Jaime Wyatt may not be as outspoken or as strong a media magnet as her ‘sister’ Megan Rapinoe but she’s starting to get a similar buzz in the country and Americana music circles. Hailed by one publication as “the queer queen of country” Wyatt’s music threatens to take a back seat to such monikers and buzz. Yes, it may be unusual but let’s just take her music for what it is – a contemporary, layered, lush take on honky-tonk and cry-in-your beer balladry. It’s her vocal and musical talent, not a political or gender stance, that attracts such reputable names as producer Shooter Jennings and the legendary Jessi Colter. Neon Cross also features the revered late guitarist Neal Casal, in one of his final studio performances.
There’s not denying the expressive in Wyatt’s vocals or in some of her lyrics. She deserves top shelf production. Here is what she says about Shooter Jennings, “What really sold on Shooter is that he understands grooves – he gets how to instruct a band to build a groove that is so powerful underneath a song. And it’s crazy because that’s what Waylon Jennings did. He always had these rad country songs with these super-weird, funky rock n’ roll grooves under them. He would take things to interesting and unexpected places. Shooter has that same instinct…, “but Shooter would suggest some crazy rock reference on a song that I thought was clear-cut Buck Owens and somehow it would just be right. It was this real organic process of working together.”
Wyatt makes no secret of battling addiction and being in and out of rehab before making this record. Her story may become rather legendary. Heck, Merle Haggard did time in prison too. She signed her first record deal as a teenager, burned out and before she was even 21 battled a nasty drug addiction and served close to hear in L.A. county jail for robbing her heroin dealer. She chronicled those experiences on her 2017 EP Felony Blues but was still battling substance abuse then. That was before her father passed and a close friend overdosed. The impetus she needed to get clean. While in recovery she came to family and friends as being gay.
Wyatt doesn’t flinch. In the lyrics to the opening autobiographical heartbreak in “Sweet Mess” she offers – “And when it all breaks off, it was hardly even stealing/Cause what you’re made of, it’s something I believe in, yeah.” The slow burning “By Your Side” was written “after my dad died and my best friend overdosed, and I wasn’t able to show up for either of them because I was loaded.” Her “Hurt So Bad” (featuring a cameo from Shooter) also reveals her heartfelt diary, then turns pedal-steel-forlorn pages like “LIVIN” (“That doctor said it’s one in a million/ I’ll make it to 35”), the title track (“I’ve been running my whole damn life/ And I think that it’s catching up”), and “Rattlesnake Girl,” where she describes how she discovered her true sexual identity.
Her duet with Colter “Just A Woman” should have the enduring power of some of Tammy Wynette’s classics. It’s that good. Wyatt is justifiably beaming when talking about it, “And that is the proudest moment of my career,” Wyatt swears. “I was waiting with my mom when we got the recordings of her parts, and when we listened to them, we both just cried.
While Wyatt is clearly adept at classic country, she’s got some of those rock n’ roll instincts too. We hear it in “Goodbye Queen,” and “Make Something Outta Me.” We also get the classic honky-tonk in “LIVIN” and in “Hurts So Bad,” her duet with Jennings. Some of the songs speak to redemption and yet she closes with another about pain in the fiddle-infused “Demon Tied to a Chair in My Brain.” She’s reminding herself, like most in recovery, that she’s still fighting those demons. She says, “… I’m just a songwriter, and I spend a good portion of my life in barrooms performing and worshipping country music and rock ‘n’ roll and telling my story. And I do it because I believe in the power of music, and I believe that music has saved my life in so many ways. And that belief is a powerful thing.”
Wyatt has us believing too. This will, for this writer’s money, be one of the top country albums of the year. If it’s not, then blame inherit prejudice. On the merits of music, songs, and downright honesty, this is a clear winner.
- Jim Hynes