When Nikki Lane was in eighth grade in Greenville, South Carolina, her basketball coach approached the chalkboard and scribbled “Complacency Kills” for her and her fellow middle-schoolers to digest. It lit a fire under the future country singer.
“Oh, that just burned me,” Lane tells Rolling Stone. “I grew up broke. I wanted money. I didn’t want to stress my mom. [From that moment], it was, ‘We’ll figure it out, just keep going.’”
And go and go and go. A day before Lane’s 39th birthday last month, the country singer-songwriter tore through an afternoon set at the Rebels & Renegades Music Festival in Monterey, California.
Nursing a hangover from opening for Midland the night before at the Greek Theatre in Los Angeles, Lane had three drinks near her feet onstage — shot of tequila, cup of coffee, bottle of Coca-Cola. Not to mention, lighting up two joints at once that were tossed her way from the crowd.
“You’ve got to just push ahead, and make sure the work is honest and fulfilling,” Lane says following the performance. “And make sure you carry yourself as a good person, too — that’s all you can really ask for.”
On her latest album, Denim & Diamonds (New West Records), Lane paired up with Queens of the Stone Age leader Josh Homme as producer to record at his California studio. What resulted is a raw and real offering at the crossroads of outlaw country, classic rock, and seductive pop — the location Lane has been targeting from various angles since she first burst onto the national scene with 2014’s All or Nothin’, produced by the Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach.
All or Nothin’ and its follow-up, 2017’s Highway Queen, were heavy on freewheeling, outlaw songs that rocked and grooved but also made it easy to miss the complexity in Lane’s artistry. She’s rowdy, yes, but she’s also able to communicate deep sensitivity and even resilience in her writing, along with the contradictions of being an avowed wild card. Listen to “Born Tough,” a Denim & Diamonds track in which she proudly sings about filing for divorce by the age of 29, then admits it’s “hard not to cry, so I have a thousand times.”
“I want to be free to do what I want. When I [recently] saw a mosh pit, I was like, ‘I’m not going in there.’ Eight minutes later, I’m in the air — that’s the feeling I seek,” Lane says. “That’s why I wanted to play music. I always thought of myself as a spectator. But then at some point, I needed to release my own feelings, and that came out in a melody.”
Backstage at the festival, Lane rushes up to the night’s headliner Cody Jinks, who watched Lane’s entire performance. They’re old road buddies and Jinks suggests he and Lane record a duet together. He digs her showmanship and her attitude, especially as it relates to touring.
“I’m one of the last generation that gets on the road and just goes. That’s me and Nikki,” Jinks says later on his tour bus. “We didn’t make it on TikTok and Instagram, we got in a van and [hit the road]. The road dogs will still win at the end of the day.”
“Who the fuck is going to tell Nikki Lane what to do? This many people,” Jinks adds, making a zero with index finger and thumb.
Leaving Jinks’ bus and making her way across the festival grounds to a set of bleachers, Lane is spotted by handfuls of fans. One young woman sprints over, asks for an autograph and a selfie, and tells Lane, “I wish I had a joint to give you.” Lane smiles and reaches into her bra, emerging with a joint of her own. “Well, shit,” she says, handing it to the woman, “let’s just switch the narrative.”
Lane’s endless curiosity and fearlessness within social settings is contagious. She sparks as many joints as conversations, takes a sip of bourbon when offered, and greets every fan with a smile or a laugh. She admits it can be exhausting, but enjoys playing the gregarious rebel.
“It’s easier to go out there and give out Nikki Lane than it is to talk about Nicole Frady, you know?” she says.
Nicole Lane Frady was raised in South Carolina by her mother in a single-parent household, an apartment complex to be exact. There was never enough money to go around and her mom worked hard to just live from paycheck to paycheck. Lane forged relationships well outside her age group.
“All my friends were like 83 when I was in third, fourth grade, because I would just walk around the apartment complex and buddy up with people,” she says. “One lady I’d help clean out her bird cage.”
Being around older folks as a kid explains some of Lane’s old-soul tendencies and the lens through which she views the universe. Her biggest influence, her grandfather Rex Frady, remains a muse.
“He hung the moon for most of us girls in the family,” Lane says. “He had a great work ethic and he was very kind. He’d hide and smoke cigarettes from my nanny, and he snored like a bear, all these defining characteristics.”
With old country music echoing from the car stereo, Lane’s grandfather would drive her to flea markets and antique shops around South Carolina, an environment where she met even more interesting characters. Those trips with Rex ignited Lane’s lifelong obsession with vintage clothing, trinkets, and fashion, a hobby that ultimately led to her opening her own boutique, High Class Hillbilly, in Nashville.
Rex died just a few days before Denim & Diamonds was released. His obituary reads, “He was proud of his granddaughter Nicole and how her music career had taken off and loved seeing magazine articles and watching her music videos.”
“I feel like, ultimately, I’m very successful in spite of him, because he had an expectation of where I would go to school, and what I would do in order to be successful,” Lane says. “By the time he passed away, he was probably most proud of the things I had done because they do mirror his — this nonstop work ethic.”
As far back as Lane can remember, she’s been a hustler. Lane was constantly working to provide, whether it was a new pair of shoes or outfit her mother couldn’t afford, or a life of her own beyond the apartment complex.
“I got my first job when I was 10, [bringing] a wagon around the apartment complex and taking people’s trash down to the cans,” Lane chuckles. “I worked as a telemarketer, and as a bartender [as a teenager]. I wasn’t lying about my age because I’d just roll in and never put down a [birth] year [on the employment application].”
When she was 17, Lane dropped out of high school right before Christmas break. She had hopes of making it in the fashion world, but found herself struggling to make ends meet in New York City and Los Angeles. In between, Lane unknowingly germinated a music career, scribbling down haphazard poems as a way to deal with a brutal breakup.
“I was living above this coffee shop [in L.A.], and this guy who worked at the shop, he came upstairs a few times with a guitar and we just played — him on guitar, me singing the poems I’d written,” Lane says.
Lane had sung in the ninth-grade chorus and the church choir back in South Carolina, but she never really saw herself in the spotlight, thanks to a case of stage fright. At least until the coffeeshop guitarist persuaded her to play some of her songs at an L.A. art gallery. The performance bug bit Lane hard.
On this Monterey afternoon, she’s happy for these glances in the rearview mirror. She’s one more year closer to 40 tomorrow — Oct. 17 — and Lane is feeling contemplative.
“Your twenties are for going wild, your thirties are for reflecting and, hopefully, by your forties you got it,” Lane says. “But I don’t think there’s a timeline for anything. For my peer group, [your forties] becomes a time to reflect, a time to identify.”
Getting up from her seat on the bleachers, Lane heads down the old concrete steps and onto the dirt floor of the original Monterey Pop venue. She scans the property, taking in all the musical history that took place under her boots, but also thinking about how her story will continue to unfold — the many chapters of her unique, hard-fought life yet to be written.
“There’s a lot of my characteristics that are positive or negative that aren’t going away,” Lane grins. “The best thing I can do is harness them for good, and to just keep going — you can’t fail if you don’t quit trying.”