When Nikki Lane burst onto the scene in 2014 with the Dan Auerbach-produced All or Nothin', her ragged, realistic spin on vintage country felt like a breath of fresh air. It was also years in the making.
Lane lived in various places around the country while pursuing a fashion career -- including a stint doing clothing design and working as a denim bar manager at a Fred Segal store in Los Angeles -- but started giving music a serious go after moving to Nashville. (Appropriately, she now owns a vintage store in Music City.) She released a Dave Cobb-produced debut (2011's Walk of Shame) but came into her own on All or Nothin'.
Although her 2014 album led to Lane being dubbed an heir to the outlaw country movement, her sound owes as much to Neko Case and Wanda Jackson -- not to mention the more tough-nosed moments of Tammy Wynette and even Loretta Lynn. Lane followed it up with 2017's Highway Queen, an album that's loose and true to her exuberant live show, from the sinewy twang of "Lay You Down" and the torchy, ragged ballad "Companion" to the honky-tonkin' "Jackpot."
"[On Highway Queen], I got to go in and have a strong opinion, and [co-producer Jonathan Tyler] helped mold my opinion and produced me in a way that he kept it sonically clear and kept it on target, but I was able to call some of the shots," she told The Boot in 2017. "And [I feel] the most proud [about releasing Highway Queen], because I had a say in how it started. Not what it becomes onstage next year, but how you'll hear it right now. I picked some of those things, and if you don't like 'em, that's on me; if you love 'em, that's on me, too."
Lane has a long career ahead of her, of course, but for the moment, these are The Boot's picks for her Top 5 songs.
"All or Nothin'"From 2014's 'All or Nothin''
The bluesy, organ-heavy title track of Lane's New West Records debut is deceptively simple. A meditation on taking risks and the big-picture consequences of accumulated life choices, "All or Nothin'" crests with these poignant lines: "The day will come and you'll be forced to choose / And you're gonna have everything to lose / But you'll take the path that will lead you home / 'Cause soon enough darling, it'll all be gone." As the song unfolds, psychedelic guitars and gospel harmonies give the song even more color.
"Big Mouth"From 2017's 'Highway Queen'
Lane switched gears for her second New West album, Highway Queen, and co-produced the project with Jonathan Tyler. "Jonathan was like, 'Let me invite some friends into the studio to play, and you tell us what you want, and let's see how it goes,'" Lane told The Boot in 2017. "We went down for a couple days and tracked two songs. I was like, 'Oh, this feels amazing.' Everybody was in it to win it. It was a bunch of young guys that weren't really studio musicians, so there was a lot of fresh energy in the studio." That's evident on the piano-aided, Rolling Stones-esque boogie "Big Mouth," a song condemning harmful rumors and innuendo that hews closer to Lane's freewheeling live shows.
"700,000 Rednecks"From 2017's 'Highway Queen'
A classic road song about criss-crossing the nation playing music and winning over fans one by one, the coiled-rattlesnake desert twang of "700,000 Rednecks" embodies Lane's ethos: hard work, hard-nosed country and a steely, take-no-guff attitude.
"Right TIme"From 2014's 'All or Nothin''
The kickoff track of All or Nothin' asserts its penchant for rebellion, starting with the first verse: "It's always the right time to do the wrong thing." From there, Lane ticks off some harmless fun -- including asking Willie Nelson for a toke and trying out a fancy car left idling at a country club - -and assures a partner-in-romantic-crime that she's always up for light mischief. Throw in her twangy drawl, prickled pedal steel and horns, and some crunchy guitars, and this song feels a lot like Lane's mission statement.
"Jackpot"From 2017's 'Highway Queen'
Lane went to Las Vegas to shoot the video for "Jackpot," which is appropriate: The brisk, dizzying twang-rocker uses gambling-heavy imagery to describe landing the love of her life. When she rips into the rollicking chorus, "Viva Las Vegas / Atlantic City rendezvous / Weekend in Reno, late night casino / I'll go anywhere with you," the unfettered glee she exudes is infectious and palpable.