“I didn’t totally take it seriously at first,” says Slick. “Like, who is this guy booking and cancelling sessions? I hope he’s OK. But I knew getting the right people onboard to make a record can be like herding cats.”
Singer-songwriter and producer Walker had been hearing about Rayland Baxter for years. “Bucky is a cool, wise man. He’d tell me about his son when we’d be out drinking,” he says. “He was biased, of course, but I knew Rayland was a local favorite around town.”
The two finally met backstage at the famous Ryman Auditorium while playing Dylan Fest Nashville in 2017. They exchanged niceties, phone numbers and a mutual interest to work together, says Walker.
Baxter remembers it a bit differently: “I was with [singer-songwriters] Shakey Graves and Elle King. We’d all taken acid and put on lipstick and dresses to play Dylan covers. I met Butch backstage, and he said he liked my songs. I said, ‘Oh, cool, but I’m tripping right now so I’ll have to get back to you!’”
The next morning, Baxter reasoned that the all-star producer was just being friendly.
“I figured he didn’t have the time and I didn’t have the budget. I asked if he knew any younger producers who could work for a smaller fee,” he says. “Butch responded immediately: ‘I’m very good at my job.’ So I sent him the songs.”
“They were like Elliott Smith and Jerry Garcia smoking pot with Gerry Rafferty,” says Walker. “I knew we could take this AM-gold rock sound, and the Dead, and roll it into one big, awesome package.”
Baxter did his research and nearly got cold feet. “Butch has the strangest discography: Fall Out Boy, Taylor Swift, Katy Perry. I was thinking: ‘Oh, shit.’ But I knew my songs were pop songs. Verse, chorus, bridge—mapped out. And he knows how to make that shit thump.”
Along with keyboardist Aaron Embry, the newly formed band descended on Walker’s Santa Monica studio, having never before played together. All five musicians—Walker played bass in addition to serving as the record’s producer—ate dinner with Walker’s family that Sunday evening.
On Monday morning, they got to work.Walker set a casual, easygoing tone from the start. (“Nothing formal here—I don’t have a receptionist or a deli tray,” he says.) Baxter would choose the song to hash out and begin strumming.
“We’re all sitting behind our instruments, softly and slowly coming in to the song,” says Walker.
“We’d look at each other and start smiling; we knew it was gelling.”“It felt like a superhero team had just been instantly created,” remembers Baxter.
“Nick didn’t know Aaron. And none of us really knew Butch. But we all just clicked. It was the dream team, right away.”
The group knocked out the rollicking, Beatles-esque singalong “Hey Larocco” on the first day.
“That’s the sound of everyone meeting each other,” says Bockrath.
They laid down a few songs a day for a week, took the weekend off, came back and did it again.
“We were drinking a lot of smoothies and eating figs. It was one of the healthiest sessions I’ve ever done—we were all getting nine hours of sleep,” says Slick. “I had a rented house to myself. I offered it up to Ray—I mean, he’s the songwriter. He said, ‘Nah, I’ll sleep on the floor.’ He was trying to live the art, be as pure as possible and find that singular Zen focus.”
Bobbye Hall, who’s recorded with Janis Joplin, Marvin Gaye and Tom Petty, among countless others, drove to Santa Monica from the California desert with her pet pug to lay down percussion. The band pinched themselves.
“We all walked forward together,” says Baxter. “If anything, it was me saying we can’t really be done with the song that fast. But if those badasses were nodding and saying it felt great, I had to agree.”
Walker, Slick and Bockrath all say the session was among their favorites ever. (Bockrath says making Wide Awake was “one of the best experiences of my life, honest.”) And they all credit one thing: the songs.
“I wrote the songs, but there’s no ‘I’ vibe in there,” says Baxter. “The song is the master. The song is king, and I’m below it. And we all got behind those songs.”
Recording totally live, they wrapped Wide Awake in two weeks. Bright, crisp and catchy tracks like “Angeline” and “Amelia Baker” bounce with a Kinks-ian wink and a Sgt. Pepper sway. Groovier rockers like “Casanova” pulsate; the band moves together with an athlete’s agility. Baxter’s hooks can be maddeningly hummable, all British Invasion melodies filtered through the lens of an ace, Nashville country-rock band, buttoned-up but totally shit-kicking.
Back in Nashville, Bucky Baxter played pedal-steel guitar for the album’s last track, the weary but wide-eyed “Let It All Go, Man.”
“When we were in Israel together, [my dad] told me that, one day, people would refer to him as my dad, not me as his son. He was ready for it 10 years ago,” says Baxter. “That last song—that’s his advice to me. ‘Keep it cool, man. Just know everything will work out the way it should. Some things are under your control but, son, most of them ain’t.’”