It has become cliché that whenever an artist takes a slightly skewed or antagonistic approach to their creative relationship with their audience, their antics are labeled Andy Kaufman-esque. Kaufman, the late comedian and TV star, was famous for donning a wig and body suit to take on the persona of a washed-up insult comic named Tony Clifton, and those who knew him were expected to call him “Mr. Clifton.”
This brings us to Wheeler Walker Jr.
Walker, performing Friday night at City Limits Saloon in Raleigh, is the country music persona of comedian Ben Hoffman. It’s hard to say exactly what Hoffman was looking to accomplish with the invention of Walker, as the performer refuses to break character during interviews.
But two things did occur upon the release of the singer-songwriter’s debut album, “Redneck (Expletive),” which shocked everyone in the country music world. The album managed to land on the top ten of the Billboard Country Albums chart, and it did so with literally no mainstream country radio airplay or reliance on the tried and true methods of promoting a new release toward a country audience.
“I’m so dumb, I put out this record, but I had forgot that it was 2016,” Walker recounts. “What I mean is, this is a killer (expletive) record, so it’s a bummer that no one is going to hear it. Then I hear it on (Mojo) Nixon’s show, and I go, ‘Oh yeah, Sirius, they don’t have to censor it.’ Then I hear that a podcast wants to talk to me. Then I realize that you can just upload albums onto YouTube for people to find and listen to. The world is changing. ... If I can’t do “The Tonight Show,” I’ll do Joe Rogan’s podcast. There are other ways to get your (expletive) out there.”
Sirius XM DJ Mojo Nixon is perhaps Walker’s most vocal proponent within anything that could even slightly be considered the country music establishment. Nixon’s afternoon program on the Outlaw Country channel has broken many acts into the mainstream, and while Walker has a ways to go before a radio station risks fines by playing his song “Can’t (Expletive) You off My Mind,” Nixon’s reaction to Walker’s music – that “when genius arrives, it must be heard” – can only be considered a ringing endorsement.
Two more big names also supported Walker as a talent to be taken seriously. Singer Sturgill Simpson (“Metamodern Sounds in Country Music”) heard Walker’s demo tracks and reached out to Dave Cobb – one of the hottest producers in music – to help Walker with the project. They ended up with an album that contains echoes of an outlaw country past, but with song titles that seem so rife with parody that the album has been labeled a farce – a fact that helped it debut at No. 1 on the Billboard Comedy Albums charts.
“Do you know Cobb?” Walker asks. “He’s the hottest producer in country music, if not the entire music industry, and he had the best players in the world working behind me in the studio. When they heard me start cursing, they acted shocked, and then started laughing. I’m not going to lie, I can understand that some of it sounds funny, but I think it’s more that just hearing this kind of language in country music makes people laugh.
“Is it a comedy album? I don’t think so, but hey, if it gives me the chance to say I hit No. 1 on a Billboard chart, I’ll take it. Also, all of the great artists got laughed at, so (expletive) ’em.”
Who: Wheeler Walker Jr.
When: 8 p.m. Friday
Where: City Limits Saloon, 901 Tryon Hill Dr., Raleigh