Most outlaw country musicians aren’t outlaws. The holy trinity of Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings and Kris Kristofferson weathered their fair share of drug busts and cold wars with the Nashville establishment but ultimately avoided significant brushes with the law.
Since its 1970s heyday, “outlaw country” has become marketing shorthand — a reach across to the aisle toward urban cowboys or “country for people who don’t like country.” Basically, people like me.
Then there’s Jaime Wyatt, the latest country songwriter to break out of L.A.’s increasingly vibrant, twang-centric scene. Wyatt’s biography makes her the outlaw country answer to 50 Cent, who turned getting shot into unimpeachable street cred.
Born in Santa Monica and raised outside Seattle, Wyatt got her first record deal at 17, which led to song placements on the Wicker Park soundtrack but little more. After that deal dissolved, Wyatt moved to L.A. and received another recording contract, which also went nowhere.
In the depressive aftermath, she developed an addiction to hard drugs, part of a desperate tailspin that led to her robbing her dealer. Charged with felony counts of home invasion and robbery, Wyatt copped a plea deal and spent eight months in an Oxnard jail, with six months of treatment and three years on probation.
Malevolent guards called her a “skinhead.” One prisoner threatened to kill her, which was fortuitously averted thanks to a random cellblock switch. There was 24-hour lockdown with no yard.
“I really got to sit with myself for a long time. It was stressful but forced me to understand different parts of society,” Wyatt says when we meet at a Silver Lake cafe.
Wyatt’s been mostly crashing at her mom’s trailer-park home in Calabasas, helping to take care of her father, musician Michael O’Neill, as he battles ALS. She’s wearing a white fringe leather jacket and a colorful Western button-up with a vintage Neil Young concert tee underneath. If you didn’t know her biography, you’d just as easily assume she was a random Eastsider with a penchant for honkytonk chic.
“One of the reasons why I liked using drugs was that you’d meet real fucking outlaws or gangsters,” Wyatt says. “You’d encounter strung-out junkies and see the shadow of who they used to be. You’d see some goodness, but they’d ultimately be ships passing in the night. People in jails and institutions just come and go.”
There’s a narrow line between authenticity and procuring literary material. The books and poems of Nelson Algren, William S. Burroughs and Baudelaire are populated by the seedy underworld characters they encountered. In Wyatt’s case, the songs on this month’s Felony Blues are short stories riddled with psychic carnage. There are love doxologies and gin-soaked lamentations cloaked in gorgeous arrangements and a forlorn stardust wail. Think Bonnie Raitt with a backstory closer to Boosie.
“I was so close to that stuff for years and literally had to go ride my bike, skateboard and be normal to realize I can do this,” Wyatt says about the many years it’s taken her to turn these experiences into art. “I’m a perfectionist and wrote a lot of version of these songs to find the right ones.”
The cumulative effect could convince you that there’s a country renaissance currently transpiring in L.A., between Wyatt, her Forty Below labelmate Sam Morrow and Sam Outlaw (who appears on Felony Blues’ “Your Loving Saves Me”).
“It might sound lame but there’s empowerment in there — you know, fuck it, live the way you want to live, live free and be happy,” Wyatt says. “Not everybody is going to approve of who you are and where you come from, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t still be all right.”
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JAIME WYATT | Bootleg Theater, 2220 Beverly Blvd., Echo Park | Tue., Feb. 7, 8:30 p.m. | $10-$12 | bootlegtheater.org