Country singer/songwriter explores relationships, life on road on 'Highway Queen'

On Highway Queen, from 2017, Nashville singer and songwriter Nikki Lane delves into romantic relationships of all kinds, carrying on a country-music tradition that stretches back to the likes of Hank Williams, who came to fame singing about cheatin' hearts.

“On the country records I love, most of what they're talking about is their women,” said Lane, who visits Ace of Cups for a concert on Wednesday, July 26. “I don't think it's far-fetched to write country songs when you're in love or out of love or even mad at someone.”

Lane does all of the above on Highway Queen, singing of new romance (“My heart is racing once again,” she offers on the fluttering “Companion”), the pain of divorce (“Forever Lasts Forever”) and the lingering sting her vengeance can leave. “My mind is all made up, gonna shoot to kill,” she sings matter-of-factly on “Muddy Waters.”

When Lane penned her first song at age 25, she described it as “a necessary act of self-preservation” in the wake of an ugly breakup. Now, at age 33, music continues to fill a similar role in her life, most recently offering comfort following the cancer-related, mid-July death of drummer Ben Eyestone, who played on Lane's 2014 album All or Nothin', in addition to serving a key role in assembling her current band.

“Yesterday [band members] Jonathan Tyler and Paul Cauthen were co-writing on the front porch. I was listening, and came outside and gave them an idea: ‘One more drag with you,'” Lane said. “Our friend passed away last week … and it was like, ‘I wish I could have one more joint with you.' We could sit back one more time and I'd ask, ‘Who's your favorite “Seinfeld” character?' Just the dumb shit.

“And we ended up writing a song, and I got comfort out of it.”

Though Lane has developed into a confident songwriter — she has a direct, pull-no-punches style as tough as the asphalt roads that her father once worked on as a paver (the musician sums up the end of her marriage on one song by offering, “What's done is done”) — she's still working to reach a similar comfort level in the studio.

“The first time I went into the studio … I didn't say a word except to sing my lyrics, and it was perfect, because I didn't have a single piece of [studio] vocabulary,” Lane said. “Each time it's gotten a little bit better. With All or Nothin' I would take silly little notes when [producer and Black Keys singer/guitarist] Dan [Auerbach] was in the room. Then he would leave and take his daughter to dinner at 6 o' clock every night and it was like, ‘OK, my turn.' And I would just read the words, 'More compression.' I didn't know exactly what compression was yet, but I was learning a little vocabulary.”

This explains why Lane recorded Highway Queen twice, ditching the first round of sessions captured in New York City with producer Jonathan Wilson because the music “didn't feel right,” a characteristic she attributed at least in part to her reticence to speak up during sessions.

“Maybe because I didn't feel comfortable because I've only been in the studio seven times, I didn't interrupt,” said Lane, who eventually regrouped and completed the record with bandmate and co-producer Jonathan Tyler. “I keep saying [scrapping the first round of recording] was like throwing away a car, and that's what we did.”

While much of Highway Queen is split between relationships and life on the road, Lane does reserve a bit of ire for the country music mainstream that has largely ignored her to this point, releasing it in a rush on the album-opening “700,000 Rednecks,” a song written in eight inebriated minutes that falls somewhere between cynical and tongue-in-cheek.

“It started because someone asked me how many people were from my hometown [of Greenville, South Carolina] and I said 700,000. The actual population is actually 60,000, but I was drunk,” Lane said, and laughed. “I was drunk and feeling like a rock star and talking shit about my hometown and I said, ‘There's 700,000 rednecks there.' And I thought that was really funny. In country music, my genre, which I don't really get to participate in because of the monetary boundaries of radio and things like that these days, if you get 700,000 rednecks, you've got it all. If you can win over the imaginary population of my hometown, you're set for life.”