Altogether herself: The surreal and sober journey of country maven Jaime Wyatt

Jaime Wyatt
Courtesy of Magdalena Wosinska

The first time Jaime Wyatt cracked open a beer in the woods at 9 or 10 years old — “Miller Genuine Draft, and it tasted like the can itself,” she adds — she didn’t plan on becoming an addict.

The Ties That Bind UsLike most of her peers in recovery, that was never on any sort of personal or professional bucket list. For Wyatt, however, the possibility was always there, looming on the existential horizon like an unfulfilled family curse she might one day grow up to inherit.

“Growing up, my dad was an alcoholic, and I remember going to 12 Step meetings with my father,” she told The Ties That Bind Us recently. “I had a strong feeling early on that I would have a problem — I was just hoping I would be able to control and manage it, that I could prolong it and get to enjoy my drinking and using maybe a little longer than my dad did.”

“Enjoy,” of course, is a relative term, and by the time she realized that the slow, inexorable plod into the dark night of the soul that is addiction was a one-way trip, it was too late to turn back. And because addiction is an emotional, psychological and spiritual ailment that involves so much more than simply putting down drugs and alcohol, even when she wanted to turn back, leaving that darkness behind became too terrifying to contemplate.

After all, there’s comfort in familiarity — even when the familiar is a cocoon of misery.

“The first time I drank that beer in the woods, I loved it. It was a release,” she said. “That physical discomfort I always had, it was relieved when I took that drink. I was really, really shy and really nervous growing up, just very cautious of people, and there was a lot of chaos in my family. My mom and dad had very vocal fights, and I just felt like I didn’t fit in, and that my home life wasn’t very secure.”

Jaime Wyatt and the power of music

Jaime Wyatt

Courtesy of Magdalena Wosinska

Security, as it turns out, is a fleeting thing, and for Wyatt, it’s often dependent on the maintenance of her spiritual condition. That’s not to be conflated with religion, because despite the title of her most recent album on New West Records — “Neon Cross” — she’s much more comfortable carousing with the sinners than she is draping herself in the austere trappings of piety. Although she hails from the Pacific Northwest rather than the hills of Kentucky, Wyatt’s voice sits somewhere in a sweet spot between Emmylou Harris and Loretta Lynn, and just as the latter sang of Southern hardships and navigating the male-dominated country music industry, so too does Wyatt write with a visceral honesty about who she was and who she’s becoming.

“With ‘Felony Blues’ (her 2018 record), I really tried to change myself and shape myself, and even the recordings were packaged to filter a lot of that so I could be accepted in mainstream country,” Wyatt said. “When that didn’t happen, I just said, fuck it — they’re going to alienate me either way, so I’m just going to be my whole, true self and put it all out there. The vocals are going to be more raw, and I’m going to try and make a record that sounds like the emotional desperation I’ve felt for a lot of years.”

The fuel for the fiery sounds of “Neon Cross” are a soupçon of the sounds that have shaped her musical worldview since childhood, when her singing, songwriting parents — modestly successful by the standards of the industry, in many ways on the same level as Wyatt finds herself these days — introduced her to performances by artists like the Grateful Dead, Neil Young and Booker T. and the M.G.’s, among others.

“I saw Bonnie Raitt once and got to meet her when I was 5, and that really made an impression on me,” she said. “Maybe it was that I saw a woman doing it, and that meant it was possible that I could do it, because not only was she singing but playing the guitar very well. Or, it might have been as simple as she was wearing cowboy boots, and I’ve worn cowboy boots every day since I was very little.”

As a kid, she was drawn to the harmonica, she said, and played it incessantly. By the time she was 5 or 6, her folks bought her a starter guitar — an electric Fender Duo Sonic that she still owns. Until the age of 12, she mostly beat around on it and made up silly childhood songs, but by her teens, she had begun to teach herself chords and melodies. (She also, she added, took classical piano lessons and made her parents a deal — if she got good enough to perform at a certain recital, they would buy her a skateboard. She did, and they did, but while her modest skateboarding skills were a fad, she’s come back around and is now composing some “trippier piano stuff” as the anchor sounds of post-“Neon Cross” material.)

“I definitely always followed the influences that my parents gave me, and that was like an identity in our family, like folk and country and Americana and straight-up rock ‘n’ roll,” Wyatt said. “That was firmly embedded, and I loved it, because it was something that joined us as a family. My middle name is Wyatt, so may parents named me Jaime Wyatt on purpose, because they wanted me to be a country singer.”

The exotic appeal of deadly things

Courtesy of Magdalena Wosinska

Although country music is her wheelhouse, and Wyatt’s penchant for vintage clothes, cowboy boots and a fine-looking hat are matched only by her ability to belt out a honky-tonk stomper or croon a last-call weeper, her path to get to where she is today was a meandering one. As a teen, she worked in horse barns around her hometown of Tacoma, Washington, where ’90s country often filled the stalls as she took care of the animals.

“I loved that, because it was so easy to sing along to, and I loved the stories in the songs,” she said.

A cousin turned her on to the grunge that was exploding out of Seattle at the time, and she also stumbled onto classic rock, through both her parents and the journey of self-discovery that every music lover undertakes as a teen, making and trading mixtapes with family members and classmates who shared her interests.

“I was just always pursuing music and bonding with other people through music,” she said.

As her tastes for music evolved, however, so too did her penchant for substances. By the time she was in high school, she said, she was getting blackout drunk regularly and suffering from occasional bouts of alcohol poisoning. That led to a longtime love affair with weed, which she smoked regularly from the age of 14 on, and an attempt to self-regulate. At first, she stuck to the “organics” — marijuana and mushrooms. But Ecstasy became an occasional indulgence, and after graduating high school, cocaine found its way into the rotation as well.

“All along the way, I really felt like I needed something else to feel like everyone else did,” she said. “I I never felt like everyone else, and I thought I had to have something different. And even though I knew there was a problem, I was like, ‘What else is there? I need something! I won’t be able to make it in life, or I won’t be able to get out of bed, or I’ll be totally depressed.’”

Shortly after high school, she moved to Los Angeles and signed a deal with Lakeshore Records, but by that point, her desperation for success, combined with her growing drug and alcohol problem, meant that whatever she did accomplish never felt like enough.

“I broke all of my own rules, and the disease progressed despite my best efforts to control it,” she said. “all of the different substances I thought I’d never do, like heroin … then saying I was only going to smoke it … and then the day came when I shot up. I’m really, really lucky, in that I only shot up for a week, but I overdosed, or at least fell out, every single time.

“But I wanted to keep going and going, because I really didn’t feel like I had a future. I felt totally lost, like I had no support, and I got myself into bad deal after bad deal. It just didn’t feel like I was good at anything else.”

Jaime Wyatt gets sober: Round one

Jaime Wyatt

Courtesy of Magdalena Wosinska

In 2007, things came to an abrupt end when, at 20 years old, she decided to rob her heroin dealer. She had been up for several days, using crack and heroin at the time, and felt justified in her actions.

“I credit crack with giving me the balls, but it turned out to be a terrible idea!” she said with a laugh. “It turns out it’s illegal to rob anyone, even if they’re a heroin dealer!”

She overdosed shortly after that misadventure and woke up in the hospital. Charged with home invasion, she spent almost a year in the Los Angeles County Jail.

“That got me in the doors of recovery,” she said. “At 21 years of age, I started my journey, and I stayed clean for seven years.”

Relapse, she concedes, is part of her story — not because the 12 Step recovery program didn’t work, but because there were issues she didn’t address during those seven years.

“I credit my relapse completely to being really uncomfortable with my sexual identity,” she said. “I had relationships with women when I was on heroin, but when I got clean, I attributed that as a behavior that I acted out on while under the influence. When I got clean that first time, I was really trying to be a ‘good’ girl.

“I thought I had shamed my family, shamed myself and done a really bad thing — and gotten a felony to prove it. So here I was, in my early 20s, thinking I was bi(sexual), and it was just something I’d never act on again in sobriety. But while I was going to therapy and going to (recovery) meetings and sponsoring and being sponsored and doing the whole deal, I was still very, very unhappy.”

In rural Washington, she pointed out, she grew up as a sheltered girl who felt out of place once she moved to Los Angeles. In the city’s openly gay community, she saw a place she longed for — one of acceptance and individual expression, but the women who occupied the seats of power in the genre of music to which she aspired to be a part of were mostly heterosexual starlets whose sex appeal was part of their marketing package.

That tug-of-war between her true self and the person she thought others wanted her to be cost her dearly, and after seven years, she picked up again to assuage the pain of feeling torn between two worlds.

“The world I was trying to be in was pretty hetero, and I didn’t see anyone who looked like me, and I didn’t feel strong enough in myself,” she said. “I discovered my sexuality, but in trying to reject it, I got loaded again, because even though I was being in my own skin — being out, going to bars, being gay — it was a little much for me.”

The siren song of substances whispered that familiar lie: “We provide the solace you crave.” Wyatt faltered and found herself once again in the position of starting over.

Jaime Wyatt gets sober: Round two

Courtesy of Magdalena Wosinska

It wasn’t a long run that time — after seven years of sobriety, the coat of misery that’s part of addiction didn’t fit as comfortably as it once did.

“When I’m in the cycle, I don’t like my feelings, so I get loaded, but the feelings are there as soon as I come down or run out of money or do something stupid,” she said. “That’s why I have a lot of gratitude, and I never want to relapse again, because it’s so gnarly. I learned that going back out: It started with alcohol, and I was drinking from morning to night, around the clock. I ended up on methamphetamine really bad, and benzos, just trying to stay away from opiates. It was really awful, and I tried to come back, but it took several rehabs, including leaving a few still in a blackout.”

Over the years, she’s been to drug and alcohol treatment at least seven times, because like so many of her peers, once the switch is flipped, professional help is required for her to stop. That revolving door cycle isn’t the sum total of her story, however, and she’s adamant that for anyone else who similarly suffers, it doesn’t have to be, either.

They, like Wyatt, can make the decision to cease and desist. For her, surrendering her will and her life back over to a recovery program became not only the way out of pain, but the way forward into that true version of herself she longed to occupy.

“It became clear that if I do not be my whole true self, unapologetically, I will die, or I will live in obscurity somewhere on the streets, so far from myself and living in purgatory,” she said. “I found out that feeling like a fraud and not being my true self in every way, shape or form, would only help me destroy myself. I had to actually be my full self, be gay, actually be OK with it, and to be OK with other people not accepting who I am or questioning if I really am gay.

“And honestly, that has been a process, and writing this record was a huge part of that process. A lot of things I write are encouragement for others, but this record was encouragement for myself. It was expelling the demons by letting them speak and really exploring that dark, dark self-hatred and writing about it — writing about my disdain for life, my self-pity, my self-obsession and making fun of those things.

“I hammer on myself by including a little bit of poetry but a lot of cleverness in my lyrics, and when I get there, I feel so great, like the pain is worth it,” she added. “It feels like I made something beautiful out of the pain.”

A big and beautiful 'Neon Cross'

And she has: “Neon Cross” is a no-holds-barred, unflinching look at the scarred-but-beautiful soul of a woman who’s not yet where she wants to be but damn sure isn’t where she once was. And even though the sorrow, which is splayed across those tracks like tearstains from 35 years of a deep soul ache, is plentiful, the gratitude that colors the margins of those 11 tracks is greater.

“But if God made the world out of nothing, why can't he make something outta me?” she sings on one of the songs, a lamentation of all that could have been but a celebration of all the things that might be, if she only continues to walk the path that’s laid out before her. It’s an album made possible by a band that’s been by her side since before her relapse and by producer Shooter Jennings, son of Waylon, who took the blueprint for “Neon Cross” and made sure Wyatt stayed true to it, she said.

“Shooter would go with certain takes or do something a particular way, and I had to let him steer us away a little, which is good,” she said. “Just like in my program, I picked the guys who produced this record, and I wasn’t going to control this thing into something that was sterile. Part of letting go was letting the players play and letting the producers produce, and then he would do things like want to keep the first vocal takes, the early ones that were more raw.

“That was scary to me to be less censored, less filtered, but he wanted to hear that emotional desperation. He knew I was expressing a lot of pain, and that it was important to hear it that way. He’d also heard me play live, and he heard the way ‘Felony Blues’ started more raw and was built out and played up.”

Much of the material on “Neon Cross” is drawn from the work she’s put into this leg of her recovery journey — meetings she’s attended, Steps she was working on, speaker tapes she listened to. But the sound, she added, was crafted meticulously and sculpted from the classic country records she and Jennings listened to together while on tour, as well as session players he recommended they bring in to fill in the studio margins. The genius of “Neon Cross” is that even though it’s a record drawn from Wyatt’s experiences, expressed by her words and built piecemeal by a master studio craftsman, it’s searingly authentic — in exactly the same way Wyatt herself strives to be these days.

“Before, I was trying to be accepted. Now, I feel accepted, and I just wanted to be as emotive as possible,” she said. “Instead of asking, ‘Should I say that?’ I’m now saying, ‘Definitely I should say that.’”

And that, she adds with a laugh, is next-level stuff —both personally and professionally. That her two paths dovetail so lovely on “Neon Cross” is one of those serendipitous gifts from the universe that lets Wyatt know that if she does tomorrow what she’s done today, things are going to work out alright.

Jaime Wyatt: More will be revealed

Jaime Wyatt

Courtesy of Magdalena Wosinska

That doesn’t mean she’s arrived, not by any means. Recovery, it’s often said, is about the journey rather than the destination, and if there’s one thing her vast and colorful experiences have taught her, it’s that complacency is dangerous, and that work on the self is always ongoing.

“It’s something I still work on with my sponsor daily, especially when it comes to self-talk,” she said. “I have to choose my words carefully, eliminating certain words from my vocabulary when I talk about others, because therefore they will be eliminated when I talk about myself. I’m always talking about the self-care stuff, and how recovery is a program of service, because if I’m not whole, I have nothing to offer others.”

And that’s hard sometimes: For a woman who didn’t love herself very much for years, and then didn’t know who she was supposed to be for several more, self-acceptance is difficult at times, she added.

“I’ve got to be kind to myself and really learn to love myself, and that’s really hard,” she said. “I don’t know if the first time around, I truly got that. I never got to the point where I was really that comfortable by myself, but now I am.”

That’s come about through positive affirmations, meditation and exploring the emotions that blow through her mental landscape, unbidden sometimes. It’s come about through opening herself up to others, both personally and professionally. And it’s come through music, which continues even as COVID-19 has shut down the music industry and curtailed tour plans to promote “Neon Cross.”

“I’m still writing, and I’m continually looking at and listening to what works, and where my emotional gauge is moving,” she said. “I’m also woodshedding and playing more piano, and I just got a drumkit to express myself and explore at my house, and it feels really good. Whatever I do next, it’s going to be just me — which can be very classic outlaw country, or very much an abomination to country!

“I’m in a really good place, and I’ve been exploring some other aspects of 12 Step work, this time on trauma. It’s inner child work, which sounds lame, but it’s good. It’s self-care, and that’s what I need. I’m just trying to be as humble as I can and as loving as I can, especially toward myself.”