In recent years, the definition of “outlaw country” has evolved. Once reserved for artists with actual rap sheets, the term “outlaw” is frequently applied to any artist who strays away from the mainstream. But for Jaime Wyatt, who spent eight months in prison for robbing a drug dealer, being an actual, real-life outlaw is the whole reason she ended up in the music business.
The story has been told before, but originally Wyatt, who performs in Houston on June 16 at the Mucky Duck, signed her first record deal at the age of 17. After nothing came of that, she signed a second deal, during which she developed a serious drug addiction. After being arrested for that aforementioned robbery, Wyatt earned herself a felony strike, six months of rehab and three years of felony probation. Her latest effort, aptly titled Felony Blues, explores those experiences in a smartly produced, lyrically impressive convict’s lament that could be one of the best records of the year.
But it’s not exactly like she had much of a choice. After jail and rehab, Wyatt had to find a way to survive. Like most felons, she found it hard to find any kind of employment. “I would like to get a normal job. I can’t drive for Uber; a lot of musicians do that. I’ve never been able to get a normal job. I feel forced into making music, but for me it is a positive thing,” Wyatt tells the Houston Press. “I don’t want to walk around with this shame anymore.”
As she started her career, though, writing songs about what was the worst period in her life wasn’t exactly the route she wanted to go. “I didn’t even want to talk about it for a lot of years. You have to put enough space between yourself and your term,” she says. “People want to hear a lot of years in between your transgressions and your current situation. I didn’t even talk about it for a while because I was ashamed.”
Eventually, though, Wyatt started to tell her truth. After trying to find attorneys to help her get the charges expunged from her record, she eventually accepted that as part of her story. A lot of that has to do with what she sees as gross injustice in the criminal courts, especially as they relate to drug offenders.
“We have a very assaultive and ineffective judicial system that just kind of like selectively oppresses people and doesn’t really rehabilitate them,” she says. “You can put me in handcuffs, but you cannot break my spirit. That’s what I learned being in a place like jail and being treated like shit by cops. When you’re in there, there are a lot of people who make it clear that they can’t be broken, and that was super-inspiring.”
Those jailhouse experiences are made plain and laid bare on Felony Blues. On “Wasco,” Wyatt tells the story of a cellmate pining for an inmate incarcerated at a nearby prison. It’s most apparent on “Stone Hotel,” an obvious allusion to her former temporary housing that touches on the day-to-day slog of making it through a sentence and feeling frozen in time. “From Outer Space” examines the loneliness, isolation and disconnection Wyatt felt during her time inside. There’s a universality in these tunes that is equal parts jarring and familiar, all while being totally groundbreaking.
The current iteration of outlaw country is, for better or worse, overwhelmingly male. Carrie Underwood and Miranda Lambert might have played at being outlaws in that one song, but there’s not a female country superstar out there who’s walking around with more than a DUI. “It isn’t accepted to break the law or rebel in any way, so it’s naturally hard to keep alive,” says Wyatt. “It doesn’t really fit to talk about jail and doing drugs.”
Still, this endlessly screwed-up dichotomy remains in country music, where it’s okay for Florida Georgia Line to make dick jokes on the radio but Jaime Wyatt’s record never has a chance for airplay. “You can say a lot of weird stuff now, especially in bro-country,” she says. “It’s all tailgates and beer cans, these Daisy Duke-wearing clichés. Thank God Shooter [Jennings] is still around to keep that rebellious, Waylon spirit alive. You can’t just say all that cliché shit and feed people garbage. You have to give them real experience.”
But focus exclusively on the felonious elements of Wyatt’s backstory and you’ll completely miss the point. Listening to songs like “Giving Back the Best of Me” and “Wishing Well” offers a realization that progress is infinitely more important than polish or finding perfection. This is, at its core, a record of redemption. “The best way to capture those hard moments is in a song or a piece of art. You feel like you’ve transcended something,” she says. “But it’s still a daily thing, to find that reprieve.”
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The final song on Felony Blues, a cover of Merle Haggard’s “Misery & Gin,” is a lush and gorgeous culmination of all those emotional moments. Approached by John Durrill, who wrote the song for Haggard alongside Texas’s own Snuff Garrett, Wyatt holds her own on a gut-punch of a song that would swallow lesser artists. “I think I redid the vocals three times and ended up going with the first take,” she says. “I was intimidated. I can’t not do that song properly. It can’t not be emotional. It can’t not be sincere. I really studied for the first time as a singer for that performance, and it was just about this emotional place that was apparently a fit already.”
With all of that behind her, though, the future is looking awfully bright for Jaime Wyatt. Felony Blues has racked up positive reviews from pretty much every critic of note, and earned Wyatt comparisons to legends like Chrissie Hynde, Linda Ronstadt and Tom Petty. She’s reformed herself, is working on healing, and moving on up in the world of alt-country or Americana or whatever we’re calling it these days. “I think about that whenever I feel sorry for myself,” she says. “There’s a lot of moments where I got to catch that.”
Jaime Wyatt performs 9:30 Friday, June 16, at McGonigel's Mucky Duck, 2425 Norfolk. Tickets are $20-$22. Shooter Jennings, by the way, opens for the Old 97's 7 p.m. tonight at House of Blues, 1204 Caroline.