Wheeler Walker Jr.’s story is the stuff that Nashville legends are made of. Kentucky-born outsider lands on Music Row, signs a deal with Capitol Records, but has all of his raunchy songs shit-canned by stuffy A&R execs. Now-infamous outlaw receives same treatment at RCA, Giant and Arista before giving ’em all the finger, dropping his life savings on studio time with trad-country stalwart Dave Cobb, and recording the most beautiful batch of foul-mouthed Redneck Shit on his own dime. The so-called dirtiest country record of all time debuts at No. 9 on the Billboard Country charts — during Grammy Week, no less, and one spot ahead of Grammy performers Little Big Town — even though it’s been banned by all the major retailers. “I just wanted to make a real country record,” Walker told Rolling Stone in February. “I got my ass handed to me my whole life and this is the record that came out.”
The only thing is, not much of it is true. (It actually says “The Legend of Wheeler Walker Jr.” at the top of the Bio page on his website.) Wheeler is the alias of stand-up comedian Ben Hoffman, who hosted The Ben Show on Comedy Central in 2013 and has appeared on Marc Maron’s WTF podcast along with The Joe Rogan Experience. Most stories lead with the fact that Ben is Wheeler and Wheeler is Ben before gleefully letting Wheeler speak his mind. But sometimes the joke can get lost in translation. In December, Houston Press writer Amy McCarthy took Wheeler’s brand of perceived misogynism and juvenilia at face value, setting off a chain reaction that resulted in ugly Twitter rants, interview no-shows, and a handful of heated follow-up stories. (A similar situation with LA Weekly had a happier ending when the paper allowed Walker to offer a mostly respectful response to a brutal critical skewering.)
So there is something to be said for talking to Wheeler on his level, as Folio Weekly was gently encouraged to do for this email interview. When asked about the dualities of living as a country singer and a comedian, he replied, “People keep saying I’m some comedian … My name is Wheeler Walker Jr.” When lobbed a softball about his place in the outlaw country pantheon, he took the bait: “I’m definitely already a legend. I mean, I’ve got more work to do. And I ain’t Waylon. But compared to the dogshit pop country that’s out there now, I may as well be.” And when the subject of Nashville came up, he doubled down: “I’m shaking Nashville the fuck up. Music Row is scared of me, and that’s how I like it.”
But Wheeler also offered up a few rational, balanced responses — something we didn’t expect, given the endlessly angry and filthy tone of his Twitter feed. Have you actually been able to find anybody to open for you, Wheeler? “Birdcloud, two badass chicks from Nashville,” he raved. “They make me look wholesome and safe.” What about all the fashion comparisons you get to Hank Williams Jr., Wheeler? “I ain’t borrowed shit from Hank Jr.,” he insisted. “A cowboy hat and shades? He invented that? [I] love Hank Jr. but that’s lazy writing … Not you, the guys who are saying it.” What do you say to all those critics who say your version of tongue-in-cheek is too vulgar, Wheeler? “[My songs] aren’t ‘tongue-in-cheek,’ they’re ‘pussy-in-cheek’ — I mean every word of what I’m saying.” And how excited are you to tour in the Southeast for the first time, Wheeler? “So excited. Sick of playing NYC and LA — ready to play this shit for my family and friends.”
“This shit” might seem an appropriate way to describe songs with titles like “Better Off Beatin’ Off,” “Beer, Weed, Cooches,” and “Fightin’, Fuckin’, Fartin’” (and those are the ones we can actually print). But still — the album sounds beautiful, thanks to that production work from Cobb, who’s handled recent releases by alt-country icons Sturgill Simpson, Jason Isbell and Chris Stapleton, and elegant session work from a cadre of crack Nashville musicians. Interestingly, we couldn’t find specific mentions of them anywhere, but Wheeler said “Fuck no!” when asked if they were afraid to publicly associate with Redneck Shit. “These guys are badasses,” he insisted. “They know killer music when they hear it.”
The quality of Redneck Shit’s instrumentation, orchestration and production is impossible to argue with — ultimately, it will give the album, which also cracked the Top 10 of Billboard’s Comedy charts, legitimate legs. The misogyny and sexism questions will continue to be asked, but the fact that Wheeler is just as willing to tear himself down makes his offensive lyrical content a little easier to digest. And more respect to him for not biting when we tried to lure him into a Trump-supporting comparison:
“I could give two fucks about this election,” Wheeler wrote with a kind of rural weariness that feels so familiar, particularly in the South in 2016. “I was broke during Bush, I was broke during Obama. Fuck politics. It’s all bullshit.” Spoken like a true bullshit artist.