Nikki Lane failed to tell Dan Auerbach she was a musician when they first met at a Nashville flea market. Fresh from leaving behind her high-profile fashion career in Manhattan, Lane was too busy selling vintage clothes for her shop, High Class Hillbilly. "I started doing High Class Hillbilly to pay my bills," the Greenville, S.C. native tells us during a tour pitstop at IHOP. "Something like the second month I was there, he walked in and bought the jacket off my back."
Even later when Lane and Auerbach met the second time, via her other gig as a GQ stylist, she still didn't plug her music. It wasn't until the Black Keys singer-guitarist heard Lane's first single off 2011's Walk of Shame, "Gone, Gone, Gone," that the subject of singing ever came up. Lane says, "I got a text from him out of the blue that just said, 'Um, you didn't tell me you were a musician. I just saw your video — you're really good. What's up?'" Summoning her sales know-how, a skill she picked up with her first job at a Simpsonville car dealership, Lane sailed right into her pitch, "'Nothing,'" she replied. "'Are you gonna make my next record?'"
That next record, produced of course by Auerbach, wound up being this year's All or Nothin', a collection of songs that sums up Lane's taste in vintage: a little bit of '50s, a lot of '60s, and a whole mess of country. With an honest Southern drawl and the melodic, simple spirit of Nancy Sinatra, Lane sings about cheap love ("Sleep with a Stranger"), good love ("I Don't Care"), and misbehaving ("Right Time"). On "Good Man," the influence of Phil Spector and Brian Wilson is crystal clear, while Auerbach joins Lane for a duet in "Love's on Fire," a song that cries with steel guitar and rejoices with organ echoes. The album is a wonderful balance of old and new, love and hate, and good and evil. And it's the perfect result of what Lane heard around the house growing up — her mama's Motown and her dad's '80s and '90s country.
All or Nothin' has taken Lane a long way from her humble Upstate beginnings. At 18 years old, she quit high school and headed to California for a new life. It was there that Lane immersed herself in dusty, old records. Nothing else seemed to resonate with her.
Five years after settling in L.A., Lane traded Rodeo Drive for Broadway, where she ran a high-end vintage retail store, launched a Swedish denim brand, and dreamed of designing her own label. But that plan went to hell when Lane started writing songs. "I happened upon getting a record deal," Lane explains. "I wasn't even trying to get a record deal. I made a record for fun, and someone offered me a deal just from word of mouth."
So Lane reconfigured life, packed her bags — and her little white dog, Tammy Faye Barker — and headed south.
And now with the release of Lane's sublime sophomore record, she's still soaring — this time more purposefully. In August, Lane performed on Conan. Five weeks ago, she made her Grand Ole Opry debut. Lane toured Australia and New Zealand with a few other Nashville Americana artists back in October. And last month, she and her band got to open for one of her heroes, Loretta Lynn.
"We were so excited and nervous," Lane remembers. "But I kept reminding the boys on the way there, 'Just remember, somebody's opened for Loretta Lynn every night ... of her life. She's probably not gonna make time for us.' And sure enough, as soon as the show was over I ran to where she was gonna be so I could at least shake her hand. And I was wondering, 'Is she gonna know who I am?' Because every magazine compares us."
And did Loretta Lynn know Nikki Lane? "Hell no," Lane says. "She doesn't know who I am. But she did think my bass player looked like Jack White. By the way, my bass player has red hair. He doesn't look like Jack White. He was just wearing a rhinestone suit I found him at a thrift store the day before."
Lane's take on country does indeed recall the sass and sweetness of Loretta Lynn. But it's Lane's unique style that has also earned her a spot amongst today's outlaw country elite. Once up on a time, guys like Waylon Jennings, Guy Clark, Hank Williams Jr., Townes Van Zandt, and Steve Earle were the ones coloring outside the lines of popular country music, becoming the pioneers of the outlaw movement that stretched from Texas to Tennessee. Today's Nashville outlaws are pretty much doing the same — making the music they want to make, ignoring current pop-country trends. But the new crew of outlaws also live in the same neck of the woods — east of the Cumberland River. The not-so-shiny East Nashville is the hipper side of town, appealing to art lovers and artists, music lovers and musicians. Lane, who lives right across the street from fellow outlaw Jonny Fritz, finds her inclusion in the mix to be flattering.
"You know, I'm happy to be called an outlaw now, because it separates me from [popular country] and gives me the ability to kind of create my own thing," Lane says. "But my long-term goal is to make people start calling those guys pop country and let us do the country thing. Because the truth is, the real people playing country music are Jonny Fritz and Sturgill Simpson and Josh Hedley and people that technically come from the east side. It's definitely a geographic thing, you know what I mean? Everybody's kind of in the same area doing what we're doing."
One thing that Lane is doing is studying the formula behind the hits, trying to make sense of the madness of country radio. But lyrical observations have led to frustration. She's noticed that today's pop-country songs are mostly about high school, mama, God, and being fat, and that ain't OK. In fact, Lane finds it rather insulting. "I think that even Middle America is smarter than that," Lane says. "My dad is from Ware Shoals, S.C., and I want to make a record that my friends like but also that my dad likes. My dad is smarter than the country music demographic seems to think he is. Those people have great taste in music, and I think what's gonna happen is hopefully, eventually, there'll be more money put into what I think are the real country artists. And people will like them as much as the pop-country artists — because they're liking what's being spoon-fed to them. They're liking what's in Starbucks and Target and Walmart, and eventually somebody's gonna put all of those outlaw country artists in those places, and they're gonna do just as well, I think."
For now, Lane and company are still making waves as they tour America and beyond, steadily spreading the outlaw country gospel and shaking the hands of legends. And Lane's still picking up gems from all over for her High Class Hillbilly shop, which is still around in pop-up form — sometimes it's even part of her merch whenever she headlines a show. So Lane didn't have to trade fashion for music after all.
But did she ever reckon she'd really land in Nashville slinging records?
"Hell no," Lane admits. "And that's the funny thing. I had gone to Nashville, and I'd talked about it, but my strategy was that I had to go to New York and L.A. and fail there first. I didn't end up having to fail, but I wasn't gonna leave the big city until I'd given it a proper try.
"But I was thinking about it the other day, and I was trying to dumb down the Loretta Lynn thing," Lane continues. "I wasn't trying to get too excited or overthink it. But then I thought about the fact that when I was 18 years old, what I doing was making out with boys at the Motocross track in Loretta Lynn's yard, but I wasn't listening to her music. I thought of the transition of the past 10 to 13 years, from putting in a lot of hard work to being able to open for her and shake her hand. Hard work really pays off, you know?"