One of the reasons country music landed in such a poor state a few years ago when Bro-Country was all the rage, was because the system that relied on artists to keep other artists in line by swiping them on the nose if they went too far out of the designated bounds of country broke down. Some older artists and more traditional performers had to worry so much about keeping their own heads above water, they weren’t in a position to sow disharmony among the artists’ ranks. This allowed acts like Florida Georgia Line and Sam Hunt to run rampant and flourish.
Slowly though, especially when stuff got so bad in 2013 and 2014 that you might go an entire hour without hearing one woman, or one single bit of traditional instrumentation on the radio, or one song that didn’t have to do with beer and trucks, a few artists began to speak out. But even then these brave souls were shoved aside as being sour grapes who were bitter about their careers going south, or ended up like Zac Brown who joined the EDM bandwagon. Artists such as Dale Watson and Whitey Morgan still kept up their barrage of swear words against the worst of the new generation, but they did it as long-established outsiders who the industry had turned a deaf ear to many years before.
And then here comes this foul-mouthed comedy country artist named Wheeler Walker Jr., and all of a sudden we have a new man taking the point at trashing pop country. None of Wheeler Walker Jr.’s songs are “country protest” songs like we hear dozens and dozens of other traditional country artists perform. Walker’s music is not a commentary on the state of the genre, aside from being produced as a straight-laced traditional country record by Dave Cobb. It’s the attitude he’s taking off the stage and out of the recording studio that’s slowly making him into a pretty serious gadfly for pop country and its suitors.
“What’s happened now in Nashville, since it’s turned into such fucking bullshit … is country radio is no longer country music,” says Wheeler Walker on a recent episode of Joe Rogan’s podcast (see below). “It’s beats from the 80’s, really soft, a guy with a baseball hat singing about trucks and beer and dog shit like that. It’s the worst. It’s disgusting. It really is.”
But what’s interesting about the perspective Wheeler Walker Jr. is bringing to his pop country criticism, is that it’s not just an act. It was bred out of the experience of creating the Wheeler Walker Jr. persona by the man behind the glasses, beard, and black cowboy hat: comedian and Kentucky native Ben Hoffman.
“I went into the studio, and I was like, ‘I want to make some real fucking country music.’ And at the time I didn’t know what had happened. I’m in Nashville, but I’m in my house. I didn’t know what the fuck’s going on,” Wheeler explains to Joe Rogan. “So we’re listening to playback, and we listened to ‘Fuck You Bitch,’ and I go, ‘Man this is so pretty, if I made it clean, this could get played on the radio.’ And [the players in the studio] look at me like I’m crazy.”
Not just Wheeler Walker Jr., but Ben Hoffman had an epiphanius moment about what had happened to country music in the last fifteen years. And all of a sudden the objective of Wheeler Walker Jr. became not just to release some dirty country songs, but upset the apple cart of bad country music, which he’s regularly been doing in interviews and on his social media properties, directly challenging artists like Florida Georgia Line and Sam Hunt to the delight of many fans. And not just with foul-mouthed insults, but honest-to-God relevant criticism. Like others before him, Wheeler Walker Jr. has tapped into the anger and disappointment of what country music has become. He’s a rallying point for pissed off fans.
“It’s not fucking around,” says Wheeler. “Music Row ain’t happy [about my album]. It was Grammy week when my album came out, and my album debuted at #9 on the ‘Billboard’ country charts.”
Wheeler Walker Jr. has come to symbolize the antithesis of the dainty, whitewashed mainstream pop country world, and it is beginning to put a groundswell underneath him. Wheeler Walker may not be a real person, but the appeal for what he is doing is real, to the point where he’s racking up sales numbers that are surprising everyone, and now is booking shows in decently-sized venues as a headlining act. His appearance on Joe Rogan’s podcast certainly helped, and has shot up his sales numbers once more.
This is no longer just a laughing matter. Because his persona allows him to say things many other artists think and believe but can’t say publicly, Wheeler Walker Jr. is becoming one of the most dangerous men in country music. Not just because of what he’s saying, but because people are listening.