We Kissed & Made Up With Wheeler Walker Jr....Sort Of

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If you’ve been paying attention to Twitter over the past couple of months, you may have noticed a few dust-ups between this here publication and a raunchy new country singer who calls himself Wheeler Walker Jr. After listening to Redneck Shit, the first release from “Wheeler,” a.k.a. comedian Ben Hoffman, we expressed a few concerns about this guy who could purportedly take down the country music establishment by virtue of just how badass he is.

Chief among them was the complaint that tracks like “Fuck You Bitch” and “Which One Of You Queers Is Gonna Suck My Dick” are littered with misogynist and homophobic language, something that country music isn’t exactly new to. Insisting that Wheeler Walker Jr. do better by women and other folks wronged by the country establishment’s enduring sexism and undying heteronormativity seemed to strike a chord with Hoffman, who reached out via Twitter to see if I wanted to talk with him.

And of course, I did. Who wouldn’t want to talk to someone ballsy enough to produce a record that would probably put your sweet, Christian grandmama in her grave if she heard it? There is an incredible amount of appeal in an artist who so dramatically eschews the immediate route (read: generic mediocrity) to fame and success in order to make a broader commentary.

Ultimately, if you’ll recall, that interview didn’t quite happen. Twitter insults were exchanged, feelings were hurt, and a plethora of faceless trolls popped out of the woodwork to call me a fat cunt and ask whether or not I’d shaved my legs lately. Which is why you can imagine that I was pretty damn surprised to find a Tweet from the man himself in my mentions on Wednesday morning.

Now, I’d be lying if I said that my first thought wasn’t “Well, looks like our hero is having a bit of trouble selling those tickets for this Houston date,” but that’s frankly just hateful and unproductive. In all honesty, I was really interested in hearing what he had to say. I may think that Wheeler Walker Jr.’s album is complete and total trash, but there’s something to be said about trying to have a rational, reasonable conversation with someone on the complete opposite side of the aisle knowing it could all blow up in your face.

So we set it up. At 10 a.m. on the dot Thursday morning, Wheeler Walker Jr.’s publicist patched me into a call with the artist. He was, supposedly, still in bed after oversleeping and missing an interview with a Dallas radio station before his show that night. As he prepared to head south, Walker seemed almost nostalgic for Houston. 

“I lived in Houston for a couple of years, I still have friends and family here,” said Walker, still entirely in character. “It’s kind of like home. My brother was born here, I was here from like age one to four, so I don’t really fuckin’ remember it.” At that mention of a brother, I recalled reading that Walker’s real-life persona Ben Hoffman is the brother of Scissor Sisters bassist Babydaddy. I asked whether or not we’d soon see a collaboration between the two, and he collected his thoughts to correct me.

“I’ve got a brother, but he ain’t in no band,” says Walker. “He’s an accountant.” At this point, the Wheeler veneer was starting to feel a bit thin and vulnerable – it was clear that Hoffman was genuinely interested in explaining his position on the record. Once we’d exchanged pleasantries, we immediately got right into the meat of it – whether or not the album was guilty of perpetuating harmful stereotypes against women and, as Wheeler might say, “queers.”

We tussled back and forth a little bit with respect to Wheeler’s liberal use of misogynist and homophobic slurs, words that in literally any context outside of satire are horribly offensive. In his mind, “Fuck You Bitch” is just a breakup song, one that exists emotionally outside of the lyrics he wrote. “This ain’t ‘bitches get back in the kitchen,’” he says. “When a girl dumps you, that’s how you feel. If a girl walks out on me and I say ‘fuck you, bitch,’ I’m not saying that she’s a bitch, it’s just how I felt at the time. Instead of cleaning it up for radio and saying ‘miss you girl,’ I just said what I was feeling. So many women have come up to me and relate to that song, and to them, ‘bitch’ is gender-neutral.”

As in many cases where the question of sexism arises, Walker passionately ensured me that he loves women. “You’re gonna laugh when I say this, but I spent so much time on the lyrics because I really do believe that women are superior,” he says. “The pain they put me through, you know, to pull this shit out of me means that I’m not really a man. If you can have that effect over me and I’m going to get upset, that’s me. It’s me being a wuss and not being able to deal with a woman who walked out on me.”

It’s at this point when I start to believe, if even for a second, that this effort may be wholly sincere. That the lyrics may come from heartbreak, both romantically and musically. But whether or not this is the case, Walker relies undyingly on this idea that people don’t like this album because it’s raunchy or because it’s counter to what the mainstream is doing, because country music shouldn’t involve dirty words. “I walked out of the studio thinking that nobody was going to like this record,” he says. “So when you say that it’s not for you, I don’t know why I’m mad. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised.”

But it seems naive for Hoffman or Wheeler or, hell, the both of them to believe that this criticism of the record are somehow based in a distaste for the aesthetic elements of the record. Of the countless times that I have listened to Redneck Shit – several more times than I’d have preferred, let me assure you – there have been moments where I wondered whether or not I was missing out on something truly great. Because that’s what I was sure expecting; Lord knows that nobody needs a serious, expletive-laden reality check like the record-label robots who insist on trying to make Sam Hunt a thing.

As much as this album is personal for Walker, it’s also wholly personal for the countless men who will use this song as catharsis to get over their mean old bitch of an ex-girlfriend. “I feel like I am allowed to use whatever word I want, and I don’t think people are offended by that,” he says. “You’ve gotta remember,  I was too big of a pussy to call her a bitch to her face, I had to wait six months and write it in a song.”

Throughout our conversation, it becomes abundantly clear that I’m no longer talking to Wheeler, really. It’s Ben Hoffman, and he genuinely is interested in learning why some would find this record so viscerally offensive. He is earnest, often thoughtful, and can be quite charming in his own uniquely crude kind of way. There are moments throughout this conversation – like when he apologized for the hateful, gendered attacks levied by his army of Twitter followers – that were entirely endearing.

Which is, frankly, something to respect. It’s what I wanted from Wheeler Walker Jr. all along – to put this record in a context and defend his work. The vast majority of the time, art is presented to those who consume it entirely without context that hasn’t been spoon-fed by publicists or presented by an almost exclusively white and male body of country-music critics. In speaking with Wheeler Walker Jr., it becomes abundantly clear that, as much as he wants to be, he isn’t the surly old S.O.B that he presents himself as. He just isn’t.

The reality of Wheeler Walker Jr. is much more complicated. Before he takes the stage at House of Blues on Saturday night, Nashville-based band Birdcloud will open. This act, comprised of Jasmin Kaset and Makenzie Green, is equally as raunchy as their headliner. Songs like “Saving Myself For Jesus” and “Black Guys” provide a unique contrast to Walker’s unbridled masculinity, one that almost sets the balance right in terms of how this kind of material – aggressively sexual, dirty country – is presented to audiences.

But in the broader context, the iTunes charts and the genre at large, this album on its own is still, ultimately, rudderless. It flails in the direction of clever commentary, and ultimately falls short of what Birdcloud is able to do. Birdcloud actually skewers sacred cows like the myth of female purity and virginity and the sanctity of the small town. The fundamental difference between “you can tittyfuck me, tie me up, dry-hump me” and “drop ‘em out, let me see them titties” is that with the former, subversive female sexuality isn’t part of the archetype of what it means to be a female musician in this world. On the other hand, being a man who likes to fuck and fight and fart isn’t even remotely as transgressive.

As nice as it might be to say that Walker and I kissed and made up and plan to run for the presidency together next term, that’s not what happened. By the end of our one-hour conversation, neither one of us had been moved to any different position on Redneck Shit than we were before. What did happen, though, was a critically important dialogue between artist and fan, something that’s damn near as rare as the kind of finely-pointed satire that I, whether or not Wheeler agrees, believe that Ben Hoffman set out to create. But by the end of the call, things were getting so damn chummy – compliments were passed, concessions made – that even Wheeler Walker Jr. couldn’t stand how sweet it all was.

“Let’s end this on a badass note,” he said. “Fuck you, you’re a shitty writer.”

“Fuck you," I replied. "Your album was awful." And then he was gone.

Wheeler Walker Jr. and special guests Birdcloud play Houston's House of Blues on Saturday, June 18. Doors open at 7 p.m.; tickets are $15. 

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