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Nikki Lane Is A Country Star For Divided Times

Notes on ‘Highway Queen,’ the Nashville retro-modernist’s third album

“The Highway Queen don’t need no king,” Nikki Lane sings on the title track of her third album, which sees the Nashville-based country-rock hotshot continuing to rule the path she’s paved for herself. Lane traffics in the genre that was dubbed alt-country during the ’90s, when the connotations of “alt” as a prefix were less strange than they are now. She's thoroughly modern in a retro vein, like a digital photo filter that replicates the look of Kodachrome. Born just outside Greenville, South Carolina, she expatriated to Los Angeles for a stint before making Nashville her permanent home. Today she's part of the current crop of nu-Nashville rockers who aim to modernize country music for the 21st century without clipping its roots. Lane’s last album, 2014's All or Nothin’, was the one produced by The Black Keys's Dan Auerbach (a new Nashville requisite), and on Highway Queen, she continues to complicate her old-school but not old-fashioned vibe. It’s dusty — not like an antique on a shelf, but like a vintage car revving through 40 miles of bad road.

Album opener “700,000 Rednecks” is a wayfaring shit-kicker about Lane’s home state that evokes both the acid moonshine of Randy Newman’s “Rednecks” and the straightforward Southern pride of Johnny Russell’s “Rednecks, White Socks, and Blue Ribbon Beer.” Riffing on the title of the Elvis greatest-hits album 50,000,000 Elvis Fans Can't Be Wrong, Lane rips into “700,000 Rednecks” like red meat. It's a wolf whistle that opens with a yodeling “yippie-ki-yay,” just to re-announce Lane’s perfected breed of truck-driving, honky-tonkin’ swagger. “700,000 rednecks, that’s what it takes to get to the top / 700,000 rednecks know there ain’t nothing gonna make me stop,” she sings over a guttural electric groove affixed to a yellow highway line. The song is really about the endless tour Lane’s been on for years (“I drive long hours and I don’t get to shower”) and the imaginary goal number of fans it will take before she’s officially made it. As Lane boasts archly, “I’m going all the way.”

Lane has said that her use of the word "redneck" is “tongue in cheek,” but she also cites the fact that some of her fans proudly call themselves rednecks. Like “The One on the Right Is on the Left,” Johnny Cash’s satire of the ’60s folk scene and its politics, it seems she's mocking the way people label themselves and are labeled by others.

Although redneck pride has a long history in country music, this is an extremely fraught time for Lane to take up the mantle, when the specter of impoverished white voters haunts so much of the current political conversation. During the CMAs last fall, a rift erupted in the country vanguard over Beyoncé’s performance of “Daddy Lessons,” the country song from Lemonade. At the time I remember thinking that the country stars and fans who were angry about Beyoncé at the CMAs were out-of-touch relics of the past. It was one of the first pop-culture memories that floated back to me after Trump’s election a few days later, when I realized how gravely I’d underestimated the staying power of bilious white racism.

The fact of the matter is that country music, indie and mainstream, is still a blindingly white genre for the most part. Aside from the occasional black superstar like Charley Pride or Darius Rucker, country has failed to meaningfully diversify in the last few decades — and the CMAs incident brought it home that the genre, whose very name has always invoked both the romanticized rural past and a vaguer sense of nationalism, remains a battleground of American identity. In the ’70s, the rough, raw, and rugged subgenre of outlaw country positioned itself as the cool alternative to mainstream country’s overproduced pap, and it has had a tremendous influence on modernist stars like Lane. But outlaw country often trafficked in its own kind of conservatism. If Merle Haggard’s “Okie from Muskogee” was intended as satire, many of his fans didn’t realize or care. At a further extreme, David Allan Coe’s racist ’80s output espoused the same bad philosophy as the current "alt-right": the belief that if vile hate speech is condemned or outlawed, it’s somehow rebellious to keep using it. Country music’s archetypal focus on outlaws and cowboys has always been tied closely to images of the 19th-century Southern rebels who, despite whatever pride they felt for their hometowns, were ultimately fighting on the side of slavery and slaveowners.

The idea of satirically reclaiming redneck pride feels like a vestige of the preelection world — the distant days when Kanye West believed the Confederate flag was so outmoded he could reclaim it for himself, years before a Klan-endorsed presidential candidate took office. (Big & Rich played his inaugural gala, deflating any fantasy that the “Save a Horse (Ride a Cowboy)” bards who led the last big wave of nu-outlaw-country in the 2000s were secretly tolerant liberals.) Sometimes a song is just a song, but you can’t help but make associations with the greater world. Lane is a fan of “Redneck Woman” Gretchen Wilson, who used “redneck” in that song to show her affiliation with lower-class, beer-drinking, “baby on each hip” trailer-park women. But “Redneck Woman” itself feels different today than when it came out, and so does Lane's "700,000 Rednecks."

But the song clearly isn't intended as a dog whistle to bigots. She’s implied that it's a critique of the music industry aimed at the radio payola suits who help determine which stars are minted. (She wrote it after playing a big showcase in New York.) When she sings “700,000 rednecks, that’s what it takes to get to the top,” she's alluding to a corporate idea of the exact number and type of fans it takes to break in country. Within that context, the rednecks in her song are the equivalent of the famed “two cunts in a kitchen” ad setup that sexist ad execs in the 20th century used as the way to reach the target audience for their home goods in commercials.

Ultimately, Lane is the kind of country star who can work both sides of the fence, rednecks and bluenecks alike. She brought ’90s alt-country stalwarts The Old 97's as her backing band on Seth Meyers this week; she’s opened for both Spiritualized and Social Distortion (psychobilly springs eternal), but she's also played Stagecoach. Lane self-produced Highway Queen with her boyfriend, Jonathan Tyler, about whom she wrote the gambling metaphor love song “Jackpot,” with its euphoric tumbling dice chorus of “Viva Las Vegas! Atlantic City rendezvous! Weekend in Reno, late-night casino, I’ll go anywhere with you.” In the video, she and Tyler reenact their whirlwind road-bound courtship at old-school Vegas casino The El Cortez, and get impulsively faux-married by an Elvis impersonator as she sings, “Jackpot, I hit the number, it was always you.”

The songs are all driven foremost by Lane’s striding vocals and her backing band, whose sound evokes the ramshackle folk harmonies and jangling sound of The Band, who played with rockabilly singer Ronnie Hawkins before backing Bob Dylan. “Lay You Down” is a creeper about a funeral, and “Your Big Mouth” is a poison-pen note about small-town gossip with plonking honky-tonk piano. “Send the Sun” is a waltzing love song that could be Lane’s best shot at a mainstream country crossover hit, if that’s even what she wants. While it might be tempting to link Lane with other current country queens, in fact she shares more musical DNA with Carl Perkins than Kelsea Ballerini — which is why her blatant retro-grab succeeds. Lane’s bouffant-and-six-string aesthetic is baptized in rockabilly more than contemporary pop.

Despite the early proclamation that she doesn’t need a king, much of Highway Queen is a love letter to the man who roped Lane’s heart. “Companion” is an Art Laboe–worthy low-rider, replete with a ghostly spoken interlude about finding a worthy companion to ride alongside. “Foolish Heart” is a hopeless plea against the madness of love taking hold of an otherwise stable mind, and what happens when li’l old vulnerability gets in the way of the cool, denim-clad desperado self-image she’s worked so hard to build. The album closes out with its most somber cuts, “Muddy Waters” and “Forever Lasts Forever,” which both document the end of a relationship. The latter song utilizes the tear-jerking power of pedal steel to mourn a divorce: “They say forever lasts forever till forever becomes never again.” On Highway Queen, Lane patently demonstrates that modern rockabilly queendom is hers for the ruling. And since her tough-gal-with-a-heart-of-gold persona owes everything to Loretta Lynn, maybe Lynn’s career can provide a road map for where Lane might go, should she choose to get more political on the next round. Seven-hundred-thousand rednecks deserve that she does.