It may be best not to try and define Wheeler Walker Jr. beyond what you’re getting from him in the moment.
In a previous incarnation he was an edgy Hollywood sketch comedian named Ben Hoffman, who mysteriously disappeared from the public appearances. But in this moment, he is a classically-influenced country and western musician, buoyed by pedal steel and songs laced with R-rated lyrics. He writes forlorn songs of heartbreak like “Fuck You Bitch” and the R-rated ditties like “Drop 'Em Out,” exhorting women to open their shirts.
But no matter who you think Walker really is — country music bad boy or the Tony Clifton-esque alter ego — the real question is, does it really matter? After all, Walker's independently released album, “Redneck Shit,” debuted in February at #9 on Billboard’s country music chart (and #1 on the comedy chart, but he says he doesn’t give a damn about that one). It's an answer to what he describes as a commercial country music wasteland presented by a Nashville music machine that is only interested in formulaic pop singles.
So that’s the guy we spoke with this week, in advance of his first Texas show this Thursday night at the House of Blues in Dallas. (The interview below has been edited for clarity and length.)
Dallas Observer: Rolling Stone called your record “country’s filthiest new album.” Is that what you were going for?
Walker: I wish I’d been that smart, and I wish that had been the goal, to get that kind of press, but it wasn’t the point. I forgot how dirty it was, really, until I listened back to it about a month later. I thought, “Man, I must have been dealing with some shit at the time, because it really poured out of me.” It was like therapy. What I said to Dave Cobb at the studio was that I wanted to make the best country record of the year, and I wanted to make it completely unplayable. And I think I nailed it.
It’s a stupid goal. But my whole thing was, because it’s real country music, it ain’t gonna get played anyway, because all they play is pop country garbage. So why censor myself?
Well, we live in an age where you really don’t need radio to get your record out there anymore.
We walked out of the studio, and everyone who played on it and produced it said, “You know, this was a really great record, but it’s a bummer no one’s gonna hear it.” I kind of forgot that it’s 2016, and you can hear it.
I’ve seen you referred to as a parody artist. Does that bug you?
That pisses me off. I don't like that at all. Parody is Weird Al where he redoes "Beat It" and he does "Eat It." I’m not parodying anybody. I’m doing original songs. All the attention I’ve gotten is all about how I’m going after country artists and going after the mainstream pop world.
Listen to the record. It’s a very personal record. I was in a bad place at that time. It’s about getting dumped and losing my money and being broke and being in a bad place. It’s not a parody. Sam Hunt rapping about his truck? To me, that’s the parody.
If you were in a dark place before, what’s your headspace like now?
This is what music’s all about. I was in a bad place, I put it into the songs, and now I feel better. Putting the album out was kind of a moot point. What made me feel better was recording it and listening to it and going, “You know what? Instead of taking all this shit I was feeling and putting it into complaining to my friends and drinking or getting pissed or punching the wall, I put it into an album that I’m happy with and other people who are feeling the same way can listen to." Sorry if I’m sounding too serious for a guy with a song called “Fightin’, Fuckin’ Fartin’,” but that’s how I felt at the time.
What’s your show’s going to be like?
We’ve got a full band, the best musicians I know and could afford in Nashville. Don’t get me wrong, we were certainly laughing in the studio. But this is not a comedy show. It’s a country music show. It’s the real deal, and I think we give any other band out there a run for their money. The shows have been great because it’s just people having fun, letting loose, not having to worry about what you’re saying. We’ve been having a blast.
So say this gets best new album next year — what’s your next move? Sticking with country music?
Oh yeah, that’s what I love. I’ve been in Nashville 15 years trying to make it in country. We have so many songs for this record. The only problem is the album is still new. I can’t wait to get into the studio and make more records.
Your pre-released your album on the website PornHub. What’s the backstory there?
You’ve got to think outside the box with a record like this. A lot of my friends put out country albums, and they premier it a week early on NPR or Rolling Stone. But NPR, what do they get, a couple hundred thousand people? PornHub’s got every person in the world watching it. Let’s go where the people are.
Listen, don’t get me wrong. Most people going to PornHub aren’t there to listen to a country music album. But when you’re done, and you’re cleaning up, you want to hear some good music. What if you could get your album out to everyone who likes watching people fuck?
Those are some big numbers.
I’m making music for the world’s masturbators. This is my audience.
So really, you’re thinking inside the box.
I’m thinking about the box.
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You were on the red carpet for the Country Music Television awards. What was that like?
It was the worst night of my life. I was selling records, and I said, OK, I’m gonna go. I was trying to act cool and meet all these people, and it just sucked. I left halfway through the show. This ain’t me. I won’t make that mistake again. Don’t be something you’re not. I watched Pit Bull live, and I’m a worse man for it. I spent the whole time on my Instagram and Twitter making fun of everybody. Then I realized I was sitting in the middle of all the people I was making fun of, and I said, “I better get out of here before I get my ass kicked.”
Lesson learned. Your bio says you once broke into a major label to steal back your own master, got the wrong one in the dark, and wound up with a Lee Greenwood album — which you then set on fire and pissed on.
The reason I was so frustrated and doing so much crazy shit in those days was because I was trying to do it the way that I thought would make me successful in Nashville. I wasn’t doing what I wanted to do. I mean literally, I was going to make this album and move back home. I figured it would end my career. I didn’t think it would start it. After a while, you just gotta do what you want to do. Some people, it takes them a lot longer to figure it out than others. It took me forever to figure out that this is who I am, and I’m just not going to apologize for it.