Highway Queen Nikki Lane is Staying True to her Roots
The highway queen cruises the swell of blacktop across the bucking plains of big sky country. There’s a warm chinook a-blowin’ and it melts the spring thaw into little streams that become braided brooks that become trout-filled rivers that shave perilous canyons dividing the plains smack-dab in the middle. And on those plains there are cattle being driven by modern cowgirls.
This is the land that singer-songwriter Nikki Lane, the Highway Queen, likes riding best. In two years, the Queen has covered over sixty-thousand miles and played over four hundred ‘outlaw country’ shows for her fans whom she’s affectionately dubbed her “700,000 Rednecks.”
“I don’t mean it as a derogatory word,” Lane says, laughing during a brief visit in Los Angeles before beginning her autumn tour, “I come from a country, four-wheel-riding heritage.” As she says it, I can hear the underlyings of those origins: a South Carolina accent now muddled with the riotous laughter of a Nashville-living, rockabilly starling. A starling that will zig-zag her way across the country, again, from the honky-tonks of Pioneertown to the rowdy metropolises of Louisville and Atlanta to promote her upcoming third album, Highway Queen.
“I created the moniker—Highway Queen—so that I can survive touring,” she tells me enthusiastically. “I talk about quitting all the time. It gets to be incredibly tiring being on the road so often. Sometimes I just don’t feel like I can do another show.”
She tells me about her fans—the ones that drive six hours and hire babysitters so they can kick the dust and punch the carpet during a Nikki Lane shindig. Personable as all getout, Lane does her best to meet fans after shows. “Some of them,” she says endearingly, are, “a bunch of drunks who might try to slap me on the ass.”
Bless their dust kickin’, ass grabbin’ hearts.
“Sometimes Nikki can’t handle them, but the Highway Queen? She can go out there with those fans and take another shot of tequila and laugh with them, but once the Highway Queen gets back to the house, Nikki comes out.”
Another trait of the Highway Queen from the song with the same title: she’s fiercely independent. “You can tie her down you can bottle lightnin'/ But the highway queen don’t need no king.”
She does, however, need a nice pair of boots and a bedazzled western glam suit complete with cowboy portrait stitching. And her bandmates, well, they need their suits rhinestoned as well, and she needs a ruffle-wearing woman on piano, fanning herself to the beat. The scene described is from her most recent Conan O’Brien appearance performing her song “Jackpot,” sung in high celebration—“Viva Las Vegas/ Atlantic City rendezvous/ Weekend in Reno late night casino/ I’ll go anywhere with you.”
“I’d like to think that I inspired this,” Lane tells me after describing a Coach storefront display in NYC that featured cacti and western inspired wear, “I’d like to feel that they are finally wising up to all the girls running around playing cowgirl.” A smile cracks on her face. Behind her is a custom made Havstad she brought personally for the photo shoot. She tells me of a few other western garments she brought with her, each a gem of the Highway Queen’s cramped tour bus closet.
Even when she doesn’t have room, she still stops in vintage clothing stores across middle America, plucking the rowdiest, most rodeo-glam, cowgirl-chic wear from the racks, which she re-prices and sells at her store, High Class Hillbilly, in her home city of Nashville, Tennessee. The website is loaded with fringed buckskins, matte vests, and a sequin slit skirt I have my eye on.
No, the Queen does not sleep. She is too busy doing it all. And she has been for a long time, starting her career in manufacturing and fashion, “I spent all this time forging skillsets. Learning how to make and sell things. How to build a photoshoot and break it down, how to work with publicists, photographers, and brands,” she says. “I didn’t dream of being a singer, but I’ve trained to deal with the business of being one.”
There are staunch, hopeful singers who pray for a sliver of Lane’s success. Surely, they may be bitter that Lane fell into music so innately—after all, it was just a fun hobby on the side of her career. It isn’t her fault, though, that she has vocals that have been compared to the original country doyennes: Emmylou Harris and Loretta Lynn. But Lane’s is more rebellious, more stick ‘em up: after all, she’s the queen of outlaw country, a sub-genre that’s seen recent ascendence under the expanding umbrella of Americana.
“Old Crow Medicine Show, Mumford & Sons, and Sturgill Simpson opened the floodgates for our genre to prosper. People have always been interested in it, but the music industry has just turned the spotlight on it because it turns out people want real lyrics that they identify with.”
It’s the colloquialisms, the simple metaphors and similes, the reminders of the vast natural landscape, and the old-timer sentimentalities that allow us to resonate with every lyric. It’s the great blue yonder that Lane looks out into in her song “Send the Sun,” singing, “Out there in the West/ Darlin’, I swear I love you best.”
Under that too-big sky Lane wakes her lover with a “dawn full of golden rays,” a lover I could only assume is one of those range riders on the plains cut by the river that was brooks and streams and snow melted by a Northwesterly chinook blowing in from spring.
Written by Miles Griffis
Photographed by Dani Brubaker
Video Directed by Matt Gadsby
Hair: Dritan Vushaj
Makeup: Paul Blanch
Styled by Soaree Cohen
Thumbnail/Homepage image credit: VALENTINO dress, PS KAUFMAN shoes, STETSON hat, and HOUSE OF EMMANUELE ring.