrored sunglasses, not to mention a Kentucky drawl, his transition into the character of long-suffering country singer Wheeler Walker Jr. isn’t exactly exhausting.

Within the first 60 seconds of meeting, he’s calling foul (to put it lightly) on Steven Tyler’s Skittles commercial during the Super Bowl. Modern mainstream country acts get skewered right and left. And as the interview is wrapping up 40 minutes later, he’s insisting that I should pass along his phone number to Reba McEntire so they can go on a date.

But when the topic turns to his love of country music, his sincerity rises above the swearing. Presumably speaking as Hoffman, he carries on about the Louvin Brothers and effortlessly traces back his own favorite artists to towering figures like Buck Owens and Gram Parsons. And while his lyrics as Wheeler Walker Jr. are undoubtedly profane, and every song title is essentially unrepeatable, that doesn’t mean he doesn’t take the heritage of the music seriously.

Wheeler Walker Jr“Nobody’s going to say, ‘Wow, was this recorded in ’68?’ But it’s the same type of country songs that I grew up loving. The goal was to make the ultimate breakup album,” he says. “It’s weird how this very personal record turned into this [perceived] revolt against the country music industry. Which I’ve said, if it helps for the press, and if it helps sell records, then I’m all for it. But that wasn’t the point.”

So, how bad was the breakup?

“I will say it’s a combination of about 75 women who have dumped my ass, and I would say every single one of them did the right thing,” he admits, “because it’s hard to tell now, but I’m a piece of work.”

Hoffman explains that he met Cobb, who is up for two Grammys on Sunday, through Sturgill Simpson. When Cobb agreed to collaborate, he and Hoffman hunkered down and recorded Redneck S— over the course of one week. He says the days they dedicated to overdubs were mostly spent drinking and going to the record store.

About halfway through the interview, Walker turns the tables and asks, “Are you offended by this music?” It isn’t a trick question. He really wants to know. When I reply that I find the whole thing to be amusing, since everybody’s getting made fun of, Hoffman relaxes the act a little bit.

“The only thing that bothers me–and I’ve seen some of it–is that a couple of people have said, ‘You’re making fun of country. You’re making fun of rednecks.’ I’m from Kentucky. All my family lives here. After I’m leaving here, I’m having dinner with my aunt and uncle. That is zero percent of what I’m doing. I know people won’t believe me, but I don’t think you can make a record like this without loving real traditional country music. To me this is what country music sounds like.”

He’s quick to cite Jason Isbell, Ashley Monroe, Aubrie Sellers, Chris Stapleton and Lucinda Williams among his current favorite artists. Later on, he correctly observes that his musical heroes like Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, George Jones and Johnny Cash all had a sharp sense of humor that pervaded their catalogs. Of course, on their records, they didn’t resort to the F-word (or the B-word, or the S-Word, or the… well, you get the idea.)

“I have a theory on music in general. I love theories. One theory is that no one’s going to buy my album. And another of my theories is that the best artists have the best sense of humor,” he says. “The Beatles starred in comedy films. A Waylon record ain’t comedy, but there’s a wink in there that you can see.”

Wheeler Walker JrWheeler Walker Jr. hosted an unofficial Thirty Tigers showcase, held in conjunction with Country Radio Seminar, on Tuesday night (Feb. 9). And if his social media is any indication, his show at Exit/In on Wednesday night will be loaded with women. His representative at Thirty Tigers researched his social media fan base and discovered that 75 percent of his audience is female. Walker himself says his female friends love “FYB” because they can see themselves in the storyline, which is about a guy who’s torn up over love gone bad. And he’s seeing plenty of women (or at least certain parts of women) showing up on his Snapchat.

Thanks to significant airplay on satellite radio, and some attention at rock radio, iTunes pre-orders for Redneck S— are over a thousand units. (The project premiered early on a website that is NSFW. As a clue, it was billed as a “Premature Release.”) As the interview winds down, Walker moans that he had to spend his life savings to restock merchandise for his ever-larger fan base. Literally. After complaints of not having enough XXL and XXXL shirts, he had some more printed. And what can’t be printed, at least here, is what the T-shirts have written on them.

Asked if he’s ever worried about going too far, he dryly answers, “Uhh, little late for that. I don’t give a f—, as long as I know what my intentions are. I didn’t want to offend any certain group of people because that’s just not who I am. You can’t make a record like this and worry about stepping over the line.”

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Craig Shelburne is the General Manager at MusicRow.

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