Wheeler Walker Jr.

In a now-classic scene from the 1976 Academy Award Winning film Network, newscaster Howard Beale screams into the television camera, “I’m mad as hell, and I’m not gonna take it anymore!” Beale -- struggling with declining ratings and just learning that he was about to lose his job – decides to let loose on national television after declaring that “life is bullshit.”
But instead of getting him fired (Beale’s goal), the outburst causes a ratings spike, and Howard Beale becomes a national hero for angry and frustrated Americans.
Many have compared this scene to the career trajectory of the new king of country music, Wheeler Walker, Jr. Wheeler moved to Nashville in 2000, with dreams of Garth Brooks in his head, confident that his golden voice and poetic songs would make him an instant star. Unfortunately, as Howard Beale noted, life is bullshit.
Wheeler’s first album – the unfortunately titled “No Love For the City” (his ode to preferring country life over city living) – featured a picture of Wheeler giving a thumbs down in front of the World Trade Center. Although the album was full of hard-driving, hook-laden honky-tonk, the record was released on 9/11/01 and had to immediately be pulled from store shelves. Of course, this mishap was not Wheeler’s fault... but the next decade of missteps certainly were: sleeping with record company presidents’ wives, burning down the women’s restroom at the Grand Ole Opry, and getting dropped by label after label for refusing to censor his music.
And then, in 2015, Wheeler had his Howard Beale moment: “Who says you can’t curse on a country album?” Well, a lot of people, but fuck ‘em... so Wheeler reached out to his old Kentucky pal Sturgill Simpson for the name of a producer who would let him record his music the way he wanted to: Sturgill suggested Grammy award winner Dave Cobb, who produced Simpson’s first two albums. A friendship was born, and Wheeler emptied out his bank account, wrote a check to Cobb, and the rest is history.
To say Wheeler Walker, Jr. was mad as hell and wasn’t gonna take it anymore is an understatement. A decade of failure in country music (and life) made its way into every track of Redneck Shit. Assuming correctly that no label in Nashville would release it, Walker created his own label and distributed the album through Nashville’s Thirty Tigers.
What came next was the stuff of Nashville legend. With no songs that the FCC would even allow on US airwaves, the album debuted at #9 on the Billboard Country album charts. (Because of its filthy content, Billboard also categorized the record as a “comedy” album, which still upsets Wheeler to this day. Nevertheless, the album debuted at #1 on the Billboard Comedy Charts and ended up being the 2nd best-selling comedy album of 2016, even though Wheeler says, “This ain’t no fuckin’ comedy record... this is real life”).
Fans from across the country music spectrum flocked to Wheeler’s “don’t give a fuck” attitude. One of them – Nashville hit maker Shane McAnally – even wrote a song with Wheeler for his follow-up.
Cut to 2017: With an army of Howard Beale-like fans, Wheeler is readying the release of his new record, Ol’ Wheeler, out into the world. In an age where the President of the United States is bragging about grabbing women by the pussy, can anyone really get mad about Wheeler bragging that he’s the “Pussy King?” (Apparently, yes).
The biggest story of Ol’ Wheeler is that everyone thought Redneck Shit was a one-note joke. But Ol’ Wheeler somehow manages to be even better than its predecessor. With more complex instrumentation – Cobb and the same backing band of session men from Redneck Shit are behind the new album – and more serious themes about life on the road and the expectations from being Nashville’s enemy number one, Wheeler has turned his life into filthy art. As he recently acknowledged to Rolling Stone, Wheeler is confident that his new record will “grab Nashville by the pussy.”
And yes, in case you were asking, the new album is just as dirty. But so is the world around him. And as stores and websites across the globe boycott the record, it only makes Wheeler bigger. He’s bringing a hip-hop attitude to country music. One of his friends even referred to him as “Kanye Twitty.”
So sure, go ahead and ignore him. But it will only make Wheeler – and his growing army of fans – even stronger. As he sings on “Poon,” the album’s closing track, “Fuck you Music City, want that sweet and pink and pretty, gimme that poon.” Or to put it more simply, Wheeler is ready to set fire to Music Row and fuck your wife while it burns.

Tim Montana and The Shrednecks

One thing that’s true about America no matter where you go: Hard work eventually pays off. Just ask Tim Montana and The Shrednecks, who recently commenced a springtime run as the opening act for their fellow mostly bearded rock compatriots ZZ Top (with a few headlining gigs of their own smattered in along the way for good measure). “I’ve been told I’m open and I’m vulnerable, but I’m just authentic,” Montana observes. “I’ve also been told ‘no’ all my life, but I’ve got thick skin. I’ll keep trucking. You’re not going to stop me. Tell me I can’t, and I will.”

It’s easy to see why Montana’s music connects with so many people far and wide. From the rip-roaring, swamp-rockin’ vibe of “Fifty Fifty” (which also features ZZ Top major domo Billy F. Gibbons on guitar) to the head-turning, fist-pumping stomp of “Gravel Road” to the down-home patriotic values checklist for “Things That I Love,” it’s clear this Big Sky Country native has only just begun. Of the latter track, Montana says, “It’s probably my favorite song I’ve written. That’s the story of my life right there.”

Montana’s passion for pursuing his sacred sonic mission has not gone unnoticed by his fellow musicians. “Tim is the real thing,” says Gibbons, who’s co-written quite a few tunes with the man, including the heady, good times fan favorite “Weed and Whiskey” and the self-explanatory “This Beard Came Here to Party.” (More on the pull of “This Beard” in a bit.) “He’s a little bit country with lots of hard rocks — or maybe he’s a rocker in touch with some serious country roots.”

A prime example of a “no” having fueled the country-rocking singer/songwriter’s creative spark came during a meeting where, as Montana recalls, “one label executive told me I might find a hit someday, but there’s no way I was going to write it on my own. That was on a New Year’s Eve. Instead of going out to all the parties, I skipped them, and went, ‘I’m going to write a song on my own, and it’s going to be great.’ And then I wrote ‘Low Class.’ Well, I don’t know if that song’s great, but it’s pretty good.” (Tim is being his naturally humble self here, but the fact is, the honky-tonkin’ manifesto deemed as being “Low Class” is a pretty damn great song.)

Montana’s path to musical salvation was no easy road to hoe. “I grew up living off the grid in a trailer in remote Montana,” Tim recounts. “We didn’t have TV, and we didn’t have electricity — we had lanterns and candles. But at the early age of 6, I got a guitar, and that was my only escape.”

Music was not exactly a priority in the Montana household. “My parents didn’t really like music,” Tim admits. “Music was not played throughout the house. We’d have to run a wire from our pickup truck to this little tiny radio, but it would only play Rush Limbaugh in every room.”

To get his own regular audio fix, Montana had to improvise. “I just gravitated towards music,” he observes. “I got CDs from the pawnshop my stepdad ran at the time, and I had a battery-operated CD player that I’d fire up so I could listen to a lot of ZZ Top, Creedence Clearwater Revival, and the Charlie Daniels Band.”

Soon, his guitar became his best friend. “I used to have to sneak my guitar out because my stepdad was against me playing music,” Montana acknowledges. “It was the only thing I did for fun, and I wasn’t allowed to take it to school. I remember my mom would create a diversion, and I’d open the back window of our trailer, drop my guitar into a snowbank, walk outside, and sneak it to school. One time, I ended up winning a talent show. And that was trouble, because it made the newspaper, and I was so freaked out he was going to read about it: ‘You won the talent show, and you’re not allowed to play music at school!’”

After spending some time on the West Coast caring for animals and going to music school in Los Angeles, Tim eventually landed in Nashville, but his Big Sky roots paid off in a big way when a certain music-loving talk show host by the name of David Letterman heard him play at a rodeo in Choteau, Montana in 2007. A year later, Montana got a personal invite from Dave himself to perform on The Late Show With David Letterman in New York. “It was really premature in my career, and I really didn’t know what I was doing,” he admits. “I was just a guy from Montana singing songs, and I got this huge platform. It’s my one shot, so I sang a song about my hometown called ‘Butte America.’ It got me in the newspapers in Montana and I went, ‘Wow, I made a headline! I met Dave there! I’m gonna go back and play some shows!’”

And while his Late Show performance indeed went well, it didn’t launch Montana to the next level. “I came off thinking I’m going to get all these calls from people, but that didn’t really happen,” he says. “So I had to keep working at it. I had to put out another record.”

Montana poured himself into his songwriting, which ultimately led to a worldwide publishing deal with the Spirit Music Group. And his honest work ethic finally paid off while he was in a Nashville studio working with noted producer Marshall Altman (Eric Paslay, Frankie Ballard, Marc Broussard). Montana’s fortunes turned due to the emergence of “This Beard Came Here to Party,” a song about the fun-leaning inclinations of having lengthy facial hair (that’s right!). “I remember it like it was yesterday,” Tim recalls. “It was September 11, 2013, and my mom called; she had just beaten breast cancer. A few minutes later, the studio door opens, and Billy Gibbons walks in with a guitar, and I’m like, ‘Holy … This is a really cool day!’ We ended up writing the song together, and we recorded it right on the spot. It was the first time I ever met him. He played guitar on it, and then he left. I kind of assumed that was the last time I was going to see him. And I went, ‘You know what? That was awesome. And if that’s all I get from that, then I’m grateful and happy. It was really cool I got to do that.’”

Due to some forward thinking behind the scenes, the song got into the hands of the Boston Red Sox, who made “This Beard” the team’s unofficial theme song in the midst of their successful 2013 World Series campaign. “It was immediate,” Montana grins. “It just happened so fast, and I wasn’t even ready! It was just a rough mix, but overnight, I was sent tickets to go sing The National Anthem at Fenway Park. At that point, before I got that call, I thought I knew The National Anthem, but I didn’t — and there was no way I was not going to know it! To this day, I can sing The National Anthem wherever, whenever — but that was scary.”

And who knows, “This Beard” may still have some additional growth in it yet. “Someone else could use it,” Montana concurs. “I think it’s a song that’s going to keep coming back. I mean, I don’t know if anybody else is aspiring to write beard songs,” he laughs. (You know, “This Beard” just might fit perfectly with any NHL team that has a “no shave” policy during an upcoming Stanley Cup Playoffs run…)

Montana has a deep connection with the military, and not just because he wanted to be a Navy SEAL growing up. (A severe leg injury prevented him from pursuing that particular dream.) In the “small world” column, the first DJ to play “Butte America” on country radio station 92.5 KAAR FM in Butte, Montana just happened to be Tom O’Neill, the brother of former Navy SEAL Team 6 member Rob O’Neill, the man who shot and killed international terrorist Osama Bin Laden during a raid mission in 2011. “I heard Tom announce 9/11 on the radio, and a few years later, he began sending my CDs to Rob over in Iraq and Afghanistan,” Tim notes. “Wherever Rob happened to be, he sent him my music. At the time, I had no idea who he was other than he’s Tom’s brother, he’s from Butte, and he’s a Navy SEAL. As soon as he got out of the military, he called me and he goes, ‘You’ve been sending me music for years, and now I want to help you.’ He comes back from doing what he did, and thanks me for the music I was sending him! It’s one of those weird full-circle things.”

Montana was also deeply moved by the movie American Sniper, the heroic yet tragic story of the late former Navy SEAL Chris Kyle. “It really got me,” he says. “Why did he have to die like that after doing all these huge things? How do you make sense of that? On the Internet, I saw there was going to be a Chris Kyle Memorial Benefit and Auction [May 1-3, 2015, in Fort Worth, Texas], and I just called the number and volunteered to play. I offered to show up to play for free, because I wanted to be involved and do something to help out.”

Tim also helped out with his idea to, in conjunction with guitar manufacturer Gibson, design a custom Chris Kyle Commemorative Les Paul Standard Special for the auction, meticulously making sure the guitar included the signature skull logo and American flag motif Kyle’s SEAL Team used in Iraq. The guitar sold for a whopping $117,500, and the proceeds went to Kyle’s Guardians for Heroes Foundation “to buy gym equipment and help returning soldiers with PTSD,” Montana confirms. “Later on, I got with Chris’ guys, and they’re all good dudes. I don’t know exactly what they go through, but I have a good idea about it, and I just try to help. They’re courageous, brave Americans. I was honored to hang out with those guys.”

Montana and his band have worked damn hard to get The Shrednecks where they are today, and he feels there’s nowhere to go but up. “I want people to know I’m the type of guy who grew up with nothing,” he notes. “I worked my ass off and got shut down and told ‘no’ so many times, but I pushed through, and I want to inspire people. If I can do it, you can do it.”

Ultimately, Montana’s music is the kind that connects with what the country is feeling — especially right now. “It’s real,” he says. “This music sounds like America. I think I encompass blue-collar, hard-working people. I support our soldiers and our veterans, and I like our freedom.”

You know, when you listen to Tim Montana and The Shrednecks, you’re not really in a Red State or a Blue State — you’re in a Red, White, and Blue State. Tim’s music serves as the soundtrack for each and every one of us — and that’s a thing we all can love.

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