Country Grammar: Nikki Lane’s ‘Highway Queen’ Is A High Stakes Stunner

Pop Music Critic

Country Grammar is a recurring monthly column about country music. The purpose of this column will be to analyze and demystify country releases, large or small, and help halt the notion that Country music is somehow less deserving of introspective analysis than rock, rap, or pop. It will highlight the great moments, and occasionally, dig deep into the bad ones, but the goal is always to bring more attention to a genre that is far too often swept under the rug due to class assumptions or music criticism’s clear rockist past.

Nikki Lane is not your conventional country singer. The South Carolina-born, Nashville-living musician is releasing her third full-length record next month on New West, a small but formidable independent label focused on gritty, rootsy music of all strains. Lane is a high school dropout who moved to New York City to become a fashion designer, succeeded, then quit and decided to become a country singer — inspired largely by an ex-boyfriend’s own artistic incompetence.

Back in 2014 when I interviewed Lane for an Elmore print cover story about young women in country music, she told me she figured she could make music at least as good as her ex, if not better. She was more than right, and her determination continues to raise the stakes in the genre.

When Lane released her debut album Walk Of Shame in 2011, it turned some heads, but country music wasn’t full of the independent and female-focused momentum it is now, so it wasn’t until her follow-up, All Or Nothin’ in 2014, that Lane really began to amass the cult following she has now, who love her drawl, crass language, and singular moments of vulnerability.

All these elements are so clearly part of who Lane is as a person, that yes, they play out in her music, but also in her personality and artistic impulses across the board. That second record also benefited from the guidance of production helmed by Dan Auerbach, and for a rookie country singer, an expert’s tweaks made all the difference. The Black Keys member ran into Nikki at one of the vintage markets she frequents, and helped out simply because he was a fan of her music.

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