The Ballad Of Wheeler Walker Jr.: How Do You Market an R-Rated Country Album?
The reaction to his blue product has the artist seeing red.
Wheeler Walker Jr. did the unthinkable.
With a new album, Ol’ Wheeler, due June 2 via Pepperhill/Thirty Tigers, he shot a figurative middle finger to country radio, which is still the biggest means of exposure for the genre. After the album’s first single, “Summers in Kentucky,” failed to receive a single add, he issued a press release on May 22, declaring “war” on the medium and expressing outrage at its “irrelevance.”
It’s hardly the first time that Walker — who may, or may not, in reality be comedian Ben Hoffman, affiliated with Comedy Central and The Late Late Show with James Corden — has gotten indignant with the media. His debut album, Redneck Shit, debuted at No. 9 on Billboard’s Country Albums chart and hit No. 1 on Comedy Albums. He was infuriated when he discovered the music was considered humorous.
“I was yelling at my people that I was on the comedy charts,” he remembers. “And then I went, ‘What number is it?’ And they said, ‘One.’ I said, ‘Well, there it is. I have a No. 1 album. That’s fine.’ ”
Whether he considers it comedy or not, Walker is navigating a road not taken by many. He concedes during a lengthy sitdown interview at his publicist’s office that his music is “filthy country”: loads of four-letter words and sexual references, targeting a format that considers itself safe for families. There’s little precedent. David Allan Coe issued two R-rated projects, 1978’s Nothing Sacred and 1982’s Underground Album. He sold them through biker magazines and back channels, never qualifying for a chart. Canadian band Showdown got plenty of attention by dropping F-bombs in the 1980 single “The Rodeo Song,” but it, too, was literally off the charts.
Thus, when Redneck Shit grazed the top 10 on Top Country Albums, it perhaps gave Walker hope of breaking into the mainstream. “Summers in Kentucky” was the safest choice from Ol’ Wheeler. The title was more suitable than many from an album that boasts “Pussy King,” “Fuckin’ Around,” “Finger Up My Butt” and “If My Dick Is Up, Why Am I So Down.” But even “Summers in Kentucky” was a bit much — its chorus opens with a reference to cunnilingus and graphically laments the effects of childbirth on a woman’s genitals.
Walker understands why radio wouldn’t play that, but he’s pissed nonetheless.
“I refuse to make edited versions for the radio,” he insists. “Those motherfuckers at Spotify won’t put me on any of their playlists, [and] that’s apparently the new radio. Who’s the biggest guy out there now? It’s probably Kendrick Lamar. I mean, that’s as dirty a record as mine. That’s got kids listening to it all over the place. Why can’t country be in that world? I don’t really understand it.”
Walker had hoped the presidential election might signal a new era for his kind of music. After all, the red states — many of which are also some of country’s most favorable markets — sent Donald Trump to the White House, even after the leak of an Access Hollywood tape in which he said his fame gave him lots of leeway with women. “Grab ’em by the pussy,” Trump infamously said.
“It doesn’t seem like he knows his way around a pussy, because I don’t think that’s how it works,” deadpans Walker.
He suggests that the controversy should have opened up the mainstream to his music. “I can now say for a fact that I’ve heard things just as dirty on Meet the Press,” says Walker, “which is kind of fucked up.”
Walker has met with resistance pretty much from the beginning. When he recorded Redneck Shit under the guidance of producer Dave Cobb (Chris Stapleton, Sturgill Simpson), the musicians were perplexed by the lyrics they were backing.
“Especially at first, [they were] like, ‘Can you really say this?’ ” recounts Walker. “But it’s a free country, I’m paying for the record, putting it out myself. I can say whatever the fuck I want.”
Finding a place to say it is a little more difficult. Radio is clearly out. Late-night TV seems to be uninterested, too. So he has found less traditional outlets. Walker did a stint on Howard Stern’s SiriusXM show; he has established a podcast, where his guests have included Stapleton and Billy Joe Shaver; and his Twitter account lets him occasionally fire back at his detractors by simply telling them to “eat pussy.” Which is, in its own odd way, a method of promoting the music.
He has also found a willing partner in PornHub, which ranks among the top 50 most-visited sites on the Internet, according to Alexa.com.
“A buddy of mine, you could listen to his album a week early on NPR,” says Walker, explaining the logic of using a porn site to promote his music. “I was like, ‘Fuck, that sucks, man.’ Because NPR obviously won’t play my record. But who the fuck listens to albums early on NPR? Let’s go where the fucking audience is. What if I had all the world’s masturbators, you know? It’s a pretty good audience. Like every man in the world, plus half of women.”
They’ll pretty much have to buy it online. Amazon and iTunes carry Walker, but most retail chains have responded to Redneck Shit and Ol’ Wheeler the same way as country radio: by not offering the product.
Walker’s reaction is the essentially the same one he has leveled at country radio: “They can fuck off.”