After dropping out of high school at 17, Nikki Lane was working, "kind of illegally," as a bartender and waitress in Greenville, South Carolina, the same town where Lynyrd Skynyrd made one final stand with their original lineup before a plane crash into a Mississippi swamp took three of them away. For a year and a half, she stuck around, making about $200 a night, which was more than enough to "buy all the sheets I wanted at Wal-Mart for my big queen bed that I bought myself for my apartment." But a fateful shopping trip for home appliances had her on the road and headed west within six weeks of a heavy realization.
"I was about to make a payment on a washing machine at 18 years old to Sears every month, and that meant I really wasn't goin' anywhere, because I had to pay it off for 18 months or whatever the fuck," Lane says over the phone from her vintage shop, High Class Hillbilly, in Nashville. "I drew a line in the sand and said, 'I think I gotta move to California.'"
Lane's Greenville getaway led her to Redondo Beach, where she had a "rude awakening" as she got familiar with the gears of the fashion and manufacturing industry. She learned what it took to succeed in a business where you market in volume: "That became a project to me, to figure out the ins and outs of making something and selling it to people," she explains. Eventually she talked her way into a job in New York City, and not long after playing her first show in LA, she headed back east, where she eventually ended up dating a guy who "was kinda like the king of alt-country in Williamsburg in the early 2000s." After trying to jumpstart his career with her own meddling, she ended up getting dumped over the phone from eight blocks away. So she figured she'd try her own hand at making records. After all, she wanted to start her own jean brand, and as she points out, you can sell a lot more jeans if you're famous.
"Then making records and selling them became kinda the next puzzle, the next thing to figure out," Lane says. "Because it's an ever-changing industry and kinda requires a big strategy because there are no rules."
Nikki Lane has been blessed with a puzzle-conquering mind. Her manager calls it "rocket brain," and it's clear how apt the moniker is after only a few minutes speaking with her: She talks a mile a minute, like someone trying near-fruitlessly to match the speed of her words with the speed of her thoughts. It all comes across in her charming southern accent, punctuated often by a friendly, rhetorical "y'know what I mean?" and sometimes uncontrollable laughter. Coupled with the indomitable work ethic she inherited from her mother, who raised Nikki on her own, and her father, an asphalt paver, you get the feeling she could do anything she wants—and probably be one of the best at it.
"There was a moment in the ninth grade where my track coach wrote 'complacency kills' on a chalkboard, and I felt like it seared into my soul. I just got a new tattoo on the back of my arm that says 'try harder.' There's a thirst I can't quench when it comes to work and achieving ideas—making ideas into reality. That I definitely got from my upbringing and my background. It's made me very tired and also done very well for my career," she laughs.
And how. Lane's latest record, Highway Queen, out February 17, is a forceful, rollicking collection of fiery country tunes that places her toe-to-toe with any outlaw in Nashville. It was another type of puzzle—after working with producers on all her previous records, two years on the road had given her the confidence to take the reins in the studio, where she and boyfriend Jonathan Tyler called the shots this time. Turning those ideas into reality has resulted in Lane's best album yet.
Listen to the premiere of "Send the Sun," from Highway Queen, below:
It took a lot of work to get there. The album was "basically written in the van," which is partly how it got its name—the band was on tour and Lane was daydreaming about how great it would be to have a big truck named the Highway Queen to follow that little white line with. The last couple years of touring took a toll, but her exhaustion stories are pretty hilarious. She traumatized a fan by slamming a mis-made burrito onto the ground in front of him ("It was stuffed with fresh onions and cilantro and all this stuff that I'm just grossed out by"). The band was so deliriously tired overseas that they crossed over into Sweden with a bag of weed because they simply hadn't realized they were going through a border stop. It seems, though, like it would take a lot more than bad Mexican food and European border guards to stop the show.
"Last night we were going through some song ideas and I brought up a song—'If I can just keep from cryin', if I can fake a little smile then I can make it through the day's end, get up tomorrow and do it all again,'" she says. "Damn that sounds so sad. But we played 26 shows in 28 days in Europe, and I cried in the tub every fourth night. I was fuckin' tired."
On top of that, Lane's longtime guitarist Alex Munoz was diagnosed with cancer while the band was in Spain, regularly playing "Lay You Down," a song written about Levon Helm and watching someone deal with a life-threatening illness. "It hit us in the stomach," Lane says. "And we didn't play it the last couple nights of tour, once we found out what was going on, because it spoke of a different type of ending than we were willing to accept, and thankfully didn't have to deal with." Four months later, Munoz was back in good health. "One thing Alex will know for certain coming back to Nashville is that the support system he has here is as strong as any blood bond," Lane says.
And while Lane's heartache days are over for now, there's no shortage of it on Highway Queen. "Forever Lasts Forever" is the most devastating example—a wrenching, pedal steel-powered tearjerker about a divorce. Lane calls herself a repeat "victim of love," which she says is the most unavoidable thing in the world. And sometimes it wrecks you for a while.
"'Foolish Heart' is probably the biggest testament of it, knowing that you're spending your time trying to build something with someone who's not worthy of that shit just because of their actions," Lane says. "But still leading your heart into war and into death just because you wanna believe that love can beat it."
Whatever "it" may be, it sounds like it's been beat. You don't have to look much further than the record's most rollicking and joyful track, a runaway Vegas love story called "Jackpot." In the video, Lane pawns her guitar, gambles herself into a fortune, and marries Tyler at a chapel complete with Elvis-impersonating minister. The real life story—which happened farther south—is less neon but still comes with sparks. "We went back to Texas and made the record, and we kinda fell in love and became more than friends. And I was like, "well, I think I just hit the jackpot."
It would all seem a lot like luck is the reason Nikki Lane is poised to take over this whole outlaw bit, but if it is, that's because the harder she's hustled, the more luck has ended up coming her way. Her draw to the past—the authenticity and craftsmanship of an era that built things through blood, sweat, and hard work—is part of what makes Lane's whole vision work. While some artists wrack their brains to figure out what people might connect to, it's the easiest puzzle Lane's had to solve because it comes naturally to her: Make something of genuine quality, and people will want it. The guts to drop everything and try to make it in Music City, though, are likely something you have to be born with.
"I didn't focus on committing to anyone with any sort of other profession. I knew I was gonna go all in, which was why the last record was called All or Nothin'. When I put that record out, I decided I was gonna put every dose of energy I had into it, and if it didn't work I'd sit my ass at home and make babies," she laughs.
It worked. Good thing she left the washing machine behind.
Photos by Matt Seger. Follow him on Instagram.
Matt Williams is a writer, photographer, and country music lover. Follow him on Twitter.