"I get so much shit walking around with a cowboy hat in Los Angeles," says Jaime Wyatt, the SoCal country songwriter whose rule-breaking spirit has landed her behind bars, as well on Rolling Stone's 10 New Country Artists You Need To Know list earlier this year.
Never one to chase trends, Wyatt moved to California as a teenager, throwing her weight behind the sort of Seventies-inspired country-rock that had yet to experience its recent resurgence. She's now one of the leaders of L.A.'s Americana scene, running in the same circles as Sam Outlaw and proudly sporting her cowboy hat.
Talking with Chris Shiflett during the newest episode of Walking the Floor, Wyatt dishes the dirt on her eight-month incarceration, her childhood in rural Washington State and the long, winding career path that led to her newest album, Felony Blues. Listen to the full episode below, after our round-up of episode highlights.
She has family ties to the Bakersfield country scene of the mid-20th century.
Although Wyatt grew up in rural Washington, some of ancestors rooted themselves in California, having migrated west during the Dustbowl of the 1940s. "My great grandfather had a feed store in North Hollywood," she says, adding that Roy Rogers was an occasional customer. "It was the last feed store you could ride your horse up to." Other relatives headed to Bakersfield, where they farmed during the day and sang country songs at night.
Wyatt wrote her first song after a run-in with the school bully.
"My dad was always making rhymes, and it was a fun thing," says Wyatt, whose parents encouraged their children to improvise their own lyrics about daily activities. "We'd be riding down the road, and you'd spout off something funny, basically writing a song on the spot." By the age of five, Wyatt was writing songs without her parents' help. The catalyst? A childhood bully's aggression. "My first song I ever wrote was because a boy in school was being mean to me," she explains. "He was throwing rocks at me, so my first song was 'Don't Throw Rocks at Me.' It was so cheesy."
Long before she could drink at her own shows, Wyatt was playing local shows in upstate Washington.
"I started doing coffeehouse gigs when I was 12," she remembers. "That escalated to playing bars when I was 14, 15, in Tacoma, Washington. That was the nearest big town. I wouldn't even call it a city. I grew up on a little island, and you commute to town, and that's where the bars were at and where society was at."
A record deal brought Wyatt to California. . .before she'd even graduated high school.
"I got my first deal when I was in high school, and it was down [in L.A.]," she says. "I wasn't allowed to move to L.A. yet, so I moved to San Francisco with my oldest sister, because my mom was alright with that, and I just commuted down to Los Angeles every other weekend." The deal eventually soured, though, with Wyatt and her label butting heads over her musical direction. "I was always trying to make country records," she adds, "and they always wanted me to be Sheryl Crow, so I'd come in with country songs and they'd say, 'Ok, we're gonna straighten this out.'"
Wyatt has earned her "outlaw country" stripes, serving the better part of a year in jail after robbing her drug dealer.
After her first two record deals went south, Wyatt began surrounding herself with deals of a more criminal nature. Pills were her preferred high, and she embraced them with everything she had, eventually robbing her dealer – a dealer with well-to-do parents and a hotshot lawyer, apparently – with help from a gang member. "I didn't go to prison," she clarifies. "I was in jail for eight months, fighting a case for which they would've loved to send me to prison." After some legal negotiations, Wyatt accepted a plea bargain. "They told me, 'If you're going to trial, you will lose,' and probably that was the reality," she says. "So I took the plea. Eight months total time served, and I got three years probation, and six months residential treatment."