Wheeler Walker Jr. is talking to us while standing outside a Target in Sacramento, Calif., during a break in the biggest gig of his career thus far.
He has the opening slot on Kid Rock’s Red-Blooded RocknRoll Redneck Extravaganza, hitting Raleigh’s Coastal Credit Union Music Park at Walnut Creek Sept. 1 — and the singer sounds tired. Whether it’s from the workload that comes with performing on a Kid Rock tour, or due to some fans who view his summer with Kid Rock as an insult, even Walker can’t say for sure.
Of course, a state of confusion has been a byproduct for many who have followed Walker’s career in the two years the singer-songwriter has been on country fans’ radar.
The first half of his career was spent as comedian Ben Hoffman of Comedy Central’s “The Ben Show,” which included his debut album, “Redneck S--t.” Many considered it a brilliant parody of the infighting within country music between fanbases demanding a return to the more-traditional sounds found in the ‘70s and ‘80s, and those happy with modern pop-country and its increasingly risqué lyrics.
But speaking to Walker now — Wheeler Walker Jr. is his country music alter-ego — you begin to wonder if the expectations both he and his fans placed upon the act may have been unrealistic. A year after his sophomore release, “Ol’ Wheeler,” failed to attain the buzz that its predecessor enjoyed, and featuring a back catalogue where a song titled “Drunk Sluts” stands out as one of the few titles that can be published, the bravado that once enabled him to exclaim that he was here to “save country music” seems to have faded.
In its place seems to be a disappointment and hurt feelings that country radio ignores him, and the final show of the Extravaganza may be his last on a large music venue’s stage for the foreseeable future.
It’s hard to know whether his answers are a genuine reflection of how Walker feels, or just the latest work by a guy who performs profanity-laced country tunes under a pseudonym. We talked about the current state of the American DJ, and the side-eye that he received from some upon aligning with Kid Rock.
Q: How have you changed as an artist over the two years since your debut album was released?
A: I’m still the same guy, it’s just that now I’m opening for Kid Rock, and (Food Network star) Guy Fieri is hanging out backstage. I like to write songs based on my real life, but I’m not going to write a song about hanging out with Guy Fieri, you know?
The specifics behind the second album dealt with dealing with fame, but more so the emotional baggage behind it: the girls who ignored me in high school, now wanting my picture and phone number, you know? I don’t purposefully write in a way so that the audience can relate to it, but it just works out that way. The main thing for me really is just that I now have a wife and a kid.
The problem that I’m dealing with is, I remember one of the first interviews I did during the release of the first album, we began talking during a commercial break and I asked if he liked the album. When he said he did, I asked him if the language bothered him, and he said, “No, that’s just the way people talk.” And that really stuck with me, because what’s the big (expletive) deal? That’s the way that I talk to my friends, so I just figured country music used to be all about the truth, and that’s not how it is today. In 2018 I have yet to say anything worse than what (President Trump) has said, so what am I going to censor myself for?
Then it becomes a situation where, because I play real country music, I’m not going to get played on country radio. I’m an independent artist, so I don’t have the giant machine behind me to get my music onto country radio, but I have yet to hear one good argument as to why I should clean up my songs. Sometimes an agent or manager will bring up releasing one of my songs cleaned up for radio, just to see what it could do commercially, but I really haven’t heard a good plan on what a clean song could really help me do.
Q: I know you are a long-time friend of Kid Rock’s, as I saw you MCing the concerts at his annual two-day Fish Fry celebration in Nashville last year...
A: You were there?
Q: Oh yeah, almost got into a fight with two drunks who had taken my seats.
A: That’s just part of the Kid Rock experience.
Q: How long did you mull over accepting the opening slot on this tour, knowing that some fans who gravitate toward your stated mission to save country music may view it as heretical?
A: First of all, I don’t give a (expletive) about saving country music; I’m doing the best I can. In that aspect, I look at all of these great country artists selling out huge venues that I’d love to play with, but they’re all family friendly. My honest answer is: Kid Rock is the first artist to ever ask me to open up for him. When he reached out to me with the job, I knew that this might be my only shot at playing some of these big places, you know? If he’s the only one with the (guts) to put me in a big arena, why say no?
The goal has always been to get as many people to hear my music as I could. I’m not claiming, nor is he, that Kid Rock is traditional country. I’ve always loved how, at the beginning of his shows, he has the big screens showing clips from all of his influences. Acts like Run DMC, Bob Seger, all that (stuff) I grew up listening to. If I were going to sit home and just wait for only my favorite artists to call me up with gigs, I’d be sitting home for a long time.
Q: That’s a good point. Just picking a name at random here, but your music probably wouldn’t mesh well with the audience at a Darius Rucker (“Wagon Wheel”) show.
A: I love Chris Stapleton (“Broken Halos”), but he can’t have me open for him. He has kids in the audience. I’d love to go on tour with Stapleton, Sturgill Simpson (“Turtles All the Way Down”), and Tyler Childers (“Universal Sound”), but that tour ain’t happening. I’m not saying that I’m compromising, but this (tour) is what I’ve got.
Q: I believe the last time you performed locally was at Raleigh’s City Limits Saloon two years ago, and now you’re playing the largest amphitheater in the area. What has playing these larger venues been like?
A: That’s what I was getting at. When I go home and listen to my albums for the first time, after its been mixed and everything, I always think, “This is arena ready.” Then it hits me six months later that (the lyrics) too dirty, and the machine that you need behind you to get (a tour in a major venue): radio, television, “The Tonight Show,” all that (expletive). I don’t want to say that I’m dumb — maybe just ignorant — but it never hit me that the music wouldn’t just take care of itself, that everyone wouldn’t freakin’ flip out over it, and I’d be playing arenas by myself. Then reality hits you: Jimmy Fallon ain’t having you on, and radio ain’t playing you.
I’ve done a ton of radio interviews, because the DJs themselves are fans, only to find out later that the station manager would pull it and never even air it. Every day, press-wise, it’s war when you are Wheeler Walker Jr.
Q: How have you found that the rejection by country radio has changed you, not as an artist, but as a person? That at the end of the day, you will meet all of these radio personnel backstage at a meet-and-greet that claim to be fans, but they would never actually play your music?
A: I have a lot of (musician) friends in Nashville who have done the whole radio promotion tour thing, and after listening to their stories, there’s definitely a part of me that thinks, “Thank God I don’t have to do that.” I’m going to write dirtier songs now, just to make sure that I never have to do one of those tours, because it sounds like my version of hell. It’s like someone is offering you a national tour, but you don’t play any shows, and you just visit radio stations. No thank you.
Not all stations or DJs are terrible. There’s a guy in Kansas City, he edits my songs himself, then plays them on his radio show. Then we go to Kansas City and end up selling 2,000 tickets, just playing on my own, because I’m actually on the radio there. Just due to a guy who is just a fan. That’s what radio used to be in the old days: a DJ heard your music, and he’d play it, and only because he was actually a fan. Ain’t no DJs left in America who can play what they want.
Q: Now that you are a few years into the country music career, how tired have you become of having to explain your music?
A: I don’t know how many people I talk to actually get it; I think we’re hovering around zero percent. My friends and my wife get it, and that’s about it.
Who: Kid Rock, Brantley Gilbert and Wheeler Walker Jr.
When: 6:30 p.m., Sept. 1
Where: Coastal Credit Union Music Park at Walnut Creek, 3801 Rock Quarry Road, Raleigh
Cost: $49.50 to $129.50
Info: LiveNation.com or 919-831-6400