Country Music

Nikki Lane's Music Challenges Nashville Norms

Here's the thing: With its swaggering rock riffs and loose, danceable sway, Nikki Lane's "Right Time," which opens the South Carolinian's second full-length album, All or Nothin', should be a country radio smash. Why not? If Sam Hunt can channel sensitive R&B star Drake, Kacey Musgraves' mellow contrarian approach has electrified fans, and rock-leaning artists like Eric Church and the Zac Brown Band can find solid footing on the country FM dial, why shouldn't Lane, with her stellar voice, tight pop appeal, and songs that expertly blend wisecracks and bruised heart sentiment?

In May, radio consultant Keith Hill told trade magazine Country Aircheck Weekly, "If you want to make ratings in country radio, take females out . . . Trust me, I play great female records, and we've got some right now. They're just not the lettuce in our salad. The lettuce is Luke Bryan and Blake Shelton, Keith Urban, and artists like that. The tomatoes of our salad are the females." Hill's comments ignited controversy from critics and fans. Without access to the same analytics Hill cited, it's tough to say exactly how he drew his conclusions, but the question seemed obvious to a lot of observers: Are women less popular on country radio because listeners don't want to hear them or because country radio doesn't play them?

At one time, you could feasibly theorize that Lane is simply too rock 'n' roll for country radio. All or Nothin' was produced by Dan Auerbach of the hit-making Black Keys, and it shows: "Good Man" rides a soulful girl group beat and "I Don't Care" features a groovy garage rock vibe. This week, Lane comes to town for an engagement at the Marquee Theatre with Social Distortion, a band that has dressed up its punk rock with Americana décor since the late '70s, indicating that she's had no problem finding an audience in the rock world. Then there are the statements that Lane eyed "Uptown Funk" architect Mark Ronson to work on the record. Known for his work with Amy Winehouse, Bruno Mars, the Black Lips, and Lana Del Rey, Ronson's MO is soul, rock, hip-hop, and pop. Even if country radio has never been more open stylistically, one gets the sense that Lane isn't aiming for Nashville's approval. She's doing her own thing.

That independence is reflected in her lyrics, too — take playful jams like "Right Time" and "Sleep With a Stranger," the best song on All or Nothin', with its references to "motorcycle bandits" and men "full of anger." "You can call me anything you want," Lane sings. "Just don't call me after tonight." Lane's hardly a radical when she sings about getting stoned and hooking up, but if country radio wants 'em buttoned up and demure, Lane's not going to work. She's a woman calling her own shots, which has always rattled country conservatives: See Loretta Lynn's 1975 pro-birth control anthem, "The Pill."

But it's hard to say. The current number one song on the country Billboard charts, Little Big Town's "Girl Crush," has been criticized by traditionalists for its same-sex implications. Maybe country listeners aren't as worried about moral implications as the hats in charge. Or maybe a song with a catchy enough hook and clever enough lyrics is enough to push past the moral police. Nikki Lane has plenty of those kinds of songs. If she decides she wants to take over country radio, there might not be any stopping her — just rest assured she'll be the one making the call.

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Jason P. Woodbury is a music and pop-culture writer based in Phoenix. He is a regular contributor to the music blog Aquarium Drunkard and co-host of the Transmissions podcast.