Jaime Wyatt’s Neon Cross is everything country music should be. It’s honest and lived-in, clever and colorful, and aimed squarely at the truth. From the understated yet sweeping opening “Sweet Mess” to the finale, a Louvin-esque rendition of Dax Riggs’ “Demon Tied To A Chair In My Brain”, Wyatt takes control of the songs like a road-worn and seasoned honky tonker. Which, of course, she is. Signed to her first record deal as a teenager, Wyatt soon found herself outside the industry living a real-live country song full of heartache, hangovers, and heroin. In 2017, she released Felony Blues (worth your time if you missed it the first go ’round), an effort that refused to shy away from her struggle with addiction and an 8-month vacation courtesy of the state of California. Neon Cross continues to be an open and honest confessional from an artist who, possibly for the first time, has realized her true form and is ready to share it with the world. For hardcore country purists, Wyatt is a breathin’, brawlin’, real deal outlaw– but there’s no false bravado here. It’s all worn leather and well-earned patina. Produced by Shooter Jennings, a longtime friend who also lends his excellent band to the proceedings (including the late Neal Casal in one of his final studio performances), Neon Cross carries the weight of Wyatt’s experiences and shines with that wisdom.
It’s a weird moment in history to be releasing an album, but it feels like Neon Cross has been a really long time coming. The first rumblings of it, I heard some time ago. Why so long?
Well, I’ll tell you what happened– there was some paperwork. We’ll just put it that way. There was some paperwork in between Felony Blues and this one that was… We’ll just say ‘put things on hold.’ So we got through that and here we are! I signed with New West Records and made the record with Shooter and then we had Neon Cross. Of course, there’s a lot of life experience in between! (Laughs) A lot of major life events!
Yeah. That’s been a focus of the buildup for the album. You brought up Felony Blues, which of course I think checked off every single box in the outlaw musician playbook. I hate to throw out that term “outlaw”, but I can’t think of a better term to use. And from that point on, you’ve created a brand new life. You have an entirely different life in front of you at this point, right?
Yeah, I do! Man, look, I’m a work in progress. My mama tried but… Dare I be cheesy? But I love my mom, she’s a saint! I was a troublemaker, and I got into music and playin’ in bars when I was 15. I got a record deal in high school and I got into drugs and alcohol, I went to jail for eight months for robbin’ my drug dealer… And that’s what I wrote Felony Blues about. After that, I stayed clean and sober for seven years, but I woke up one day and I was like, “Man, I’m not a straight person. I don’t know why I’m livin’ this way?” I never wanted to displease anyone or disappoint anyone. I’m just trying to be myself and not hurt anyone else.
You bring that up, realizing your sexuality, coming out. Leading up into the release of Neon Cross, it would appear that you are being heralded as a champion representing LGBTQIA. Is that a role that you’re embracing at this point?
If it helps young people, yeah. It’s definitely something that I’m not, like, “This is what I’m going to be!” It’s just, I mean, you could call it that, like you could call it a lot of different things… But you know what? If it helps a young person? If I’d had some more support when I was younger and I knew who I was and it helped me figure out who I was and why I am the way I am, I don’t think I would have gotten into drugs. I don’t think I would’ve gone to jail. I don’t think I would’ve struggled so hard. So if me talking about who I am helps someone younger than me or even helps someone older than me? Then heck yeah, I’ll champion some “cause”. But to me, it’s just me talking about my human experience helping another human. So yeah, sure.
You get to do a great deal of exploration on this new album much like you did on Felony Blues. How instrumental was Shooter Jennings behind the board in helping you realize all that?
He had seen me through a ton of my life experience. When he and his wife wanted to meet with me, they came to see me at a bar. I was like startin’ to really… I was goin’ through a divorce, I was drinkin’ real hard again, and he was real supportive– and honestly, the validation of Shooter saying how important my voice and my songs were? That pulled me out of some dark places because even in relapse, in being in the depth of drugs and alcohol, I was like, “Wait a second– Shooter Jennings believes in me.” That helped a lot. And then behind the board in the studio specifically, he’d reassure me. I was like, “Man, is that hook on this song workin’?” And he’d be like, “Yes.”
He’s like a vibe master and tempo and feel. He recommended keepin’ a lot of first and second vocal takes, whereas I was like, “Man, that was a real raw take!” I’ve been singin’ long enough that it’s mostly always in pitch, but it’s like tone. I was like, “That was pretty raw, tonally,” and he was like, “That is the best way to sing that song. That’s the best for this experience, this recording.” And I was like, “Really?” You get some of that rawness and that that was Shooter’s discovery. Five takes in, he’d be like, “Yeah, that’s good too. But for me, it’s the first and second take, man!”
Talking about the hooks, good country music always has these great finger snap, aha moments in the lyrics– of which there are many on Neon Cross. Honestly, I think that “Make Something Outta Me” might have the best hook, line, and sinker of any album I’ve heard thus far in 2020. I used to sit around and joke with my buddies about how there weren’t any good lines left out there. Waylon and Willie and Billy Joe, they all took ’em– and Kris– but it’s not true because you’re coming up with stuff like that now. And if we’ll dive into the album proper, you open it up with this huge sweeping “Sweet Mess”, which was not what I was expecting to be the opening track on that album.
I know, right? That was Shooter’s call to open it up that way, and I was like, “Dude, this is like the most un-country…” But then he’s like, “Yeah, but you still sing everything country!” The idea is like super slow and this is what Shooter told me, “It really makes you calm down and get into an emotional place where you can really take in the rest of the album.” And that is the experience that I think is kind of a bold move– but that’s where Shooter’s bold, man. I don’t know if that’s like the Jennings gene, but they’re bold and I learned from that and I took his direction on that. So yeah, we started the album with a ballad! (Laughs) Like, what?
Speaking of the genes, you got to include Jessi Colter on the record, which is amazing. And that particular song, “Just A Woman”, I could totally imagine her recording that back in the early to mid-seventies or even now. I mean, her doing her own version now. I can hear it.
It was a dream come true to have Jessi Colter sing on “Just A Woman”. Especially ’cause when I was writing it, I try and go to different places in my mind envisioning a story. I thought to myself– ’cause I heard some bits of the way I sing “[Just A] Woman” reminiscent of Tammy Wynette “Stand By Your Man”, and I was like, “I wonder if this story is like what Tammy Wynette would say if she had been more open to talking about how she felt in the struggles of being a woman back in the day and going through what she went through.” So then it was so fitting to have someone as legendary and wise as Jessi Colter to sing on that song. That was just perfect the way it worked out.
I think one of the songs that really encompasses your sound, the entire album is “L I V I N”. I don’t even have a good cliche to use, but that’s the one that feels like, “Alright, now we know what’s going on right now.” And that one also kind of feels to me like the statement of being a country musician in this day and age. What does it mean in the 21st Century– in the time of pandemic– to be a country artist?
I have studied classic country at length. That’s pretty much all I listen to. But for me, if I made country music exactly like my heroes, I feel like as a listener I’d just rather listen to the real thing. So I really have tried to put my own spin on it. [L I V I N] is like the experience of being a recovering drug addict, of livin’ hard out on the road, not sure how I’m making ends meet. That’s my experience. There were times where I was like, “Man, I’m more comfortable not livin’ because it’s been so hard.” That is the crux of of “L I V I N”. And I’m pokin’ fun at it. I try and make it humorous because it’s like all my favorite country singers and songwriters throughout the ages, the brilliance of their work, and what I’ve tried to emulate is making fun of how sad life can be. ‘Cause it can be so tragic! I felt so down on my luck, I was like, “Is this a joke or a movie? No, wait, this is real life, right?”
When I’ve spoken to writers in different stages of sobriety or recovery– everyone’s different– but one thing that seems like a pretty common fear is losing that ability to create, connect with the same understanding. “Can I do this sober?” Did you feel that? And when did you realize that you still could? That you were capable?
I’ve always had that fear and it’s kinda like day-to-day I’ll even have the fear that I’ll lose it– and by the end of the day, I’m like, “Still got it! Okay!” (Laughs) Literally, it’s day-to-day. I really think it’s just showin’ up for work every day. So if that means showing up for creativity, then that’s what I do. And I have done everything because I knew… Look, I knew that I could not use drugs and alcohol successfully. So I was like, “I gotta do whatever else I need to do.” If it means to finish a song, I gotta take a nap because I’ve learned that I come up with lyrics and stuff when I’m sleeping or when I’m really groggy– and I have to sit in a dark room when I wake up and think about these songs… I’m gonna do that. I’m gonna do whatever it takes. I’m gonna go on a jog. I go on a lot of walks, walk the dog a bunch because that gets my wheels turnin’. I think it’s more so about the willingness and open-mindedness to explore creativity without having to have a drink or smoke a joint– just ’cause I can’t, you know? It’s just not in my genetic makeup. So really it was like willing to be open-minded and see that I have the ability without drugs and alcohol. But you’re really right in that, that’s a common belief and I definitely, definitely struggled with that belief. But sure enough, the songs come. Deadlines are helpful. People believin’ in me. Fans writing on Instagram that they love these songs and they connect to these songs for a certain reason? That helps me. It takes a village and for me, sure, I’ve put in some hours and some work myself, [but] everybody around me and my loved ones and people that support my music have been a part of me being able to create these songs.
I think there’s a false standard, a stereotype if you will, about being a country musician or country songwriter or songwriter of any style where you have to maintain a certain lifestyle– the drinkin’, the partyin’ lifestyle. I would say that that is certainly a stereotype that your male counterparts often feel like they have to live up to– and sometimes do. As a woman artist, does that stereotype affect you as well?
It does because I’m not a typical woman anyways. I’m a gay woman. I was a tomboy growing up, I played in the woods by myself, I made tree forts, I went fishing by myself every day. That’s why a lot of my closest friends are men– because I have the same hobbies– therefore, I had a similar relationship to emotions where I wanted to drown them in beer and weed (laughs) and then, yeah, there is that stereotype that you gotta be on the road drinkin’ hard every night with your buddies in the bar. And that is something that I’ve done too. The question is, do you have to take every shot that they put on stage for you? And at some point, I was like, “My body is telling me that I don’t need to take every shot that they put on stage for me and I don’t need to do every line and I don’t need to smoke every joint.” And it turns out that actually, I don’t need to do any of it, even though I want to.
This is actually my first interview since everything kind of went to shit, if you will. Right before we got sent home, one of my last interviews was with Chris Masterson, who along with Eleanor, his wife, got some co-writing credit on the album there with you.
But when I spoke to Chris– and I later spoke to Eleanor’s sister Bonnie Whitmore too, ’cause they were supposed to be coming to town in April, which of course that didn’t happen– they were in New England at the time. They were still on tour. This was the Monday after SXSW had been canceled. They were still out on the road and there was still this sense of, “We’re going to keep playin’, we’re going to maintain our commitments.” But so much has changed since that time and the universe has really changed for musicians. Thankfully, folks are still releasing new music. How are you doing things different to propel the music forward in the state that we’re in now?
It’s all online right now. I’m real active on Instagram in particular, but also Facebook. We’re doing a lot of live streams, and we’ve done some live streams with other publications. So there’s a lot of that coming up and we’ve got some video stuff planned. In my spare time, I try pay a little tribute. I do some IGTV. I just put up a cover of a Jessi Colter song for her birthday. I’m trying to be real present online, just keeping up with the times and promoting the album because it has changed so much as far as like revenue. It’s so tricky. It’s so hard right now… But everyone’s struggling, so I get that. We’ve got some live streams that offer opportunities to tip me as an artist– and if you’re looking to support artists, myself and others included, buy merch from the artist and buy the albums. You can tip via Venmo when you’re watching someone’s live stream and that’s super helpful.