A freight train chugs by the dusty, industrial corridor that hides the Nashville studio where Nikki Lane is recording her third album, Highway Queen, but inside it sounds like a country-western casino on steroids.
“Ding! Ding! Ding! Ding! Ding!” Lane yells out, playing an imaginary keyboard in the sky with her middle and pointer fingers, a smoldering joint sandwiched in-between. She’s trying to express a sort of Jerry Lee Lewis boogie-woogie version of a slot machine that she wants her piano player, who listens intently, to hammer out on the high keys. “I want it to sound like coins falling. Coins piling up because, jackpot, ya know?”
Lane is putting the finishing touches on “Jackpot,” from Highway Queen, a fireball of a song that sounds like a cowgirl on the loose in Sin City. She wrote the track about musician Jonathan Tyler, her boyfriend and co-producer of the record. Tyler is here now too, at the Club Roar studio, in head-to-toe denim that defies the humid weather, including a vest that exposes his ample ink – amongst them, a “777” tattoo that he and Lane gave each other shortly after they started dating to represent “hitting the jackpot” in love, and thus came the inspiration.
Highway Queen (out February 17th via New West) is all about the thrill of that gamble, whether in romance, life or her own intuition, driven by New York Dolls-meets-Waylon Jennings guitars, Wanda Jackson sass and Lane’s own salty ramble. If Lee Hazelwood infamously told Nancy Sinatra to sing “These Boots Are Made for Walking” “like a 16-year-old girl who fucks truck drivers,” Lane croons like she’s doing the driving herself.
So it’s natural that Lane, who owns a vintage clothing store in East Nashville and art-directs her entire image down to details like branded pink, black and white Nikki Lane skull panties, has grandiose visions for the album’s release. “I want to do a month residency in [Las] Vegas and invite superfans to fly out,” she says. “Like get a small room in the Rio.” She pauses for a minute to pass the joint and pop open a Mexican Coke.
Lane, sporting a deceptively sweet eyelet camisole and faded jeans that only make her jet-black hair look even darker, also wants to charter some boats on Tennessee’s Cumberland River for a musical floating casino. “Why the fuck is that not a real thing?” she wonders aloud; no one can agree as to whether or not this would be legal, and legality doesn’t seem to be the main concern anyway.
Highway Queen‘s title track, the video for which is premiering exclusively on Rolling Stone Country, is devoted to a different kind of wager: taking the chance to rule the road alone. “You can tie her down, you can bottle lightning, but the highway queen don’t need no king,” she sings in her raspy South Carolina twang. It’s gritty Southern rock with an extra spike of danger – her guitars always sound like they’re running from the law, the drumbeat rolling on the adrenaline of a high-speed chase. Like the vintage she curates for her store, High Class Hillbilly, she’s an expert at making relics of the past feel free of any time or place. Somehow, her breed of country is as futuristic as it is Seventies outlaw, probably because she’s more intent on invention than emulation.
Lane wanted the video to make it clear who’s behind the wheel (both physically and metaphorically), so she commissioned a massive white truck with monster wheels, the words “Highway Queen” emblazoned on its side. Flanked by her mother and sister (with an appearance from her father too – he’s the one in the “Frady Asphalt” shirt, a nod to her birth name, Nicole Lane Frady), Lane plows over cars in a gold helmet, cape and black-and-white mini-romper, leaving cheers – and just a little bit of chaos – in her wake.
Lane may have found her highway king in Tyler, but Highway Queen shows that having a man to love is desirable, but never a necessity. It’s a lesson she applied to the making of the album as well. Dan Auerbach produced her last LP, All or Nothin‘, and Dave Cobb her debut, Walk of Shame, but this time, Lane didn’t want someone else to have a heavy hand in every tone and detail. Though she’d initially started the record with Jonathan Wilson (Conor Oberst, Father John Misty), and even cut some tracks at New York’s Electric Lady Studios, something just wasn’t sitting right about the partnership. Lane’s sound – from the first few swanky notes of Walk of Shame, to the propulsive rodeo blues of “Highway Queen” – was never meant to be smoothed into glossy, hyper-harmonized Americana submission.
“It didn’t sound like you,” Tyler says to Lane. They’ve wandered to a room in the back of the studio where there’s a Ping-Pong table, and he and Lane sit intertwined after he triumphs in a match (“I do love winning, that’s the one thing I have in common with Donald Trump,” he laughs). “[Wilson’s] vibe is amazing,” he continues. “But she’s an outlaw country singer, and it sounded like Fleetwood Mac.” They instead headed to Denton, Texas, to work on the record at Echo Lab Studio, enlisting a band of rotating badass Dallas players the Texas Gentleman to add some of that warm swagger, and finished things up here at Club Roar with engineer Collin Dupuis – powered by taco trucks, weed and coke (of the cola variety).
“I’ve been conditioned to let the producer take the reigns and just hope they are telepathic,” Lane says. “But now, I felt like for the first time in my career – and it’s not anyone’s fault, it’s just because of me growing – I was able to hold those reigns.”
When Walk of Shame was released in 2011, it was before Sturgill Simpson, Margo Price and Chris Stapleton had begun to shake the country music climate into reconsidering the place of the “outlaw.” Then, hits like Lady Antebellum’s “Just a Kiss” and Jake Owen’s “Barefoot Blue Jean Night” ruled the airwaves. Because of it, Lane amassed a fan base that has as many red-state bikers as it does mustached coffee drinkers. Probably also because Lane is a little bit of both herself (save for the facial hair). She’s even written a song about the former, titled “700,000 Rednecks,” which opens the album with her howling “yippie kay-yay” before letting her voice dip lower and ashier than ever.
“People come up to me and are like, ‘I’m one of your 700,000!'” she says. “And I’m like, ‘This is good. Real good. I need to serve this up!” Naturally, she’s already ordered patches for her merch site that say “1/700,000,” made by a Vermont-based company that specializes in chainstitch for bikers.
Because jackpot, ya know?