Nashville-based country singer/songwriter Nikki Lane opens up her third album with a rousing, “Yippee-ki-yay.” That octave-jumping intro to “700,000 Rednecks” is more declamatory than symbolic, announcing not only her return after three years, but also a reaffirmation of her roots.
Lane grew up in Greenville, S.C., but moved to Los Angeles and later to New York to chase rock ‘n’ roll dreams. The songs from those two albums, 2011’s Walk of Shame and 2014’s All or Nothin’ are a little rowdier and reactionary, whereas Highway Queen represents a more focused retelling of the past few years.
As the so-called First Lady of Outlaw Country told us during a recent Paste Studio Session, “Highway Queen,” the song and the album, are descriptively autobiographical works. The title track thunders with deep percussion while Lane describes life on the road like a feminist, modernist version of Bon Jovi’s “Wanted Dead or Alive.” “60,000 miles of blacktop / Countless broken hearts between,” she sings before declaring, “You can tie her down with a Marlboro Light / But the highway queen don’t need no king”
The highpoints on Highway Queen illustrate Lane’s fierceness and penchant for Western themes. While the two aforementioned tracks excel in this, single “Jackpot” is the epitome of this combination—a rollicking number set to the tempo of cantering horses (or a revving Mustang, depending on if you ride a steel horse or not) that has all the attitude and imagery of Dolly Parton’s Vegas slot machines.
The rest of the songs on Highway Queen tend to lean one way or another, toward attitude or country tropes: “Big Mouth” captures the spirit of the former with big guitars and bold lyrics about someone needing to shut their trap-hole, while the closing “Forever Lasts Forever” is a pedal steel-lined breakup ballad that honors the genre faithfully. Even with a slower string of songs on the middle of Side B, Highway Queen shows Lane as a growing artist and burgeoning force for women in country music.