Jaime Wyatt has undergone a lifetime of changes in the span of just a few years. Her 2017 debut, Felony Blues, may have been put out by a niche record label, but it eventually found a strong audience drawn to her uncompromisingly authentic Americana/country sound more akin to the late, ‘70s outlaw country scene than most contemporary music coming out of the genre.
Stripped of all pretension and remarkably autobiographical—drawing on the her almost-year-long stay in the L.A. county jail for robbing her dealer—it attracted near universal praise, justifiably so, by anyone who heard it.
In the years since, she’s become sober, come out as a gay woman to her family and friends, relocated from L.A. to Nashville, and somehow found the time to write a truly remarkable, follow-up album, Neon Cross. The record comes out on May 29 via her new label, New West Records.
Neon Cross was produced by her longtime friend and sometime tour buddy, Shooter Jennings, who aptly enough is second generation outlaw country royalty—the son of Waylon Jennings and Jessi Colter. She also pulled together a new backing band to help her out that included the late Neal Casal who passed away in late August.
The record builds off of Felony Blues, sharing a lot of the autobiographical, lyrical elements, but digs deeper, resulting in a true tour de force of talent and charm. From the feminist anthem “Just A Woman” (with Colter jumping in to share vocals) to the devastatingly beautiful “Mercy,” it’s not hard to imagine that this will be a record people will be talking about for years.
At the time, when she and the rest of the world were still sheltering in place as a result of the ongoing pandemic, Wyatt called in from Nashville to talk about Neon Cross. She discussed the self-inflicted pressure of following up Felony Blues, the scary choice to finally come out publicly and the hesitation around releasing a record in uncertain times.
I was listening recently to an old podcast interview you did a few years ago and, in that interview, sort of offhandedly, you mentioned being a big fan of Shooter Jennings and that you guys shared a manager and had toured before. Flash forward a few years and he’s producing this new record. How did that come about?
It’s cool. There were several candidates to produce the record, but it just felt like the time I had spent with Shooter and gotten so close to him over the couple of years I was on tour with him—and he was the one who had recommended his manager in the hopes, not to put words in his mouth, that we’d get to hang out and work together. We certainly entertained ideas with other producers; it’s just that the bond was pretty heavy with Shooter, and it became clear that it was a good move and would be a good, working relationship.
Did you have any trepidation in working with him, knowing that someone you see as a friend would then have some say in how your record sounds? Thinking, maybe I can’t be honest with him?
That was really the reason I choose him; I felt that I could be honest with him. I was confident that if I told him how I felt, he wouldn’t take it personally. I felt like it would be a better working relationship because there was already so much love there, you know. But there were definitely times when I thought “I don’t want to tell him, but I really don’t want this song on the album.” And there’s only one song that we even disagreed on with song selection.
Obviously another plus is that he brought in the connection to Jessi Colter, his mom. How did she come to sing on the record?
I asked him. I’d been introduced to Jessi several times and really started to study her music over the last couple of years, and I was thinking for the song “Just a Woman” that it would be a bold statement to have some powerhouse of a figure to sing on it. And I don’t even know why this wasn’t my first thought, but I said, “Hey Shooter, can we hire your mom?” She doesn’t have to do anything, she’s earned every accolade she’s got; she should just be chillin’, not working, but she agreed to it. She did her vocals in Arizona and when I got them back, I totally cried.
You also worked with the late Neal Casal on this record. Did you know him before he started work on this album?
Yeah, I did. We didn’t have a close relationship, but I would see him around Ventura, and he came to see me a couple times when I was performing with this band, and we’d exchanged numbers probably eight years ago, maybe longer. I was always afraid to use his number. I told him once, “I’d love to write with you,” and he said “Absolutely.” And I chickened out. I’d been a huge fan of his for quite a while. We were talking about guitar players, and Shooter said, “How do you feel about Neal Casal?” And I said, “I’m more than ok with that!” He exceeded all of my expectations.
His guitar and a lot of the other instruments on this album sound so much bigger than the last record. They really, for lack of a better phrase, fill out the room.
Yeah, it’s important to note that, it’s also important to note the production value. The reason you pay a little more is that you can hear everything that’s going on, and I’m just really grateful that New West (Records) helped us make this record. To have players like Neal on there, you can actually hear him and the care that went into this. He did some cool layers on here.
Obviously, your last record got you a lot of attention out of seemingly nowhere. Did you then feel a lot of pressure to follow it up?
You’re right; I did feel that. But I’ll tell you what, this has been an ongoing thing my whole life, really the most pressure I have ever gotten from anyone has been from myself. It’s really in the writing process when I’m really hard on myself. But also, when I’m in the studio and cutting vocals. I’ve gotten nervous because it’s a great studio, it costs more, and I went into that studio a few years clean again, and I went into it with a lot of pressure and a lot of uncertainties. Luckily, I had come to terms with it and had a lot of support from Shooter and the band on the album. Those guys were like “the songs have already been written. You’ve done that part, and it’s your voice. You can do this!” That really helped.
I’d love to talk about one of the songs if that’s OK, “Rattlesnake Girl” which seems carry with it a really great, pro-acceptance vibe. In your bio, you talk about coming out just in the past few years. I can only imagine how hard it would be to come out as a country musician. Was that fear of backlash from the community or fans an impediment at all to you coming out publicly?
You know, it was everything, the way I grew up, just wanting to be quote unquote ‘good’ and fit in and afraid to be different, wanting to be accepted so badly. Then being, yeah, I almost didn’t speak to this publicly, but the reason why I did is for the younger kids out there. If growing up I had seen more people who were out, I might have had a little bit of an easier time, so it’s super important that I do.
I almost did not come out publicly because of my fear of not being accepted by some of the country music fans. I didn’t want to let them down, but you wouldn’t believe it in 2020, I’ve already seen some super harsh comments on the internet about that. I get so much love from people on my social media and I accidentally came across some stuff from, I guess you’d call them traditional country music fans, and I’ve already gotten some super mean comments.
They call it an agenda or something like this and hey, if you want to call it an agenda, I’m fine with that agenda. My experience is that I got into drugs and alcohol because of emotional issues and also because I didn’t know how to embrace what I was, and if I can spare some young person some hardship, then this is worth it. If I have to endure some mean people on the Internet, fine. This is a worthy cause for me.
With that song “Rattlesnake Girl,” am I digging too deep into the lyrics thinking it was a song about embracing who you are and being out?
It’s about that, and it’s very autobiographical, and it has a couple different experiences in there, but it’s about my process in coming out and about my process in finding out who I am and who I’ve always been. So, yeah, (with the lyric) “I found my childhood under the pinewood,” it sort of jumped up and bite me and kicked my ass because it scared me.
I don’t have to tell you this, but it seems like a really weird time to be releasing an album. Did you guys consider holding off a while?
Yeah, we really did consider postponing, but sort of like everything else, my manager and I have done a lot of things by gut feeling, and it just seems like even if it’s risky—well, touring is extremely risky—it just feels like people need this. And since I’ve been given so much grace and helped by so many people, this is one of the ways I can give back and maybe be of service.
If people are hurting right now, I don’t know about you, but I feel it all around me—the distress. I feel it personally, and I even feel it out at the grocery store. It’s scary, and I feel like releasing an album during this time can provide entertainment or possibly even some sort of catharsis when we’re with ourselves, then maybe this is the right time. It’s a great risk. I just have a lot of faith that it might be needed and that this is actually the perfect time.
Pick up a copy here.