Wheeler Walker Jr. at the Tractor Tavern in Seattle, 7/8/16
Sturgill Simpson and Wheeler Walker Jr. have a few things in common. They’re both from Kentucky. They’re friends. They employ bitchin’ slide guitarists. Dave Cobb has produced albums for both of them. They’ve each been hailed as country music’s savior—Simpson by critics, Walker by himself.
The similarities end there, with one significant exception.
Walker is the alter ego of Ben Hoffman, a dark-blue comic who once had a show on Comedy Central. The roots of Walker can be found in a Ben Show skit where Hoffman, guitar in hand and fake mustache on his lip, appears onstage with an American flag behind him and sings a song called “Eatin’ Pussy & Kickin’ Ass.” That’s also the name of his current tour, which made a stop at Seattle’s Tractor Tavern last night before a capacity crowd.
There’s raunchy, and then there’s Walker, whose set list included such tunes as “Sit On My Face,” “Beer & Cooches,” “Drunk Sluts,” “Better Off Beatin’ Off,” “Redneck Shit,” “Fuck You Bitch,” and “Family Tree.” That last song has the cleanest title on Walker’s debut album, which has sold prolifically, but is the dirtiest lyrically. In it, Walker pleasures every member of his girlfriend’s family, male and female alike. On Grindr, Walker’s handle is Kanye Twitty. All comers, all coming.
As you might assume, there’s no winking in Walker’s music. Bearded and donning a black cowboy hat, he never appears in public without very dark sunglasses. He’s Bocephus to the maxi pad.
On Twitter and during interviews like a very entertaining two-and-a-half-hour appearance on Joe Rogan’s podcast, Walker portrays himself as the sole purveyor of real country music, absolutely incinerating the likes of Florida Georgia Line, Sam Hunt and Pitbull, popular music’s most annoying interloper. When bro country standard-bearer Jake Owen recently tweeted, “Anyone wanna take a spontaneous road trip? Like a right now, drop everything, only lived once kind of trip,” Walker replied, “I’m busy saving country music. Sorry.” A bit later, he wrote, “Only 7 days until Steven Tyler’s horrible country album comes out!”
Walker’s been really well received because people love to hate modern country music just as much as they love to love it. As for Walker’s schtick, however, I think there’s something a bit deeper going on—which brings me back to Simpson. His latest release, A Sailor’s Guide to Earth, is sure to be on everyone’s list of 2016’s best country albums. The thing about it, though, is it isn’t even a country album—it’s Muscle Shoals soul thrown in a deep fat fryer, the sort of record Elvis Presley might have gotten around to recording had he avoided Vegas and pills. Hence, country music’s savior can’t really be counted on to play country music.
What is “real” country music? The question itself is worth mocking, and I actually think that’s what Walker’s doing. A good friend of mine observed last night that Walker reminds him of Zach Galifianakis fronting a country band. Neither comic is there to make you giggle; they’re there to make you either laugh hard or leave the room. Last night in Seattle, everybody stuck around.