In an alt-country genre saturated with outlaw stories, Jaime Wyatt stands out for having lived one of her own. Her seven track EP Felony Blues represents the start of a second chapter in her recording career after the first ended with her arrest for robbery.
Wyatt’s stint in jail inspired two standout songs. “Stone Hotel” recounts her frustration with the courts and other inmates while finding time to appreciate “three free meals on the county bill.” “Wasco” is written from the perspective of someone in love with a prisoner. Wyatt also credits her difficulty finding a job with a felony record with having pushed her to work harder on her country music career. Bars don’t often run background checks on performers and having spent time in jail isn’t exactly a deal breaker for the ‘outlaw’ country stations most likely to play her music.
Elsewhere on the EP, Wyatt displays a modern sensibility when singing “Jesus is cool/but your loving saves me” along side guest vocalist Sam Outlaw and conjures up the surreal and celestial on “From Outer Space,” which essentially serves as an apology to a significant other she’s been distant from. Also notable is a powerful cover of Merle Haggard’s “Misery and Gin” brought about by a suggestion from original songwriter John Durrill. I had a chance to speak to Jaime for an upcoming episode of my radio show, Country Pocket on WUSB.
I signed a little record deal in Los Angeles when I was in high school. I started touring around, playing a lot of big shows and partying a lot and then everything collapsed. The music industry literally collapsed and I just felt terribly depressed. When Limewire came out it was a very depressing time for artists because nobody knew what to do. I had a song on the radio but no tour or support. Then I got another record deal and the same thing happened there except then I racked up a huge recording bill because they decided they didn’t want to follow through with their contract. I must have just had a mental breakdown. I was 20 years old and my drug use escalated to hard drugs. So in San Monica there are these rich kids that sell drugs and I robbed one of them. No gun, no weapons, but she had this money and we shook her down.
And that’s when you wound up in the stone hotel?
Some people get it confused but jail and prison are really different. What I had to do was fight this case and try not to go to prison because they wanted to send me to prison for six years but I fought the case for eight months in L.A. County Jail.
You offer a pretty good look into your mind while you’re in jail. In “Stone Hotel” there’s a little making light of what you’re going through and a little looking forward to what comes after.
That was basically the tale of how the case went and the sentiment for a lot of inmates. I was going through fighting this gnarly case and not knowing whether you’re going to go to prison for six years. You’re also in a place where it’s just such high tension and you’re treated like shit every day. You gotta keep your head up if you can. That was kind of the idea of Stone Hotel.
I’m glad it worked out reasonably well for you in the end.
Yeah, I got pretty lucky. I wish I would not have taken a felony strike. In California the strike law — it’s so stupid — if people get three strikes they get life in prison. But just having a strike, it’s so much harder to get off your record. It’s never gonna go away.
While you were in there you got the material for a couple of songs including “Wasco,” which wound up being one of the better tracks I’ve heard about prison romance.
What would that be though? Inter-prison romance? Because it’s between two different facilities. Yeah, that was my cellmate writing her husband-to-be up in Wasco.
Husband-to-be? Did it actually work out
Oh, I have no idea. I have no idea what happened to most everyone who I encountered in jail because they probably had to go serve terms and people are moved through housing units all the time. But I do wonder about that.
In the song, though, it sounds a little more like it’s coming from the perspective of a high school girl.
Maybe. I try not to expose too much about exactly what I meant on this one because there are so many different places I was coming from but I considered “graduation day” to be like getting out. Getting out for him, and then her graduating high school.
My perspective on it is life is so short, so whatever you feel in your heart, you gotta give that a try. Nobody gives us a road map when we’re thrown onto this Earth; I certainly didn’t have much guidance from my parents. I know people like that who hook up with convicts and might even be convicts themselves and I just don’t want people judging them anymore. And even hooking up with the bad boy. Who’s to say what comes out of that? It could be so positive in ways we don’t know.
I know someone in my life who met their significant other at rehab. My first reaction was to groan but in the end, they’re both clean.
Yeah, exactly. That’s a good story. It could go both ways but you just don’t know. People do things because of where they come from and we just do the best we can out here. Let them be in love. Who cares? I was stoked for my cellmate. I hadn’t even thought about marrying anyone. So I just thought, that’s cool.
And you got a chance to cover Merle Haggard. How much to folks like Merle and the songs they used to sing set in and around prison mean to you?
I really started digging into that stuff when I got out. I discovered that song “Branded Man” and really just the whole story of him being in San Quentin when Johnny Cash played and him turning him life around and being successful. Not only did he always stand up for working class people and farmers — my family, they’re Okies who settled in Bakersfield and San Fernando valley — but also he spoke for convicts with compassion. That song “Branded Man” is so well written and so accurate. We’re still branding people.
You portray an interesting relationship with religion on Felony Blues.“Wishing Well”s are preferred to mission bells on the first track and Sam Outlaw has a bit more power than Jesus on “Your Loving Saves Me.” That feels like quite a statement.
I didn’t really intentionally go at religion. Honestly. Maybe it just came out subconsciously in those songs. I’m not religious. I consider myself spiritual and that is a part of my life but I guess what I was saying is that anything can save you and keep you moving forward. The traditional ideas of religion and working a straight job and living a straight life is not for everyone and not the best for everyone.
Then on “From Outer Space” you strike at some very earthly relationship anxieties. I was wondering what your ‘outer space’ was?
That’s well said. I guess feeling not connected to the rest of the world. That could be a good or a bad thing. Out on the road it’s very hard to stay connected to a romantic relationship or even just friendships. You could come home and not even know who your friends are. Sometimes I was driving around playing gigs by myself and it would be pretty lonely. So you feel like you’re in orbit and not sure how to land.