So-Called Outlaw Wheeler Walker Jr. Chickened Out of Our Interview

Who you running from, Wheeler?
Who you running from, Wheeler?

The arrival of Wheeler Walker Jr., a mysterious “outlaw” with plenty of favorite bad words, brought a number of questions for critics who just weren’t sure how to write about the guy. His carefully crafted backstory says that he’s a man who wants to record pure country music, something that’s decidedly rare in Nashville these days.

With the release of “Fuck You Bitch,” a track from his forthcoming album Redneck Shit, we could’ve been listening to the finest skewer of country stereotypes this side of Hee Haw. Instead, we found a lackluster effort, too self-absorbed to be self-aware, that even a brilliant producer like Dave Cobb couldn’t save. When I made that point on this here site just a few weeks ago, Wheeler Walker Jr. didn’t take too kindly to the criticism.

But then it was quiet. Wheeler Walker Jr. stopped telling us about his masturbation habits and went on about his life, for at least a few weeks. Later, when Chris Stapleton played Saturday Night Live, Walker inserted himself into an innocent little Twitter exchange about whether or not Dave Cobb was playing rhythm guitar during the set. (Note: He was.)

Then, it appeared as if time had not eased the blow of Wheeler Walker Jr. being called out for sexism and mediocre satire. He challenged me to an interview so that he could explain these hilarious jokes or overt messages that I am somehow too stupid to understand. We both agreed to the terms – both parties involved would behave and leave our agendas at home.

In all honesty, I was as eager to hear what he had to say as I was to make my own case that this album isn’t worth the wax it’s imprinted on. I couldn’t wait for him to impassionedly defend the tracks that he’d recorded. I thought maybe I had missed something. At the end of our exchange, I told Wheeler Walker Jr. to have his people (yes, even outlaws have publicists) get in touch with me so we could talk in the coming days.

When I heard nothing after nearly a week, I sent my own email to Walker’s team, asking when we could schedule the interview. I got a quick response – a “hold please" – and then radio silence.

I kept on emailing. Eventually, I was asked what the “angle” of the interview would be, as if our hero had never mentioned that he’d challenged a journalist to a tête-à-tête after insulting her on Twitter. Eventually, it became clear Walker’s management didn’t want to expose him to any sort of “ambush” from a mean ol’ lady writer, and they stopped responding to my emails. I tweeted Wheeler Walker Jr. a few times, too, asking when we could set something up. Clearly, he’s too busy using the Houston Press as a jerk rag to sit down for an interview.

Or, and this is the more likely explanation, he chickened out. After all that bravado and the machismo of “Fuck You Bitch” and the shit-talking on Twitter, Wheeler Walker Jr. just decided that he didn’t want to have to answer any tough questions about his carefully curated backstory or the fact that these supposedly funny tunes barely merit a chuckle without sophomoric mentions of boobs and cooches. Or maybe he couldn’t answer them.

Promising to play nice doesn’t mean ignoring legitimate criticisms of the record, like the gratuitous use of incredibly sexist language or the fact that the record doesn’t sound too far off from anything else that’s on country radio. I did, however, want to know more about the actual artist. How did a comedian named Ben Hoffman transform into this archetype of country-fried toxic masculinity? More important, how the hell did he convince Dave Cobb to produce his album?

There are so many questions that can be asked of Wheeler Walker Jr. This is supposedly some kind of high performance art, but it doesn’t hit any of the marks that it’s careening toward. Aside from the sonic elements, which are solid, the shtick ultimately fails. The Southern accents are overwrought (even Luke Bryan has perfected a half-decent twang by now) and the costuming looks just a little too much like Hank Jr.'s. A reporter for AL.com noted that Hoffman (or Walker, whatever) didn’t break character the entire time he interviewed him.

If the music were interesting, that might be one thing. There is certainly a way to stick your tongue in your cheek and do subtle satire and be funny. Sure, some people might not get it – people thought Merle didn’t smoke marijuana, after all – but that’s the point of skewering the sacred cows. This isn’t that. This is inane music that will make frat boys go wild. And that’s all fine and good.

But you don’t get to call that shit art and pretend that the rest of us are idiots for “not getting it.” We get it; we just don’t like it. It’s not funny or interesting or smart or any of the rest of it. The pieces are all there — the look, the big-time producer, the steel guitar — they just don’t fit together quite right. Given the chance, I’d have said that to the man himself.

But instead, he decided to tuck tail and run away, pretending that the whole thing didn’t exist. That says more about him as an artist and comic than anything else. He’s devoted himself to this schtick, but he’s not willing to have any kind of nuanced conversation about it. If this crap is as “fearless” and “honest” as people say that it is, you’d think he’d want to have some stake in that conversation.

And maybe I’m not important enough to merit a blip on Walker’s radar, what with all those pithy tweets. He is, after all, preparing to release his album tomorrow, and we’ll just have to see how that goes. Maybe the rest of Redneck Shit is better than the other pseudo-redneck shit he’s released in the past few months.
Ultimately, though, I’m not interested in any artist — performance, music or otherwise —- who can’t make his own case. At this point, Wheeler Walker Jr. is looking a lot more like a chickenshit than a true outlaw. And that’s certainly not something country music needs any more of. 


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