A quick glance at the year-end lists of Best Country Albums of 2019 strikes me as having a bunch of quality records from the soul side (Yola), the songwriter side (Caroline Spence), the clean contemporary side (Miranda Lambert) and whatever that Sturgill Simpson album was. But for those who’ve been craving steely-twanging, stare-down-the-darkness, hard-living Country & Western, there was a slimmer set of choices. That’s okay. This is a cyclical thing. But 2020 is bringing more edge and more outlaw, and this week’s String sits down with two such artists.
Not that it’s essential to writing bluesy, badass country songs, but Jaime Wyatt actually did time. At the nadir of her young life, she did a thing that I do not think has ever graced the promo copy of a Music Row country newcomer.
“Growing up playing in bars, by the time I was 19 I had a drug and alcohol problem,” she says. “And for an addict, speaking for myself, all I need is a slight problem to turn into a chaotic, existential nightmare. So being stuck in a (bad) record deal my addiction took off. And that’s when I had my brush with the law, doin’ a little time. I robbed my drug dealer, and that’s what I wrote Felony Blues about.”
Felony Blues was Wyatt’s first album as a national recording artist, released in 2018 to critical acclaim. With songs like “Stone Hotel” it laid bare her wrong turns and the courage of recovery in commanding tones. As she toured behind that album, she opened for and ultimately made a deep connection with Shooter Jennings. He came on board to produce Wyatt’s current record Neon Cross, which churns with confidence, pathos and triumph. While Wyatt has moved to Nashville in the meantime, the album is very much in the LA country music tradition, with touches of 70s fringe and 60s psychedelia.
Jesse Daniel has a similar story. Like Wyatt, he was born in a rural community out West and got country music in his bones early on. He’s battled and beaten addiction as well. And he’s making a national statement with album #2 of his mature career in the new Rollin’ On. Daniel took a detour into punk rock in his teenage years before embracing country music wholeheartedly, and that’s a well-trod path too. For him, the epiphany happened during a stay at a rehab facility in California.
“I got into drugs and then into getting in trouble with the law, frequently. And basically ended up losing everything. I sold all my music equipment. Was homeless off and on for years,” Daniel says. That led to a stretch in a rehab facility, where fatefully, a volunteer came to play acoustic music. “I was in the middle of detoxing and not in the mental space to really be listening. But my ears really perked up when he played some Hank Williams, Emmylou Harris and Billy Joe Shaver. I got to talking with him over the course of a few days. And he told me something that really changed my perspective. I told him I want to play music like you do. But I had this really defeated attitude about it. And he looked at me and he just said ‘Why don’t you?’ That stuck with me. And I attribute my going down this path to that moment.”
This is a powerfully candid and complimentary pair of conversations.