Authenticity is the beating heart at the center of good country music, defining the careers and music of folks like Merle Haggard, Johnny Cash, Emmylou Harris, Iris DeMent, Willie Nelson, and so many other outlaws of the genre. When a country artist sings stories of wild honky-tonks, hard-luck loners, highways stretching off into the horizon, we want to believe that they not only talk the talk, but walk the walk.
Hailing from Greenville, South Carolina, Nikki Lane feels like the real deal. Lane makes the kind of music that tends to euphemistically get called “alt-country,” which really just means that it reaches back to the raw, unvarnished country of the '50s, '60s, and '70s, before pop got a hold of it and smoothed all of its edges. 2017's Highway Queen crackles with verve and vitality, led by Lane's confidently swaggering vocals and ease with a turn of phrase.
Across 10 songs, Highway Queen shows the many facets of Lane's personality, beginning with the strutting “700,000 Rednecks,” leading into the defiant title track (whose refrain of “Highway Queen don't need no king” makes for a good mission statement for the album), both of which showcase Lane as being utterly in control. But, Lane isn't afraid to be vulnerable, as on the swooning, doo-wop-flavored “Companion,” which finds Lane evoking the world-weary romanticism of Peggy Lee.
While her music eschews the poppier tropes of modern country, there's a timelessness to Lane, perhaps best exemplified on “Lay You Down,” which seamlessly blends her classicist tendencies with an anthemic stride that would feel at home on any contemporary indie rock album. By refusing to be rigidly traditional, Lane distinguishes herself from the hordes of cover bands playing barrooms around the country, while also not coming off like a tourist in the country scene.
It's a neat balancing act, and part of what makes Lane such a singularly enthralling singer-songwriter. Even people who might usually describe themselves as country-averse will find themselves pulled in to Nikki Lane's gravitational pull, unable to resist her mixture of punchy barn-burners and starlit ditties.