When L.A.-based country artist Jaime Wyatt heard Merle Haggard's "Branded Man" after finishing an eight-month stretch in a county jail, it changed her life forever.
Wyatt was charged with a felony at 21 for robbing a drug dealer. Upon release, she had to face the world with a record. But she found solace in the music of the Hag, one of country's most prolific songwriters and ex-cons.
"I discovered Merle right when I got out," Wyatt tells Wide Open Country. "That was a huge influence on my writing because it was like 'I can talk about this.' It gave me permission."
The term "outlaw" gets thrown around a lot in country music. What started out as a movement of country artists rejecting the slick production of the Nashville sound derived into a catch-all term for anyone boasting a hard-partying lifestyle. And most of them have no experience living outside the law. But Wyatt's album Felony Blues (released in February on Forty Below Records) is a triumphant collection of songs about starting over in a society that's not always willing to forgive past mistakes.
"I just wanted to explain how hard it's been having a felony and trying to get out of that shame and get a decent job," Wyatt says. "We've got to stop branding people as defective when they make a mistake."
Wyatt, who developed a drug problem when she was 17, says jail time saved her life. After she was released, she got clean and drew from her experience to give a voice to others in the system. She wrote three of the songs on Felony Blues while in the Los Angeles County jail.
"People incarcerated are still living," Wyatt says. "I was just trying to make sense of it. That was a prolific time for me. My life was so crazy. It was like, how could you not write about this?"
Wyatt grew up in rural Washington with songwriter parents. She always knew music was in her blood. Her mother regaled her with stories of her great grandparents who played in a Southern California country band during the heyday of the Bakersfield Sound.
Wyatt started writing poetry and songs at an early age, taking inspiration however it struck.
"My first song was brilliant--probably I'll never surpass it. It was called 'Don't Throw Rocks at Me,' because a boy at school was throwing rocks at me," Wyatt says, laughing. "I think my dad encouraged me to write a song about it."
Now living in Los Angeles, Wyatt is part of a growing revival of California country, along with artists like Sam Outlaw, who joined Wyatt on the unbelievably fun 90s country-tinged tune "Your Loving Saves Me" on Felony Blues. She takes inspiration from fellow artists who cut their teeth in the L.A. country scene, such as Lucinda Williams and Dwight Yoakam.
"So much country was made in Los Angeles. It used to be a massive orange grove and my people--they came over and moved to the San Fernando Valley. They were farmers and horseback riders," Wyatt says. "I feel like that's where country music comes from--nature, literally living in the country."
Wyatt is living on the right side of the law these days, but she's still outlaw country in the truest sense of the word. She's making honest country music on her own terms. These days, that's about as outlaw as you can get.
Sounds Like: Linda Ronstadt and Lucinda Williams in a 1970s California honky-tonk.
Required Listening: "Stone Hotel," a rollicking number about making the best of jail time with "three free meals on the county bill."
Jaime Wyatt is currently on tour across the U.S.