Jaime Wyatt will be the first to admit she writes a lot of sad songs. The Nashville-based singer-songwriter first came to prominence with her 2017 release Felony Blues, a seven-song collection of hardscrabble country songs inspired, in part, by the eight months she served in prison for robbing her heroin dealer. That album introduced Wyatt as a literal “outlaw” artist, though its most potent moments were its more tender ones, like the understated love song ‟Giving Back the Best of Me.”
It’s no surprise, then, that two personal tragedies and a period of turbulent growth and change inspired Wyatt’s new album Neon Cross, which releases on May 29 via New West Records, Wyatt’s first for the label. While Felony Blues was itself a personal collection, Neon Cross offers a deeper look at who Wyatt is as an artist and a person, reflecting frankly on loss, grief, recovery and identity.
Wyatt began writing Neon Cross while out on the road as an opening act for Shooter Jennings, around the time of Felony Blues’ 2017 release. Her father, with whom she had only recently reconnected after a period of estrangement, had just died of ALS, and two months later a close friend died of a drug overdose. Processing that grief led to her writing a first song for the album, the twangy, slightly trippy ballad “By Your Side.”
“I knew I’d be making a new record when I wrote ‘By Your Side,’” Wyatt says, speaking via phone while self-isolating from her Nashville home in April. “I wrote it on piano. I was in Los Angeles and it was actually right after my dad died. Then two months later one of my closest friends overdosed. That is when I could finally start grieving my dad’s death, too. So I wrote that song ‘By Your Side’. … There was no question that it would be on my new album, because it meant so much to me.”
She continued to write while out on the road, and ideas and new material began to pile up. She’d become close with Jennings and his wife, and when the time came to tap a producer for the project, he was the obvious choice. Fans of Jennings’ off-kilter approach to country production can hear his mark on the LP, which incorporates traces of rock, soul, and even psychedelia into Wyatt’s honky-tonk sound, all while centering Wyatt’s versatile voice, which is at once aching and brazen, tender and powerful. The album also features one of the final recorded performances of late musician Neal Casal, who contributes guitar, harmonica, and Wurlitzer.
‟There was talk about who would produce the album and there were several really great names thrown into the hat,” Wyatt explains. ‟And this was before I had even signed with New West. I’d been touring around with Shooter and he’d been super, super helpful to me. He and his wife had sort of taken me under their wing in Los Angeles and helped me with management, helped me record some unreleased Waylon [Jennings] stuff. We were just bonding on the road and I thought, ‘The record has to be with Shooter. It has to be.’ He became a friend and a big support for me, getting clean again and stuff.”
Wyatt’s sobriety and struggles with drug addiction were a major influence on the album. After several visits to rehabilitation centers, she relapsed in 2017, right as Felony Blues released and she grieved the loss of her father and friend. She has now been sober for nearly three years.
‟I was very disconnected from myself for a lot of years, probably because of the way I grew up or from addiction and things like that, which further confused me.” she explains. ‟I wrote more of the record about pain and grief and loss, about getting clean and losing people. Now I’m on the other side of it and getting to write more about freedom.”
During her most recent time in rehab, Wyatt was able to come to terms with parts of her identity she had been suppressing, including her sexuality. On the soulful anthem ‟Rattlesnake Girl,” she explores this journey, singing, ‟I see my sweet friends out on the weekend, they all look happy and gay / They keep their secrets all covered in sequins, people have too much to say,” the kind of lyric that still, in 2020, wouldn’t make it onto country radio.
“I definitely started writing music out of sadness, but now I write for both complete joy and complete despair…”
‟If I were to do country music exactly like the classic country I grew up on, there’s no point,” she says. ‟We might as well just put on the real shit. Who wants to hear me re-do it? It’s my own melodramatic picture of how I feel in life and how I felt. A lot of it was me discovering a few years ago that I wasn’t just bi[sexual] but just totally gay. I totally love women. That’s my thing. It’s been really scary. I came out to my family four years ago but I wasn’t out in public or on social media until this year. I was writing about that process, like in the chorus, just figuring it out. … It was such a process to find myself that I felt like I could help others, especially young people, if I was vocal about what I had gone through.”
The centerpiece of the album is the track ‟Just a Woman,” which features vocals from outlaw country legend (and Jennings’ mother) Jessi Colter. Wyatt and Colter recorded their vocals separately, but Wyatt still considers the experience one of the most surreal and meaningful moments of her career.“When it was done, I was talking to Shooter about how I felt like a really amazing woman needed to be singing it with me. It would just be super empowering and powerful. So I said, ‘I don’t know if your mom would do it, because she doesn’t have to do shit. She’s worked enough in her lifetime. But would she sing on this? Could we hire her to sing on this?’ And he was like, ‘Oh. She’ll do it. I know she’ll do it.’ And she did.”
‟There’s not a man in this world I would rather be,” Wyatt sings at the opening of the song, which she describes as being partially inspired by imagining it would have been like if Tammy Wynette could have ‟really expressed the difficulty of being a woman in that time, in country music.” She recalls Colter saying the song had an ‟age-old” message, and found that pairing with an elder woman artist brought the song’s message full circle.
‟When I got that vocal back, I happened to be off the road in L.A., with my mom because that’s where I lived then. We listened to it in my mom’s car and both of us cried. In her voice, I hear so much wisdom and life experience. She’s lived through shit I can’t imagine, especially as a woman [country artist] in that time period.”
While much of Neon Cross treads more serious territory, Wyatt isn’t afraid to have some fun, explaining, ‟I also write out of complete happiness, joy and elation.” On tracks like ‟Goodbye Queen” and ‟Make Something Out of Me,” she turns her sharp observations on herself for a bit of playful self-deprecation. The former is in the vein of a classic heartbreaker honky-tonk anthem, with Wyatt admitting that she’s ‟a lover that leaves.”
‟I was trying to be playful for a change,” she says of ‟Goodbye Queen,” laughing. ‟I really was trying to poke fun at my own sadness. The other side of struggle and sadness is that sometimes things are so fucked that it’s hilarious. You can bond with people like, ‘Dude, is this really happening?’ But that song was about connecting with people I met in other cities and just being like, ‘Bye.’ It’s like, ‘Okay, universe, more will be revealed. But right now I’m just wandering by myself.’ So that was fun and playful.”
On ‟Make Something Out of Me,” Wyatt traces the last 15 years of her eventful life, bumps in the road and all. The track takes honest stock of some of those bumps, anchored by the clever lyric, “But if God made the world out of nothing, why can’t He make something out of me?”
“I had a minivan that I toured in that just was a lemon, essentially, that I pumped all my money into,” she says, laughing. “Thousands of dollars. It’s still broken to this day. I was in L.A. and the van was in Nashville, and I was borrowing my mom’s car at 33 years old [Wyatt is 34 now]. 33 and I’m like, ‘Oh my god, I’m at my mom’s house, driving her car. I don’t have a fucking cent to my name and I’m out here still doing the same thing I’ve been doing since I was a kid. When am I going to grow up? When am I going to be a productive member of society?’ That was me making a joke out of it and really helping myself cope with feeling like a failure [laughs].”
Wyatt was supposed to tour in support of Neon Cross, but, like the rest of the music industry, had to cancel her tour dates when coronavirus took hold in the United States. She admits that she considered delaying her album release in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, but ultimately decided that sharing her music was her way of giving back to others during a scary, difficult time.
“I’ve felt very conflicted about continuing to release the album,” she says. “But then a couple friends reminded me that this is a time when it would be a great service to release art for people, for catharsis and also escapism. It’s needed. And honestly, I feel like it would be selfish to push it back. No offense to anyone that is doing that — we all gotta eat, right? But it’s happening. And it’s probably ill-advised. But I just believe in my work as service and this is a way that I can help.”
Neon Cross is a nuanced, colorful portrait of Wyatt and all it’s taken for her to get where she is today, one that should reinforce the acclaim she received for Felony Blues and ought to widen her already dedicated base of fans. And, perhaps more importantly, it’s a fresh start for Wyatt, who is grateful for the struggles that have shaped her but happy to be in a better place now than she was when she started it.
“I definitely started writing music out of sadness, but now I write for both complete joy and complete despair,” she says. “I can write on both sides now. If I’d only been able to write sad songs I might have died.”