Photo credit: Ben Howell
“I love that redneck shit” – Wheeler Walker Jr.
Country music has long been heralded as the music of working class people everywhere. Since its inception, the genre has produced countless songs that forgo the poetic expression found in other areas of music for a direct dissection of the human condition. Legends such as George Jones and Waylon Jennings built their careers on this approach to songwriting, each detailing a life of hardships that they were mostly responsible for creating. If they drank too much, they sang about it. If they cheated on their woman, they sang about it. If they got arrested, be it because of their drinking or similarly reprehensible behavior, they sang about it more than once. Nothing was off limits, and because of that, fans everywhere felt closer to the performer. Musicians were flawed, just like the fans who paid to hear them sing, and that forged a bond that helped breathe life into the entire genre.
The debate over when that tradition of being honest with reckless abandon lost its shine rages on in country music forums and fan discussions to this day, but suffice to say that the 1990s found an entirely different approach to songwriting taking center stage. The musicians who rose to the top still did so through storytelling, yes, but the tales they told were rarely peppered with the same grit as the generations prior. Songs about drinking became celebrations of alcohol. Songs about sex became tongue-in-cheek tracks that stopped short of naming the act around which the material revolved. Country music, for lack of a better description, became safe for all audiences. The family-friendly market proved more rewarding, or at least more financially beneficial to those in the business, and before long the days of discussing one’s bad behavior for the poor decision it was faded away.
In 2018, the purveyors of so-called popular country music have only strayed further from the original intent of the genre. They sing about drinking as if there is no dark side to addiction, promote partying your life away rather than taking responsibility for one’s actions, and treat the idea of romance as if it’s something developed by Disney. To make matters even worse, they structure their songs in such a way that they fit a formula proven to win fans rather than creating something of their own. Even those promoted as part of ‘outlaw country’ are much the same, only they use references to hip-hop and motorcycles to sell their hollow songs instead of pick-up trucks and classic rock.
Then there’s Wheeler Walker Jr., a man whose musical expression toes the line between comedy and classic country with all the ferocity of a dirty comic whose had one or twelve too many. Wheeler is the stage name of comedian Ben Hoffman, former host of the now largely forgotten Comedy Central series The Ben Show. His music follows the ethos of country legends, but his lyrical content is another beast altogether. Song titles such as “Drunk Sluts” and “Sit On My Face” are among his most modest works, with the more extreme material ranging from the viral hit “Fuck You Bitch,” which has over 12 million views on YouTube, to the self-explanatory “Ain’t Got Enough Dick To Go Around.” He might not be Shakespeare, but he never claimed to be either.
Since bursting onto the country scene in 2016 with his debut album Redneck Shit, Wheeler Walker Jr. has been on a roller-coaster ride through the highs and lows of quote/unquote ‘making it’ in the modern era. Various singles have gone viral, earning him millions of plays on several prominent streaming platforms, but the country industry at large has — for the most part — ignored their performance. The same can be said about Walker’s demanding tour schedule, which has included dozens of sold-out appearances from coast to coast, as well as a support slot opening for Kid Rock this past summer, but again, country music as a whole seems not to take notice.
When asked for his thoughts on this, Walker admits the lyrical content of his material plays a role in his place amongst the country music hierarchy. As he recently told The News & Observer, “The problem that I’m dealing with is, I remember one of the first interviews I did during the release of the first album, we began talking during a commercial break, and I asked if he liked the album. When he said he did, I asked him if the language bothered him, and he said, “No, that’s just the way people talk.” And that really stuck with me, because what’s the big (expletive) deal? That’s the way that I talk to my friends, so I just figured country music used to be all about the truth, and that’s not how it is today. In 2018 I have yet to say anything worse than what (President Trump) has said, so what am I going to censor myself for?”
He continued, “Then it becomes a situation where, because I play real country music, I’m not going to get played on country radio. I’m an independent artist, so I don’t have the giant machine behind me to get my music onto country radio, but I have yet to hear one good argument as to why I should clean up my songs. Sometimes an agent or manager will bring up releasing one of my songs cleaned up for radio, a genuine to see what it could do commercially, but I really haven’t heard a good plan on what a clean song could really help me do.”
The latest single from Walker’s upcoming third album, WW III (due out in November), is titled “Fuck You With The Lights On.” The song features a classic, driving country structure that includes both slide guitar and harmonica laying a foundation for Walker to detail his desire to have sex in an illuminated space. It’s an admittedly silly premise, but like the majority of his material, it comes from an authentic place. Where others might choose to dress up the material with poetry that alludes to intercourse and genitals, Walker prefers to be direct. “Fuck going green,” he says roughly halfway through, “cause your pussy deserves to be seen.”
Critics of country music often say that the genre has lost touch with its sense of honesty and that many artists are making pop music with rural or blue-collar references to better relate to lower and middle-class people, but is it possible Wheeler Walker Jr. is too honest in his music? When asked about his approach to songwriting by The Prelude Press earlier this year, Walker replied that writes songs by “sticking to my guts.” He added, “I grew up listening to Waylon and Ice Cube, so I didn’t know you were supposed to censor yourself. But I get Music Row has a bug up its ass, so now I’m “different.” With the garbage that’s going on right now in commercial country music, standing out isn’t that hard.”
The question of why country music as a whole, or ‘Music Row’ as Walker refers to it, continues to turn its back on Wheeler Walker Jr. remains to be seen. He believes it’s all a matter of money and his inability — or refusal — to fit a pre-conceived notion of what ‘works’ with audiences today. If that’s the case, one has to wonder what it might take to change the industry’s mind. Walker currently has over 400,000 monthly listeners on Spotify, which is far more than several artists appearing on Country radio charts at the moment, as well as hundreds of thousands more spread across additional streaming outlets such as Apple Music and Pandora. He’s also currently playing 1,500 capacity rooms (or larger) to crowds that discovered him not through a publicity campaign or expensive marketing push, but by word of mouth in an era where getting people to give a damn about artists they don’t know is increasingly difficult for even the biggest labels to accomplish. If that’s not enough, what is?
Country success stories born from endless radio campaigns back by funding from major labels and management companies are a dime a dozen these days, but DIY country success stories are far rarer. The stories Wheeler Walker Jr. wishes to tell, and the way he chooses to tell them may make you uncomfortable, but there is no denying that they come from a true place that mirrors the experience of many throughout this world. To change his approach now would be to give in to an industry that has long claimed to appreciate authenticity above all else, but if that’s true, then he wouldn’t be tasked with changing in the first place.
For now, Walker seems destined to continue fighting an uphill battle where his success will be determined by people giving enough of a damn to see him in concert or tell others to give his music a shot. He seems okay with that, or at least at peace, but to think he may never get a proper chance to shine just because he challenges a standard that goes against the very thing the genre he exists within was built to celebrate is nothing short of a disappointment. Wheeler is simply telling it as it is, and for some reason, that isn’t considered good enough. Here’s hoping someone in power realizes what others haven’t sooner than later because as George Carlin once said, “Conformity is not a recipe for excellence.”
AuxCordFM co-founder and contributor Ben Howell captured photos of Wheeler Walker Jr. during a recent tour stop at The Intersection in Grand Rapids, MI. A selection of his photographs from that performance can be enjoyed below.