"Do we really like outlaws, or do we just like to kill them off?" wonders the outspoken singer-songwriter, who premieres the new "Can't Get Enough" today
"Isn't there a philanthropist motherfucker out there with ten million dollars who wants to kill it as much as I do?" asks Nikki Lane, seated at painfully hip East Nashville coffee shop Barista Parlor with two iced coffees and two biscuits, to go — one for her, one for her "pedal steel boyfriend." It's 10:30 a.m., and she rolled in to town last night from California after driving days through the mountains, all while fighting off a self-diagnosed case of bronchitis. "On the road you become more of a hypochondriac," she says in her raspy South Carolina drawl. "Based on statistics, we're probably going to die in the van."
Lane's been touring nonstop since the release of 2014's Dan Auerbach-produced All or Nothin', hitting events like Willie Nelson's Heartbreaker Banquet and the Blake Shelton-headlined Stagecoach Festival. She's played with Shakey Graves and Spiritualized, and, soon, she'll open for Jenny Lewis and Social Distortion through the fall. But country radio hasn't been so friendly to her outlaw-spirited songs, which extol the benefits of one-night-stands and spill over with slinky, Seventies-era inspirations cased in a streetwise, modern shell that's as unapologetic as Johnny Cash's middle finger. That's where the philanthropist motherfucker comes in. Why can't some rich dude just create a station, she wonders, for her kind of music?
"There's alternative, Triple-A and pop," Lane says, waving "hi" with a tattooed arm to the occasional passing friend, while Bob Dylan's "Positively 4th Street" plays in the background and patrons eat breakfast sandwiches on reclaimed wood tables – this is the kind of place, where, if you time it right, Auerbach might pull up on his motorcycle. "So why can't there be pop-country and country-country? We just need two genres."
Still, it's been a pretty good run for the outlaw of late — Lane's LP made such an impression that her label, New West, is re-releasing it tomorrow with several bonus tracks, including the naughtily romantic "Can't Get Enough," premiering exclusively today on Rolling Stone Country. Sturgill Simpson's Metamodern Sounds in Country Music scored a Grammy nod (albeit in the Americana category) and Chris Stapleton's debut Traveller is snuggled right under Mumford & Sons on the iTunes chart. But Lane knows it can be a fickle climate for the rebel — she's been listening to Jamey Johnson and Gretchen Wilson, two artists who once held the "Second Coming of Waylon Jennings" title but only came out shredded and shattered by the mainstream machine.
"What did country music do to them?" she asks. "They were the best thing in that time period, and where did they go? Jamey Johnson was the Sturgill eight years ago. Did they jump off the ship because the climate was so bad, or did we kill 'em? Do we really like outlaws, or do we just like to kill them off? I don't know, but at least I feel like the doors are opening again."
And Lane's doing her damnedest to keep them from slipping shut. She's already planning to record her third LP next month, tentatively titled Highway Queen, with Jonathan Wilson at Electric Lady studios in New York. The Laurel Canyon revivalist who recently produced Conor Oberst's Upside Down Mountain and Father John Misty's I Love You Honeybear might not seem like the most natural choice for a bad gal country queen. Still, Lane insists, "He's from North Carolina! He knows this stuff!" — though she did call him once to chat about the record, which she hopes will be out in February, and he confessed to wearing tie-dye leggings.
Wilson and Lane hooked up while he was in town working with Oberst, but it wasn't actually the first time they'd met. "When I was 20 years old, I gave him my phone number on a napkin at a Panera Bread in North Hollywood," she says. She'd just come from her hometown of Greenville, South Carolina, and chain restaurants felt most comfortable. She assumed he'd forgotten over the years, but you don't forget Lane, with her long legs often on display below a short-short Nudie suit romper or underneath a see-through dress, as if she swiped a wardrobe from Loretta Lynn and ripped out the petticoats, then topped it all off with Joey Ramone's leather jacket.
"He was like, you know we met before, right? It was fucking embarrassing."
The first song she wrote for Highway Queen is "70,000 Rednecks" — it sounds like a Wanda Jackson-fronted Doors —ushered in with a moody, howling "yippie kay-yay." For a minute, she thought it might make a good single, but with a lyric that goes "70,000 rednecks, that's what it takes to get to the top," it's probably safest to start a little less abrasively. Still, it's the truth. "I mean, isn't that what every other [record] label is trying to do, just round up rednecks?"
Lane's father, still back in South Carolina, is the "reddest of them all," and when she brought him her record, or Simpson's, he responded in the same way he does to Top 40 country radio, listening on the porch with his buddies and swigging some beers. The trend of truck-touting bro-anthems lies primarily, she thinks, with the suits, not the fans ("They're down," for a sound like hers, she says. "Period.")
That's not to say she doesn't like the big-wheelers. "I want to be the highway queen," she says, bumping her fist on the table for emphasis. "I'm obsessed with trucks, just like every other fucking country singer. But I want to make my own truck. Why don't we have a truck that's marketed towards women? I want to put an escalade and a truck together and call it the 'Highway Queen.'"
It could happen — Lane's always thinking about branding, from her own line of custom knives, to her side gig as a vintage peddler to her leather iPhone case emblazoned with her logo: a skull inspired by an old patch from an ex-boyfriend that she stuck her initials next to. Being Nikki Lane is more than just the songs, it's selling the whole image, a piece of a lifestyle that she thinks about as much, if not more, than the music. Because perhaps the real way to be — and stay — an outlaw is to have complete control, creatively and financially, over every last thing. It's not so badass when you're too poor to make the music you actually want to make and are cashing in food stamps at the local grocery store between gigs.
"No one is running around sweating cocaine out of their system anymore," she says, shaking her head. "It's not the Seventies anymore. When people tell me they can't think about [the business side], it cracks me up. You want to make a living playing music? Well, you're already doing the work, all you have to do is make money. What's the problem with making it a business? Money just means leverage."
Leverage enough to back out when things aren't working. Lane has nothing against co-writes, even with mainstream players: She's partnering again with frequent Eric Church collaborator Ryan Tyndell and crafted All or Nothin's "Sleep with a Stranger" with hit-maker Luke Laird. But she faked an illness when one session pissed her off enough to walk away (she won't name names). "I said, 'This is what I want to write about.' And this one guy said, 'Well, what does America want to hear, Nikki?' And I was just like, 'I have a headache. . .'"
For the next album, she's looking for Wilson to add a little vibe without a "shtick." "I'm making the same record I've always made, which is the best mix tape I can," she says. "Songs about living long distance, songs about the road." Wilson's bigger plan is to take her over to Europe, where she's yet to tour. "I've enjoyed being neo-rockabilly and outlaw and whatever these other terms are that people call me here. But I bet in Europe, I'm just country."
For now, she'll spend the rest of the summer playing festivals like this past weekend's Shaky Knees in Atlanta, where she begrudgingly took the early timeslot as virtually the only purely twangy act on the bill. And she'll make her debut at Nashville's famed Ryman Auditorium in late August with Social Distortion after a set of dates with Lewis. She's not against opening for the big women of country, but they haven't called. Either way, she just needs to remember to hydrate.
"I passed out at Tortuga," she says of April's spring-breaky Fort Lauderdale festival. "It was 89 degrees, and I hadn't had enough water, and I got up on stage and everything went white. [My band] was like, 'You don't have to play.' And I was thinking about my dad being like, 'You pussy! You don't quit.' They offered to get me a chair and I was like, 'Ahhh! I don't sit!'" She ended up seated for two songs and finished her set, with a wet towel around her neck and a couple girls in fluorescent bikinis clapping along on her request.
That was the worst part — no one tells Lane to take anything sitting down. Not on stage, not on a record, not on the radio. Certainly not on Highway Queen. "I'm not trying to make a pop-country hit," she says. "I'm trying to make a pop-country killer." Philanthropist motherfuckers, take note.