Like Andy Kaufman before him, comedian Ben Hoffman knows how to commit to a character. In Kaufman's case, his alter ego was quick-tempered lounge singer Tony Clifton, who bamboozled audiences with half-baked pop standards and memories of working the Vegas strip. For Hoffman, it's hotheaded country crooner Wheeler Walker Jr., upending the Nashville establishment by singing about lewd sex and calling out country stars like Luke Bryan and Florida Georgia Line on his new album Ol' Wheeler.
Clifton was Kaufman's ultimate ruse, never allowing even a glimpse of his true self to appear in his creation, but the fictional Walker and the real Hoffman – whom Rolling Stone dubbed the "most anxious man on TV" in a 2013 profile – share an ideology. Where they intersect, however, isn't between the legs. Rather, it's in the preservation of honest country music.
Granted, for a guy who has a song titled "Finger Up My Butt," that sounds like a stretch, but spend some time perusing the record bins at Grimey's New & Preloved Music in Nashville with Hoffman – as Walker, in a plaid shirt, cowboy hat and Maui Jim shades – and it's clear that he birthed his foul-mouthed character more as a chance to play music than to just tell sex jokes. While Hoffman-as-Walker never breaks character, it's often difficult to tell where creator ends and character begins.
"I love Emmylou. That's my favorite," he says, hoisting up Harris' 1980 album Roses in the Snow. "Get it. It's all killer, no filler."
Spying a Crystal Gayle record, the Kentucky native recalls growing up around the famously longhaired singer. "Crystal is good friends with my aunt and I've known her since I was a kid," he says. "She'd be in those shampoo commercials where her hair would be all the way down, but when she'd hang out with the family, she'd have it up in a bun. It'd bum me out."
But then Walker rears his head. "Slim Whitman? That guy got a lot of pussy at the time," he deadpans, flipping to Hank Williams Jr.'s Wild Streak album and raising an eyebrow at the disturbing song "If the South Woulda Won," which imagines how better off we'd be if the Confederacy triumphed. "He forgets a big part when he sings that."
It's such socially woke comments that make Walker a complex figure, both on Ol' Wheeler and on Twitter, where he's taken jabs at President Trump and told fans that he will not sign Make America Great Again hats. Unlike his 2016 debut Redneck Shit, the new album – which, like its predecessor, draws its cover art inspiration from a Lee Greenwood LP – is not all dick jokes.
Instead, the complex, satirical Ol' Wheeler finds Walker (or Hoffman, both of them 42) eyeballing middle age.
"This is an album about something: realizing I'm getting older, girls are getting younger and technology is getting crazy. 'Man Out of Time' could have been another title for the album," he says. "When girls meet me at shows, they want my Snapchat ID, and I don't know what the fuck they're talking about. So I wanted to make an album about getting old – Wheeler's perspective on getting old, which is more about pussy."
The female anatomy is Walker's gateway into his own psyche. By singing in such NSFW terms, he drops his inhibitions and, ahem, probes inward. The ballad "Summers in Kentucky" laments those days gone by and also pokes fun at himself, with lines like "heard you gained a few, got saggy tits / but who am I to say cause I've aged like shit."
"I don't think I could have gotten that serious without getting that dirty. It'd be too vulnerable," Walker says.
The song was inspired by a trip home to Lexington, Kentucky.
"I was back for Thanksgiving and my buddies were like, 'Let's go to the high school reunion.' You see the hot girls from high school and you're like, 'Man, she's a mess now. Four kids, two ex husbands.' Of course it turns into guy talk: 'I'd still fuck her though,'" Walker says. "I wanted to make that come across, but I didn't know how to say it without saying it the way me and my buddies were talking about it."
Walker's unvarnished way with words has resonated with fans; some herald him as, if not the "Pussy King" he boasts about on Ol' Wheeler, then at least the bro king. A sold-out Friday night concert at Nashville's Exit/In was wall-to-wall with dudes, some in the know and sporting T-shirts by heavy-metal parody band Steel Panther. Another, in the front row, wore a T reading "Beaver Patrol." "Are you on full-time beaver patrol?" Walker asked from the stage as the rowdy crowd hollered approval.
"It's not a gag at all. This is a really serious record for me"
But Walker, who launches a large-scale tour July 12th in Atlanta, is also set to command attention on TV and online. He recently booked a special to air on an undisclosed cable network later this year and launched the popular Wheeler Walker Jr. podcast in May with first guest Chris Stapleton. Even more notable, he's turning heads on Music Row as a songwriter, where at least one publishing offer is on the table.
"The thing that I was most surprised with and most honored by was all the songwriters who really loved the record," he says of Redneck Shit, which, like Ol' Wheeler, was produced by Dave Cobb (Chris Stapleton's Traveller). "That's whose opinion matters. They appreciate the song craft of it."
Contemporary country artists are digging the naughty too, including Maren Morris, Brothers Osborne, Jake Owen (he joined him onstage in Nashville last year) and Nikki Lane, who guests in character as Wheeler's ex Kacey Walker on Ol' Wheeler's "Fuckin' Around." What burns Walker, however, are the unnamed radio stars who hide their fandom. "I'm sick of all the mainstream guys who are fans but won't be public about it. Put on a fucking T-shirt or tweet," he says.
The gripe reinforces Walker's main desire: to be taken seriously as a country music commodity, even if he's singing about the sexual, the profane and the ridiculous. "It's not a gag at all. This is a really serious record for me, and I'm saying really serious things on it. If you can't look past the bad words…" he sighs.
Perhaps those bad words don't matter if you're enjoying the music and the message.
Walker seems to think so, even if he doesn't say it outright. Flipping through the album stacks, he lands on Dolly Parton and shares this anecdote.
"I saw her in concert and someone told me later she was lip syncing," he says. "It almost makes you wonder, 'Does it matter?' Because I had such a blast at the show. It's stupid to enjoy a concert and a day later get mad about it."