As far as country music origin stories go, Nikki Lane’s is one of the best. A few years ago, she was a fashion designer based in New York when her boyfriend dumped her in order to go to Alabama to record a country album. She figured she had to be at least as good at making music as her ex, so she recorded her 2011 debut Walk of Shame and moved to Nashville, and opened the High Class Hillbilly boutique. Given that history--and Wikipedia--has already forgotten this unnamed ex, and Lane is here, this week, with her third album--and best--Highway Queen, a shit-kicking, sly and wry album, her revenge plot has proven to be pretty damn successful. She got the W.
Highway Queen as its title suggests, is about searching the roads of America for personal satisfaction. The title track’s hero is a roaming country singer, who “don’t need no king,” who leaves broken hearts across 14,000 miles of blacktop. “Jackpot” is a rollicking ode to Las Vegas, and partying with a romantic partner in the land of casinos and all night parties. “700,000 Rednecks”-- the raucous opener with the most infectious “Yippee Ki Yay” ever committed to tape--posits that it just takes 700,000 rednecks being in your corner for you to have a stable career in country music, but ultimately all that matters is being able to roll into a town for people who want to see you play.
The road songs give Highway Queen its thrust, but the slower ballads are what make Highway Queen indelible. Lane sings a lot here about relationships--her partner Jonathan Tyler co-produced the album--and taking the attendant chance on them that Lane already has in taking a chance on her recording career. “Companion” covers the chase of a new relationship, as Lane presents herself as heartbroken till someone worth chasing as a companion came around. “Foolish Heart” is all worry; is she running into a relationship too willingly? Does it mean everything she wants? And “Forever Lasts Forever” is the capper of the album and the relationship songs; “Forever means forever, till forever becomes never again,” Lane sings, bleary eyed over a breakup.
The thing that makes Highway Queen so rewarding is that the songs here were written after hard-earned lessons. Lane sings about the travails of the road, and of wanting rednecks to love her, and she sings about wanting not to rush in a relationship, and not wanting to put her heart on the line again like she weathered the storm and is ready to tell everyone else how she saw her way through. Records like this have always lived at the periphery of country’s center of the dial--shouts to mid period Tanya Tucker and early Reba and basically every Gretchen Wilson song--but Lane breathes new life into the genre by just her general take-no-prisoners attitude. Nikki Lane is a star, and Highway Queen is the year’s best country album so far.