A guy walks into a grimy Nashville diner. Red-and-white flannel shirt. Beard. Baseball cap. Aviators. “Let’s get some Budweiser draft,” Wheeler Walker Jr. says, nestling into a booth. “That’s what this place is built for.” A quiet confidence trails this man. Maybe it’s in the slow strut with which he walks. Or the way he gives Nashville the middle finger at every turn, whether calling out bro-country acts like Florida Georgia Line, Luke Bryan and Sam Hunt, or muttering things like this: “Honestly I really didn’t give a fuck. Fuck all you fuckers. Fuck this town. Fuck this industry. Fuck everyone.” That message, he notes, “it resonates with people.”
On paper, it can be hard to take this man seriously. His music is of the filthy variety, with song titles like “Pussy King,” “Drunk Sluts” and “Eatin’ Pussy/Kickin’ Ass,” and lyrics about needing a finger up his ass to achieve an orgasm and preferring “a little fur on your burger.” But he’s an effortlessly listenable singer, one who makes the type of old-school country music your grandfather was into. Walker fashions himself as an outlaw in the lineage of Waylon Jennings and Merle Haggard. To hear him tell it, he might be downright dirty, but make no mistake, the man behind Ol’ Wheeler, an album produced by Nashville’s it-boy producer Dave Cobb (Sturgill Simpson, Chris Stapleton) and released last week, is deadly serious in his intentions. He’s the savior Nashville didn’t know it needed.
“The songs are what it comes down to,” Walker says, after complimenting the middle-aged waitress on her beer-pouring acumen. “That’s really the whole point. But then people are like, ‘Clean it up and you could make good money and be on the radio.’ Then they would have won. So,” he says with a sly grin, “I doubled down this time.”
I don’t talk about grabbing a woman by the pussy. I don’t talk about assault. And I can’t be in the chain stores?
Many, including Walker himself, figured his first album, 2015’s Redneck Shit, would come and go without kicking up any dust. But then it was a surprise hit, landing at Number One in its debut week—on the comedy charts.
Walker was not pleased.
“What pisses me off is I’m just trying to make honest music and not censor myself. And that’s comedy to people? That shouldn’t be! What does it say about the perception of country music? It’s pure? That’s bullshit. The guys I love, like Hank Williams, he drank himself to death at 29. Is that more real or cleaner because he did it behind the scenes and didn’t talk about it? The comedy charts? Sam Hunt should be on the comedy charts. That’s a comedy bit to me.”
Truth be told, he says, this should be as good a time as ever to go raunchy. “I mean, my album is not as dirty at Meet the Press,” he says, referencing today’s political climate. “I don’t talk about grabbing a woman by the pussy. I don’t talk about assault. And I can’t be in the chain stores?”
Yes, Walker has faced corporate opposition. In addition to seeing his music banned from radio and retailers like Wal-Mart, even PledgeMusic shut down a campaign for his new album—a first for the crowd-funding site—citing customer complaints. “I want to compete. I want to be in the game,” Walker says, now visibly frustrated. “I want to have a Number One country record. It needs a level playing field.”
The way he sees it, Nashville, chock full of money-grubbing, soulless pop-country robots, is merely falling in line and dismissing him to mask its own fraudulence. “There’s no reason Keith Urban’s new album can’t talk about ramming Nicole Kidman up the ass,” Walker says without cracking a smile. “But we know why he doesn’t: because he’s got houses, private school for the kids, a butler, a private plane. He can’t risk that. Any time you make music where you’re worried about the bottom line, that’s not music I want to listen to.”
Just shy of 24 hours later, a guy walks into one of Nashville’s more hipster-friendly coffee shops. Red-and-white flannel shirt. Beard. Baseball cap. Aviators. “Wheeler is real. It’s a part of me,” says Ben Hoffman who, if you didn’t guess, doubles as Wheeler Walker Jr. “Just the dark side.”
Hoffman is by trade a writer and comic. In 2013, he had a short-lived Comedy Central sketch show, The Ben Show. A few years later he helped launch The Late Late Show With James Corden. Now he’s Wheeler.
The country singer, he says, has surprised him, but not how you might think. “The big surprise is when you do a project [like Wheeler] to get out all your anger and rage, and that many people connect with it. It’s a little scary—mainly, that as many people are as pissed off as you. It’s an eye opener.”
The 42-year-old doesn’t normally break character for interviews. In fact, Hoffman says, longtime friend Sturgill Simpson, whom he knew from his days growing up in Lexington, Kentucky, and who later introduced Hoffman to the producer Cobb, would be pissed if he knew this second interview was happening. Simpson said Hoffman had to go “full Andy Kaufman.” But he’s making an exception.
As Hoffman explains it, Wheeler Walker Jr. emerged out of a sketch on The Ben Show, for which he played an enraged football coach. The comedian found the experience oddly therapeutic. “I lost my voice, I was screaming so loud during the sketch,” he recalls. “I talked to my therapist after (yes, Ol’ Wheeler has a therapist) and even though I was having the worst day and I’m an insomniac, I slept like a baby that night.”
Since Hoffman emerged as Wheeler, there have been murmurs of the artist being disingenuous, appropriating Southern culture. He gets it: From the outside, he looks like an L.A. guy who decided to move to Nashville and suddenly brand himself as a country singer. But that’s not the full story. Hoffman’s family has deep roots in Music City. His great-grandmother took up residence there in 1901; a young Hoffman would visit often as a child. He’s also been a lifelong musician. Still, when he finished recording Redneck Shit with Cobb, “My first thought was “This is so fucking good. It’s a bummer no one is going to hear it.” He laughs. “I thought I’d put out the album and go back to work as a comedy writer,” Hoffman says. “Then it started selling.”
So now Hoffman has two albums to his name as Wheeler Walker Jr. and is embarking on a national tour. He’s also contending with where his life and career take him from here.
“I found a creative outlet at a point in my life I needed to vent,” says Hoffman, who still heads out to L.A. and writes scripts between Wheeler tours. “There’s a lot of dangerous ways to get darkness out of your system. As a creative person, I like to do it in a creative way. If all it did is help myself calm down, that’s enough. But to get to the charts and sell out huge places? It’s way farther than I would have imagined.”
It’s all a bit confusing, he admits. Even he sometimes loses sight of where Ben ends and Wheeler begins. Frankly, he notes, Wheeler and Ben aren’t all that different. Really, Wheeler is just a vehicle for him to release his anger and frustration. “I joke with management all the time: ‘Fix this or I’m going to go full Wheeler.’”
“Wheeler’s just telling the truth,” Hoffman adds. “Ben’s the real liar. I had to create a fake character to become more truthful. I wish I could be as honest as Wheeler.”
WATCH WALKER FACE OFF WITH PLAYMATE PAMELA HORTON IN A SAVAGE GAME OF FARMING SIMULATOR 15