Love him or hate him, Wheeler Walker Jr. isn't afraid to speak his mind, and in this business, that's refreshing.
Today (June 2), the country provocateur releases his sophomore effort, Ol' Wheeler. If you're familiar with his debut album, Redneck Shit, it should come as no surprise that Wheeler has dialed up the raunch to 11.
"We live in vulgar times," he says, "and I've made a vulgar record."
Wheeler is the alter ego of comedian Ben Hoffman. For nearly two years, he's been satirizing country music as Wheeler Walker Jr., the trash-talking, foul-mouthed singer from Kentucky (Hoffman is from there).
In the process, he's built a steady fan base across the country, all without ever getting played on country radio. Walmart, Target and other retailers refuse to stock his music.
After interviewing him twice, one thing about the character is clear: it's not all satire. He has a genuine love for country music, and the profanity, while over the top, is grounded with an honest intention, and an angst that any adult can relate to -- more on that later.
To his surprise, many of his fans now consider him something of an anti-establishment figure, an agitator of Music Row. He frequently calls out and lambasts pop country artists on Twitter, though, often in jest. Some of his songs mention them by name. The message is usually the same: what happened to country music?
This summer, Wheeler will hit the road for a tour of the U.S. Before his first string of shows during the album's release week, I talked with him about the intention of his music and the profanity, as well as his thoughts on modern country music today.
You can also click here to listen to the podcast conversation Wheeler and I had last year.
If you weren't singing about sexual profanity, how would you want to irk people?
Country used to be able to do those double entendres, like "the last thing I gave her was the bird" or "here's a quarter call someone who cares." There used to be a place for that where there's not really a place for that anymore.
Why is there so much sexual profanity in your music?
I'm an 80's kid, so when I was a kid I was in the basement listening with my buddies to 2LiveCrew. The only thing that could piss off [parents], which is basically the whole goal of music, was to listen to that Public Enemy, NWA kind of stuff, so I think that's in my brain. I feel like there's no voice for that in country music. I remember being in my buddy's house in Kentucky and we were listening to NWA and I went to take a piss, and his parents were listening to Waylon on the stereo. I could hear the pedal steel, and I could hear Ice Cube coming from the other room. I could hear the twang and the cursing. I still feel like I'm making music in that hallway where I can hear a little bit of both."
Some of your fans regard you as an anti-establishment figure. How do you feel about that?
A lot of it's an accident. One thing I hear from my fans more than anybody is 'I don't listen to country music, but I listen to you.' I say, 'Man I wish I had ears as fresh as yours.' There's so much good music you can listen to. I feel a little bit of jealousy. This stuff I'm doing ain't nothing new. If you really ain't ever heard country music, and you don't like it, go to the record store. There's a lot of good shit out there. Don't get mixed up in this Florida Georgia Line, Sam Hunt shit and think this is country music.
You've said that some Top 40 country artists, like Sam Hunt, are essentially the b-squad for the pop world.
Exactly, I think it's the minor leagues. Sam Hunt wants to be Macklemore, but he has to get called up from the minors to the majors. Until then, country music is stuck with him until he gets the call. I don't know why that's country.
I sometimes make the mistake of blaming the DJ, blaming the station, whatever it is. It comes down what the people want. It comes down to ratings. It comes down to money. If people want to hear this shit, they're going to play it.
So when you call out artists, do they laugh it off or get pissed at you?
The ones who get pissed, I hear it from their people. The only guy, I will give him credit, who came up to me directly was Kane Brown. I was actually cool with it. Unlike everybody else, he came to me. I kind of appreciate that. Instead of telling your agent or manager to come at me, you did it yourself. He wasn't mad, he just was basically like, 'I hear what you're saying, but I'm a hundred places above you on the charts, so I don't know what you're talking about.'
When I'm making fun of these dudes, I'm not making fun of them personally, because I don't know them. It's what they represent. If you come up to me personally, then we can discuss it.
I tweeted some shit at Old Dominion, and they tweeted back at me something funnier than what I said. I thought, those guys are cool, they get the joke. It's a two-way street. It's good to have a good sense of humor about yourself, but it's not my job to tell you to have a sense of humor about it.
How did you build your fanbase without getting your music on the traditional channels?
As a fact, you can sell more records on Joe Rogan's podcast than Saturday Night Live. People don't want to tell you that because the corporations don't want you to know that you can go into somebody's garage and talk into a cheap microphone and reach a bigger audience than NBC. It screws up the whole system. There are a lot of people in suits making a lot of money who work at NBC. If word gets out that what they're doing is obsolete, they're all in fucking trouble. Next thing you know everybody's making podcasts. Then there's no mainstream media anymore.
On modern country music in America:
There's that old cliche that whatever's cool in NYC will be cool in the South 10 years from now. I think it's the same way with music. They're doing these hip hop beats in music, but they're doing like MC Hammer beats.
There's a lot of white people who want to listen to rap, but they don't want to do it for whatever reason so they listen to fucking Chris Jansen rapping about a drink.
I've heard you say your new record is about being on the road. How so?
There's that great Waylon album called Ol' Waylon that I listen to all the time. I thought why not just call it Ol' Wheeler. I'm 42 now. I feel every day of that age at this point. When I'm in a van on the road, playing some shithole in South Carolina. Girls come up to me, and I'll mention the Stones, and they don't even know who I'm fucking talking about.
That's why it's called Ol' Wheeler. I'm out on the road, feeling old, wondering why I didn't do this when I was 25. I'm meeting girls sending me Snapchats and Instagram messages. I don't know any of this shit. The world's moving too fast for me. Waylon wasn't getting snapchats. I'm not comparing myself to Waylon; it's just a whole new world out there.
How does Ol' Wheeler compare to your first album?
With the first one I left the studio and thought I couldn't do anything better than this. The second one I left the studio and thought I can't believe I've made one better than that. The big difference for me is that the first one, there was no expectations, but I hate to admit it, there are expectations now, which kind of bums me out in a way.
But I also want to be in competition with [the major artists]. I want this to chart high, and I want people to be forced to listen to what I have to say.
I don't like that country music is ignoring reality. They're not playing my shit because I'm saying "pussy." I watched Meet the Press at eight in the morning and the President is saying pussy. These are words people know.
Would you make a clean record?
It comes up a lot. The irony of it is that I'm way more competitive than people think. I want to be at the award shows with Sam Hunt. I want to be there with everybody. But I also don't want to sacrifice what I do.
The song 'Fuckin' Around' that ended up being a duet with Nikki Lane singing on it... The plan was to do a version called 'Messing Around,' and I never even did my part. I just couldn't do it. If it's there, I'll send it out, but I have to stop myself from making it.
Would I ever make a clean album? I dunno. I said I would a year ago when we talked and never did it. Maybe the cycle is I'll tell you I'll make a clean one every year.
Part of my thing too is pissing everybody off. I do think doing a clean album might piss people off, so that's one of the things that would make me want to do it.
Parts of this interview have been edited for clarity.
Wheeler Walker Jr.'s new album Ol' Wheeler is available wherever you download music online.
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