'Neon Cross' Review: Queer queen of outlaw country Jaime Wyatt makes a bold statement on personal identity
These impeccably crafted slices of Americana are as personal as they are universal in impact
"Ultimately I'm going to die if I can’t be who I am." This is a statement that many of us stand by, often pledging our entire lives and professional personas to this noble ideal. To live a life unfettered by the aspirations and demands of others is a life of true artistic self-expression that enables us to fully experience all the freedoms that life has to offer. For singer-songwriter, Jamie Wyatt, the queer queen of outlaw country music, this realization marked a turning point in her rebirth and was the genesis of her latest musical offering 'Neon Cross'. The album was released last weekend via New West Records, just as this year's Pride Month, a celebration of the LGBTQIA+ community began in earnest in June 2020.
Having been put through the wringer of the music industry since she stepped into it in her talented teen years, Wyatt emerged from a chrysalis in her life as she wrestled with the turbulent hand that life dealt her. This included coming to terms with her past romantic relationships, substance abuse, personal losses (both her father and close friend died), and her own sexual identity. Her trysts with drugs and the law were the focal point of her 2017 release, 'Felony Blues'. Yet 'Neon Cross’ seems to draw upon everything else in her life, weaving personal triumphs and tragedies into a very intimate and emotionally compelling album.
"My experience with recovery made me realize I lost years of my life being in the closet and living a lie and trying to be someone else. I just can't do it anymore. I'm not, like, on the internet with flying rainbows," Wyatt quipped, before revealing, "I’m also basically coming out to the world with this record." The album 'Neon Cross' is consequently a triumphant, powerful and extremely personal outpouring for this young artist who has successfully conquered her demons. These 11 impeccably crafted slices of Americana are a musical testament to the eventful journey that Wyatt has been on, with the Grammy-award winning country star Shooter Jennings overseeing production duties.
The dreamy and atmospheric ‘Sweet Mess’ kicks off this album and has Wyatt singing a beautifully broken country love song to someone who, as the song title implies, is a sweet mess. She sings as a lover who looks on helplessly as the person she loves seems to make all the mistakes one could possibly make. "God bless you, sweet mess / You never see the little things before you / I guess that just like all the rest / I’ll be forgotten." The steel guitars and airy pianos build a lush dreamy atmosphere that borders on the psychedelic, with some sweet David Gilmour-esque licks on slide guitar adding to the heady mix.
The title track ‘Neon Cross’ is a triumphant romp of a song. Wyatt looks back at a life well-versed in misadventures and sings her verses with a devil-may-care air. "Running, I’ve been running all my life / I think it’s catching up / They’re gonna nail me to a neon cross," she declares. Wyatt draws on all parts of her life for this track, and this rousing and husky rendition is sure to make for repeated plays on the airwaves.
'L I V I N', a track that seems to have benefitted the most from Jennings' production talent, sees an interesting blend of different country styles and sounds poured into one song. This honky-tonk number sees Wyatt jokingly lament the hardships of life. "Heaven won’t you let me in / I promise I won’t break nothing," she sings with a glint in her eyes. The raucous, bouncing track 'Make Something Outta Me' is another song off this album that is primed for radio play. "It's the same old story about purgatory / Gotta let that money go / I was raised on heartache / So I like to suffer slow" she says. A perfect example of why she got crowned the queen of outlaw country music, Wyatt serves up a powerful and heartfelt track that is guaranteed to become a firm favorite with country music fans.
With ‘By Your Side’, Wyatt really lets the emotions flow. The singer candidly reveals she wrote this "after my dad died and my best friend overdosed, and I wasn’t able to show up for either of them because I was loaded". The song begins with an intro reminiscent of Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young and transcends into an aching ballad of helplessness, loss and remorse as Wyatt comes to terms with being such a let down to those who really needed her. It is a beautiful and personal track and Wyatt needs to be commended for the courage on display here. It is rare to see such raw vulnerability and intimacy in a song this well produced.
‘Just A Woman’ has Wyatt collaborating with fellow outlaw country artist Jessi Colter and is a slow, rambling song she wrote about her experiences of being a woman in the country music scene. "Show me a door that does not close once opened," she achingly reveals. Besides the dulcet harmonies, we also have the steel guitars returning to deliver an old-timey country feel. This song will definitely feature on plenty of feminist anthem playlists in the coming weeks.
‘Goodbye Queen’ is the perfect song to say goodbye with. Wyatt looks on imploringly at a love that she’s losing and sings that she’s okay with moving on. "We’re all searching for a paradise / Ain’t no trophy or no ribbon prize / Do my best to live it right." This is the perfect soundtrack to times when there seems to be no other choice but to be quiet and drive far away. This is Wyatt’s version of a fond farewell, similar to how Bruce Springsteen went through his paces on 'Bobby Jean'. With ‘Mercy', Wyatt delivers another achingly beautiful number, where she looks at everything she’s been through in life and now just has one fervent hope left — receiving mercy, with no judgment. Wyatt’s powerful voice is fragile with emotion as she puts forth her heart’s plea, looking for a better life amid her pain. "Now I tilt my head and thank you for the sadness / Then I lay my head on a bed full of stars." This is another gorgeous example of Wyatt’s ability to perfectly capture her vulnerabilities in the form of a well-written song.
Wyatt then offers up ‘Rattlesnake Girl', which may as well be her own personal theme song. With lyrics like, "I see my sweet friends out on the weekends, they all look happy and gay / They keep their secrets all covered in sequins, people have too much to say," Wyatt clearly finds herself increasingly out of place in the world. After coming out as a lesbian woman to her family and friends, Wyatt seems to be much more happier than most of us would be about not fitting in. She admits, "I mean, honestly, I don't feel like I fit in anywhere. But that’s fine. I wouldn't want to get too comfortable. Because as an artist, being unique is my greatest asset. So if I were to fall into a scene, I probably wouldn’t push myself to really make something that is captivating."
‘Hurt So Bad’, which also features the talents of Jennings, is a song about the aftermath of a failed relationship. Dealing with the painful abyss that heartbreak can bring, Wyatt playfully sings this fun and groovy number about the melancholy she finds herself in. Wyatt's knack to make a fun song about something this painful is what makes her such a great songwriter.
‘Demon Tied To A Chair In My Brain', is a great example of how contemporary songwriters can make country music sound both amazing and authentic. For a relatively young talent such as Wyatt, this song displays an immense sense of maturity and it is a masterful display of her talents. Bluesy, folksy and delivered with her gorgeous, powerful voice, this is a great album. ‘Neon Cross’ also happens to feature the last recorded performance of the beloved folk singer-songwriter Neal Casal, who died in August last year just as the album was nearing completion. In the wake of all these personal misfortunes and tragedies, Wyatt has stood her ground and created a compelling and powerful piece that is both a chronicle of her failings and the redemption that she rightly deserves as a brutally honest country artist of considerable talent.