It was said by many after the release of Wheeler Walker Jr.’s first album Redneck Shit, “Okay, that was fun. But where do you go next?” Give all credit in the world to Ben Hoffman for seeing a gaping hole in the country music market, having the insight and skills to fill it by writing incredibly witty songs, and playing guitar, singing quite well—including recording his own harmonies which isn’t always easy—all while learning how to be a professional musician on the fly. But the problem with joke songs is that just like a joke, you hear the punch line, laugh, and move on. The next question from the audience is, “What else you got for me?”
Wheeler Walker Jr. has an entirely new album’s worth of songs. That’s what he’s got. And he’s got ’em in a pretty short turnaround, and they’re just as funny and wit-filled as the first, if not more. The shock has now worn off, and we know what to expect, yet he still splits your ribs not just from the ribald verbiage, but from the way he uses it—his turn of phrase. It’s fair to also say that just like the first record, you listen a few times and you’re done, maybe to revisit it in a few months for another laugh, but the entertainment value is fleeting, even though it may be a fair assessment to call some of the songs infectious. The tracks released ahead of Ol’ Wheeler are probably the funniest. When listening to the full record, by the end you’ve probably had enough. But the fact that you even make it through a record with this type of material is a feat in itself.
At this moment in time—on the day Wheeler Walker Jr. releases his second record—this is about way more than just the music. Wheeler Walker Jr. is an element of performance art. It’s about the live presentation. It’s about the interviews and podcasts. It’s about the social media presence, and the trolling pop country personalities on Twitter. It’s about the social commentary Ben Hoffman is trying to underscore, with the music as the excuse.
But this is also where there seems to be a little inconsistency in the Wheeler Walker Jr. story and presentation. Just like a sci-fi movie, you sort of have to suspend disbelief with him already, but just like a sci-fi movie that disregards the narratives of its prequels, things can get shaky if the plot doesn’t add up from previous threads.
Some have mislabeled, or poorly assessed Wheeler Walker Jr. as parody. That’s not what it is at all. From the standpoint of Wheeler Walker Jr., he is singing songs in a completely serious manner. It’s his public persona that is quick to go after pop country artists and media personalities. However in the run up to Ol’ Wheeler, Walker Jr. also courted folks like pop country radio personality Bobby Bones, and Taste of Country editor Billy Dukes. He’s worked with the godawful Whiskey Riff, and whomever he thought could help push his music to the public.
Possibly the most damning thing is that none other than Shane McAnally co-writes a song on this record, and seems to be on board for the whole sham. This is the Max Martin of country music himself. Wheeler Walker supposedly “calls out” many of pop country’s worst artists in the final track of Ol’ Wheeler called “Poon,” including Sam Hunt, of which Wheeler Walker has gone to the whip on especially. But Shane McAnally is majorly responsible for putting Sam Hunt on the map.
The Wheeler Walker Jr. franchise is simultaneously taking advantage of mainstream country’s most virulent institutions and personalities, all while trying to ride the wave of anti pop country sentiment present in the population of independent, underground, and traditional country fans. In some ways its genius, but in other ways it’s insincere. Then again, can you really call into question the insincerity of a fictional character who almost exclusively sings about “pussy”?
That brings up another issue though, which is the attempt to bring this music mainstream. Wheeler Walker Jr. as a gadfly is good comedy, and no, the adult nature of the material should not be called into question as an ethical issue because it’s not being disseminated through the public airwaves, it is not being marketed to kids, it’s clearly marked as mature material, and it’s not meant to be taken seriously. But if Wheeler Walker Jr., or Ben Hoffman, wants to gun for the #1 record in all of country music, and is truly butt hurt that radio won’t play him and the Wal-Mart won’t stock his CD’s, then all of a sudden the project has to be assessed with a different set of parameters.
Wheeler Walker Jr. is filthy material, and should be kept underground. That’s where it’s cool. As soon as it becomes an element of the mainstream as opposed to the antithesis of it, not only does some of the coolness wear off, but then it truly does bring up the moral issues of the material. Yes, if you find Wheeler Walker Jr. offensive, then the jokes on you. But if the music seeks you out through the forum of mass media, then frankly it’s fair to broach the subject of the outwardly misogynistic tone of the music. You can’t claim the shield of performance art when you’re trying to put a copy of this CD in every household in America.
There’s nothing wrong with being nice to the guys that are on the other side of the country music cultural divide. But there is something wrong with paling up with them, becoming this sort of mainstream country pet or guilty pleasure, while at the same time trying to sell yourself as a country music savior. It feels like at some point, Wheeler Walker Jr. got swept up in the rat race to sell the most CD’s, and lost a little of the authenticity to the narrative.
Hey, Wheeler Walker Jr. is a comedian and an artist, and the drive of any artist should be to reach as many people as possible once they’ve made their art as authentic as they can to themselves. Too often is obscurity sold as a virtue by independent artists and fans. But this is not Sturgill Simpson we’re talking about here, and it feels like some are giving Wheeler Walker Jr. a pass because they feel this is just the type of subversive material we need in the Trump era, instead of giving a fair assessment of the derogatory impact the music could have on the female persona from some of the bonehead listeners who will receive this material when it’s spread en masse.
What’s hard to argue with here, and what is Wheeler Walker Jr’s ultimate saving grace is the music itself. Where Dave Cobb really shines—and it’s a shame he doesn’t have more projects to help bring it out—is with traditional country artists. Go back and listen to Sturgill Simpson’s first record, High Top Mountain. The country production is incredible, and at that time, this was Sturgill Simpson putting himself almost squarely in the hands of Dave Cobb.
Similarly, Dave Cobb has been like a mad genius now with both the Wheeler Walker Jr. records. Wheeler Walker brings top shelf writing material to this project, and Dave Cobb knows exactly what to do with it. He gets it. Where the new ‘Ol Wheeler separates itself from Redneck Shit is it’s funky, sort of 70’s semi-Outlaw, somewhat Jerry Reed vibe, at least to many of the songs. The opening “Pussy King” is so damn funky and cool, but still distinctly country like that line Jerry Reed and Larry Jon Wilson walked back in the 70’s, it’s worth listening to even if you zone out the lyrical content. Same with “Fuckin’ Around” recorded with Nikki Lane under the pseudonym Kacey Walker, and originally recorded with another female country star who had her label put the kibosh on the collaboration last minute, but that’s another story…
The bigger Wheeler Walker Jr. has become (And he is big. Big enough to legitimately challenge for the #1 record in country), the more polarizing he’s become as a subject. But for what it is, and what it’s supposed to be, which is country comedy for adults, harking back to the smut country of folks like Roy Acuff and others, and filling a void where country music needs an anti-hero, it remains a pretty damn genius piece of performance art, both in the recorded context, on the stage, and via social and traditional media, even if the comedic value of these songs themselves is somewhat fleeting, which can be expected. But if you try to bring it too far out from behind the curtain, that’s when you run the risk of it becoming too exposed and troublesome.
Once again the prevailing question for Wheeler Walker Jr. is, “Where do you go next?” But somewhat surprisingly, he’s done it a second time, and people are still laughing.
1 1/2 Guns Up (7/10)
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