Alt-country singer Jaime Wyatt has gotten in the habit of conducting unusual audience polls.
“When I play shows, I’ll ask, ‘Anyone ever done anything illegal? Gimme a show of hands. Yep, yep, yep,’” she chuckles, doing an imaginary nightly count. “And then I’ll ask, ‘Anyone ever been caught?’ And that’s really interesting to see because a lot fewer folks raise their hand on that one.” And therein hangs the tale that sets this honeyed, hickory-winded crooner apart from most of her PC peers.
Not only was she once ensnared by the authorities for robbing her heroin dealer — a felony for which she served eight months in L.A. County jail — Wyatt has no qualms about discussing her hardscrabble, substance-abusing existence on Neon Cross, her first LP for New West. And not since Social Distortion’s compulsively-confessional Mike Ness has a composer been so brutally honest.
Most current Music Row stars are as elusive as an eel when it comes to controversy. “And I tried living like that, I tried not talking about anything, and that just doesn’t work for me,” says the Washington-state raised, Los Angeles-based Wyatt, who duly documented her time in stir on her aptly-dubbed 2017 debut EP, Felony Blues. “I’m not going to stay clean that way, and I can’t write the songs I want to write or be the person I want to be. I’ve just got to be open.” She sighs, resignedly. “About everything.”
Her loping leadoff single “Hurt So Bad” (featuring a cameo from album producer Shooter Jennings) opens her heartfelt diary, then turns pedal-steel-forlorn pages like “LIVIN” (“That doctor said it’s one in a million/ I’ll make it to 35”), the title track (“I’ve been running my whole damn life/ And I think that it’s catching up”), and “Rattlesnake Girl,” where she describes how discovered her true sexual identity.
Wyatt wrote her first tune at age four, and by 14, had been lured to Southern California by a recording contract and producers that mistakenly viewed her as a young Sheryl Crow. It didn’t click. On a secluded island in Washington, she was weaned on “Keggers in the woods and smoking weed,” but in Hollywood, she quickly learned the simple equation that crystal meth was half as expensive and twice as effective as cocaine.
“Crank is just a better deal — I much preferred crank to coke, although I did some way-out shit back then, and I could tell you hours of stories of its just terrible attendant paranoia,” she said. Once heroin entered the picture, she entered drug treatment centers seven unsuccessful times, then had a serious relapse at 22 after her estranged father re-entered her life as he was dying of ALS.
“Then my friends tried detoxing me out in the desert, but that didn’t work,” she says. “But after three more rehabs, I finally got it, and now I’ve been clean for two years and seven months.” Revealing these facts, she adds, “is just me being authentic about who I am right now.”
Coincidentally, Wyatt met Jennings around the same time that she decided her voice was better suited to old-school country. She’d used several of his band members on “Felony Blues,” and they — along with Jennings’ prescient wife, Misty — urged him to give her a serious listen.
“And Shooter and those guys were so supportive, even when I was, ‘uhh, kind of nutty,’” she says. “And when I got clean they were just so loving and accepting.”
Now, they feel like family, and they share a manager as well as the approval of Jessi Colter, who duets with her fellow outlaw on Neon’s “Just a Woman.”
“And that is the proudest moment of my career,” Wyatt swears. “I was waiting with my mom when we got the recordings of her parts, and when we listened to them, we both just cried.”