WARNING: Some language
It says a lot about where country music is, and where Wheeler Walker Jr. is going, that his show at Austin’s new Grizzly Hall was one of the most highly-anticipated country shows in Austin in months. Bloggers, radio DJ’s, and even Texas country artist Sam Riggs turned out to see what all of the hype was about surrounding the country’s newest raunch artist. It’s the unlikely story of an unusual act that has all of a sudden become one of the hottest names in independent country.
This is just Wheeler Walker Jr.’s debut tour, yet numerous dates have been sold out in decent-sized venues across the country. Austin, TX could not muster such a distinction, and wasn’t helped by the fact that the show fell on a Sunday, and Father’s Day on top of that, and that Wheeler was competing with the NBA Game 7 finals. But there was still a hefty crowd in attendance.
Grizzly Hall occupies a building that for a short period was the home of Antone’s—one of Austin’s most legendary and long-standing blues venues. After unsuccessfully trying to get a regular crowd to thrive in Austin’s burgeoning southeast quadrant, Antone’s moved back downtown while the space that’s now Grizzly Hall became a short-lived mega sports bar. Only two projector televisions remained from the venue’s previous life, and as the Golden State Warriors unsuccessfully tried to mount a comeback Sunday evening, a mix of rednecks and garden variety Austin freaks filed into the facility retrofitted with rough-hewn cedar planks and taxidermied mounts standing guard along the walls.
The first thing that greets you as you walk into the door of the venue is a massive stuffed grizzly bear behind glass. If any of Grizzly Hall’s accoutrements will entice Austin’s fickle public to frequent the establishment any more than the fleet of flat screens from the failed sports bar remains to be seen. But it certainly was fit environs for a country show.
As hard as it might be to imagine, Wheeler Walker Jr. may have not been the most raunchy performer of the night. Opening for the comedian turned country artist was the female duo of Jasmin Kaset and Makenzie Green known as Birdcloud. They’ve been making their own noise and testing local decency ordinances with their two-woman show. As ribald as the sexual escapades of Wheeler Walker Jr. may come across, think about what it sounds like coming from two women. But that’s sort of the point of Birdcloud—to push the envelope and defile mores by singing about many of the things men imply, but women are supposed to steer clear of.
The songs are funny and entertaining, while also asserting a very deliberate agenda of nonconformity and equality through desensitization. The trouble with Birdcloud is their vocal tunings are delivered through close approximations, and their novice strumming of chords doesn’t help to bolster their musical appeal. Don’t misunderstand, they know what they’re presenting is harsh and unrefined. That’s the point. But when watching them live, sometimes you can’t even understand the words because the approach is so slapdash, including screeching and screaming at times. This is the exact opposite of what another female duo known for their off-color content called Folk Uke utilizes. It didn’t help that Grizzly Hall’s sound was muddy all night, especially for vocals, as the sound guy kept one eye on some WWE event all night in the sound booth.
Bircloud’s set ends (spoiler alert) with one girl playing a harmonica strapped near the other girl’s crotch. It’s about as close as you’ll see to female on female oral sex on stage. As an attempt to shock and push limits, it’s certainly effective. But the question that lingers is if their efforts to push limits are taken seriously enough, or can even be understood. Just a bit more effort without ruining the wild-assed approach of the presentation would make this a much more appealing act.
Extra effort at doing it right was exactly what was presented when Wheeler Walker Jr. took the stage. With a professional, hot shit country band from Nashville, and a top notch, tight presentation, Ben Hoffman gave no hints that he was a comedian turned musician. It wasn’t just that he sang his own songs. He participated in complex harmonies with the band, and played solid rhythm guitar. This was not just some country act that leaned only on the appeal of smutty lyrics, this was a full blown traditional country show that would rival any other in the tightness of instrumentation.
Wheeler Walker Jr.’s set was fairly short, which is to be expected from an act touring behind their first record. To fill out the set, Wheeler also played the slowed-down version of Waylon Jennings’ “Outlaw Shit,” and a country version of “Bitch Better Have My Money.” Sam Riggs joined Wheeler Walker on stage to add harmonies to the song “Better Off Beating Off,” and Walker encored with the namesake of his current tour “Eatin’ Pussy, Kickin’ Ass.”
The banter from the stage was just as much a part of the presentation as anything, with the City of Houston, which Wheeler played the evening before, bearing the brunt of the jokes. “It’s good to be back in civilization!” Wheeler shouted, apparently having a rough night before, and having endured public run ins with the local alternative newsweekly, The Houston Press. The Game 7 win by the Cleveland Cavaliers also came up often. Walker had delayed his set until after the final buzzer had sounded. “You’ve seen the greatest basketball player,” Wheeler said in reference to LeBron James. “Now you’ve seen the greatest country singer ever.”
The success of Wheeler Walker Jr. is a testament to how well he understands how to troll the right people, and how a vast hole in the traditional country marketplace remains, despite the recent success of Sturgill Simpson and Chris Stapleton. “How about that?” Wheeler said after one song. “Makes Sam Hunt look like some pussy shit!” Right before the final song of the set, a group of guys at the front of the stage were chanting “Fuck Sam Hunt! Fuck Sam Hunt!”
Where things like Sturgill Simpson’s new record and Chris Stapleton only present close approximations to the red meat needed to feed the angry country music traditionalist, Wheeler Walker Jr. knows how to whip them into a frenzy, even if it’s hard to define where the act ends, and the true vitriol for today’s country begins for Walker. But he’s tapped into the energy that has propelled acts like Whitey Morgan and Dale Watson to rabid followings, while also bringing in a wide swath of people from the comedic element.
Where Wheeler Walker Jr. goes from here is anyone’s guess. Will Ben Hoffman’s passion for the bit hold out for a second album and subsequent tours? If so, next time he rolls through Austin, he might be selling out Stubb’s or headlining at ACL Live like his buddy Sturgill Simpson did on his way to the top. And it’s not just because Ben showed some skills at writing dirty country songs, and a savviness to gain attention for himself through social media. It’s because the appetite for something real in country is so voracious and unsatiated that even an act that everyone knows is fake is still more real, resonant, and true to country music fans than what’s on the radio.
Wheeler Walker Jr. is part of this whole insurgent country movement whether he wants to be or not. And at the present moment, he might be leading it.