Nikki Lane’s stunning third album Highway Queen, out February 17th, 2017, sees the young Nashville singer emerge as one of country and rock’s most gifted songwriters. Co-produced by Lane and fellow singer-songwriter, Jonathan Tyler, this emotional tour-de-force was recorded at Matt Pence’s Echo Lab studio in Denton, Texas as well as at Club Roar with Collin Dupuis in Nashville, Tennessee. Blending potent lyrics, unbridled blues guitars and vintage Sixties country-pop swagger, Lane’s new music will resonate as easily with Lana Del Rey and Jenny Lewis fans as those of Neil Young and Tom Petty. Highway Queen is a journey through heartbreak that takes exquisite turns. The record begins with a whiskey-soaked homage to Lane’s hometown (“700,000 Rednecks”) and ends on the profoundly raw “Forever Lasts Forever,” where Lane mourns a failed marriage – the “lighter shade of skin” left behind from her wedding ring. On “Forever” and the confessional “Muddy Waters,” Lane’s lyrics align her with perceptive songwriters like Nick Lowe and Cass McCombs. Elsewhere, “Companion” is pure Everly Brothers’ dreaminess (“I would spend a lifetime/ Playing catch you if I can”). She goes on a Vegas bender on the rollicking “Jackpot,” fights last-call blues (“Foolish Heart”) and tosses off brazen one-liners at a backroom piano (“Big Mouth”). “Love is the most unavoidable thing in the world,” Lane says. “The person you pick could be half set-up to destroy your life with their own habits – I’ve certainly experienced that before and taken way too long to get out of that mistake.” In 2014, Lane’s second album All or Nothin’ (New West) solidified her sandpaper voice beneath a ten-gallon hat as the new sound and look of outlaw country music. Produced by Dan Auerbach, the record’s bluesy Western guitars paired with Lane’s Dusty Springfield-esque voice earned glowing reviews from NPR, the Guardian and Rolling Stone. In three years since her Walk of Shame debut, Lane said she was living most of the year on the road. Growing up, Lane used to watch her father pave asphalt during blistering South Carolina summers. She’d sit on the roller (“what helps smooth out the asphalt”) next to a guy named Rooster and divvy out Hardee’s lunch orders for the workers. “My father thought he was a country singer,” Lane laughs. “He partied hard at night, but by 6:30 AM he was out on the roads in 100-degree weather.” That’s the southern work ethic, she says. “We didn’t have a lot of money, but I was privileged with the knowledge of how to work hard, how to learn and to succeed when things aren’t set up for me.” Creativity was an unthinkable luxury, she adds. “When people told me I should try to get a record deal for songs I was writing, I was like, ‘that’s cute – I’ve got to be at work at 10 A.M.’” “Becoming a songwriter is one of the most selfish things I’ve ever done,” Lane says plainly. She describes writing her first song at age 25 like it was a necessary act of self-preservation after a devastating breakup. Many of her early songs, she said on Shame and Nothin’, were about the fleetingness of relationships she believed were permanent, she says. Lane’s main line of work in those days was a fashion entrepreneur (she’s currently the owner of Nashville’s vintage clothing boutique High Class Hillbilly). It brought her to cities around the country, New York to Los Angeles to Nashville. And like a true wanderer, Lane’s sound crisscrosses musical genres with ease, while the lonesome romantic in her remains. Even a soft song like, “Send The Sun,” with its lilting downward strum, is flush with bittersweet emotion. “Darling, we’re staring at the same moon,” Lane sings lovingly. “I used to say that to my ex,” she says with cheerful stoicism, “to try to brighten the long nights, stay positive.” Highway Queen is poised to be Lane’s mainstream breakthrough. “Am I excited to spend years of my life in a van, away from family and friends? No, but I’m excited to share my songs, so they’ll reach people and help them get through whatever they’re going through. To me, that’s worth it.” “Lay You Down” is one of those unexpected moments for Lane. “That song was inspired by something Levon Helm’s wife posted on Facebook when he was sick with cancer,” Lane says. “I was just so moved by her telling the world how much love he felt from people writing to them, and moved that because of the Internet, I was able to see that love – even from a distance.” The song became surreal for Lane and her band when her longtime guitarist, Alex Munoz, was diagnosed with cancer while they were playing it. “It deepened my perspective and the importance of keeping everyone safe,” says Lane. On the record cover, Lane looks out on wide, unowned Texan plains, leaning on the fearsome horns of a massive steer. Wearing a vintage Victorian dress, the stark photo invokes a time before highways existed. The symbolism isn’t lost on Lane. Highway Queen was a pioneering moment for her as an artist. “I was always a smart girl, always had to yell to be heard,” she says, “But this was the first time in my career where I decided how things were going to go; I was willing to take the heat.” Lane included the bonus track “Champion” as a small testament to that empowerment. “It makes a point,” Lane says with a smile, “That I appreciate what you’re saying, but get the fuck out of my way.”
"I think the first thing I heard from the record was ‘Separate Ways’ and it immediately reminded me of the best parts of what I liked about Bob Dylan's Time Out of Mind. It took me back a bit to think that there wasn't a wider audience that had heard it yet, and I wanted to figure out a way to change that."
It’s high praise to be compared to the gentleman who arguably invented the job description for every songwriter that came after him, especially on a debut record. But Don Dilego, who is releasing Carl Anderson's LP Risk of Loss on Velvet Elk Records, is onto something. Carl Anderson, a young singer and songwriter from Virginia, has a rare authenticity, a quality that manages to be both self-assured and yet decidedly free from pretension-- a subtle confidence and humility that puts him in step with an older stock of songwriter. It’s a voice that manages to be both virtuosic and yet free from airs; never outshining the simplicity in his words; words that never outshine the song. And like all great songs, they always seem to dictate the motions of our hearts before our heads have time to figure out exactly what they're about.
Carl Anderson's story reads like the stuff of legend. It’s almost too perfect-- like a page torn from the annals of the American Songbook, or the unread script of a made-for-TV special on what we want our artists to look like. Carl was born in rural Wolftown, Virginia to a father who was a part time folk singer and full-time wanderer. Known simply as "Virginia Slim" to his fellow travelers in the "hobo circuit", Carl's father had been riding trains across the country singing and working dead end jobs since leaving home at 10 years old. Though Carl was raised on the fidelity of a single mother that gave everything to her family, he still carries with him vague memories of his father as a charming man with a beautiful melancholic tenor that Carl's mother would come to recognize in her own son. He was a man with obvious gifts, but with a darkness inside of him that only those who were closest to him were able to see. It was a darkness that wrecked his family, and left him unable to cope with a life that wasn't in a constant state of unrest. Carl’s only distinct memories are of his mother gathering his brother and sister to leave the house in the dark of night when he was only 6 years old-- fleeing a situation that had become too painful to bear.
When Carl hit his teenage years and found himself unequivocally drawn back to the same vocation of a father he barely knew, it must have been both enchanting as well as terrifying. As Carl sings on Different Darkness: “We're not that different / same wanderlust, met with a different darkness / I can see his face in mine.” While the story itself might seem a like a vignette of songwriting folklore, for those who have to live with it, the pain is all too real.
The fact that Carl Anderson inherited a rare gift is clear, but what every artist can never know is the reality of whether that gift is going to save him or destroy him. The whole vocation is an act of faith that it’s worth the risk.
It’s this tension at the heart of Risk of Loss, not simply the story, that gives this particular collection of songs an unmistakable authenticity that hits you as a listener long before the depth of meaning sinks in. The substance and source of the melancholy and yearning that runs throughout the record remains deceptively elusive. It’s sometimes unclear precisely who the singer is addressing-- a former lover, a father he barely knew, or even God-- but this is precisely what makes Risk of Loss as purely compelling and universal as some of the best in a long tradition of American songwriting. It’s the sort of authenticity that can't be cheaply bought like the archaic instruments and anachronistic outfits that plague the genre. Carl is finally doing what every great writer does-- he is writing to discover who he is. A young man who was born to sing.