For many, outlaw country is simply a musical category, but for lesbian singer-songwriter Jaime Wyatt -- much like the "man in black" who defined the genre, Johnny Cash -- it's her life. And it hasn't always been daisies.
The Nashville-based musician explains how, after a record deal fell apart in her teens, she went into a downward spiral of depression and substance use. And ended up behind bars.
"I started doing drugs in San Francisco at age 18," says Wyatt, now 34. "I developed a problem with cocaine and alcohol. Then I moved back home and then I got hooked on opiates up in the northwest. Then I moved to L.A. I tried to stop taking them, but sure enough, I found a connection. Then I moved on to heroin shortly after that. Yeah. That's that."
At 21, she ended up in jail after robbing her heroin dealer, facing a possible felony conviction. Much of these experiences are chronicled on Wyatt's masterful debut album Felony Blues, which solidified her as the new queen of outlaw country.
"That changed my life because I had just started using needles and I was arrested. So I did eight months in L.A. County," she recalls. "I didn't have to go to prison, thankfully. I took a plea and was sentenced to rehab and probation. That saved my life at that time. I stayed clean for seven years after that."
Unfortunately, after her long stint of sobriety, Wyatt relapsed when struggling with family strife, grief -- and her own sexuality.
"Then one day, I woke up. I was married to a man and...I couldn't figure out why I still felt terrible doing all the things...the spiritual and the emotional maintenance," she says. "Then it became clear to me what my truth was and I was terrified by that -- so I got loaded. Now, luckily, I made it back."
Wyatt explains that much happened at that time which made staying sober all the more difficult.
"Well, there's some events that were really dramatic in fact in my life in the last few years," says Wyatt. "Coming out and just feeling a lot of self-loathing and also, as an addict, a lot of self-loathing, right? Then suddenly, my dad died [two years ago] and a friend of mine overdosed at the time. A very close friend.... There was a lot of grief and loss. Simultaneously, trying to grasp and really trying to get to the point of celebrating myself."
It was also during this tumultuous time that Wyatt started penning her latest critically-aclaimed album, Neon Cross, which Rolling Stone said "refines Wyatt's honky-tonk sound into something more lush, layered, and complex." Spin magazine added that "not since Social Distortion's compulsively-confessional Mike Ness has a composer been so brutally honest."
"I did start writing. I wrote one song while I was still getting loaded. I wrote ['By Your Side'] and it ended up on the album.... That was when I was able to write songs for my dad. So that was a song I wrote on piano and I was still loaded. I think every other song though was in sobriety."
Neon Cross, which releases May 29, was produced by fellow outlaw country musician Shooter Jennings. From thumping honky-tonk ditties to haunting heartbreakers, the stunning album is peppered with as many ups and downs as Wyatt's storied life. There are some amazing collaborations too -- including a rocking feminist anthem with Shooter's mother, country legend Jessi Colter, and much of the excellent six-string work on the album comes courtesy of influential guitarist Neal Casal, in one of his final studio performances before his passing in August.
"Shooter's my friend and, yeah, he's Shooter Jennings," she says of working with Nashville royalty (he's the son of outlaw country legend Waylon Jennings). "But when it comes to the studio, I don't care who you are -- I'm really, really decisive about what I want, so I've got to be able to work with you. And what really sold me on Shooter is that he understands grooves -- he gets how to instruct a band to build a groove that is so powerful underneath a song. And it's crazy because that's what Waylon did. He always had these rad country songs with these super-weird, like, funky rock 'n' roll grooves under them. He would take things to interesting and unexpected places. Shooter has that same instinct."
Today, having been sober again for over two and a half years, Wyatt says she's in a good place -- and eager to connect with the queer community.
"Usually my interviews that I do, I'm like, 'Oh, god. I almost forgot,' but this one, I was early waiting because I'm really excited.... I'm just looking for more community in the LGBTQ community, specifically. I'm really, really wanting to connect with my people."
Check out the exclusive premiere of Wyatt's newest single, "By Your Side," released today.