Published in Relix Magazine Rayland Baxter was just a kid when he met the man who would shape his third album nearly two decades later. It was the mid-’90s, and Ray was a lanky, budding lacrosse star on vacation in Nova Scotia with his dad, renowned pedal-steel player Bucky Baxter, and his dad’s longtime girlfriend, singer and professional snowboarder Greta Gaines. There was plenty to do, mainly fishing and hiking, but the younger Baxter’s focus was on Greta’s father: famed author and outdoorsman Charles Gaines. “I’d watch him. He’d have a cigar in one hand and a hiking stick in the other, and just walk into the woods,” Baxter says now. “He’d wander into the brush and sit in his writer’s hut. He’d stay there all day working. I wanted to do that.” Fast forward to 2018. It’s late summer, and the singer-songwriter has just released Wide Awake on ATO Records, easily his most thoughtful, rocking and fun album to date. He recorded the LP last year with a veritable supergroup of musicians, including Butch Walker, Dr. Dog’s Eric Slick, Cage the Elephant’s Nick Bockrath, Elliott Smith collaborator Aaron Embry, iconic Motown percussionist Bobbye Hall and, naturally, Bucky Baxter. The collection has received glowing reviews, propelling a tour schedule stretching through the fall. Right now, though, he and his band have a few days between shows and they’re parked at a studio in Black Hawke, Colo., “on top of a mountain, surrounded by aspen trees,” he says. “There are moose and elk in the woods. We don’t need much; we have groceries, beer, alcohol and pot, and the camaraderie of the brotherhood. That’s it.” To dream up Wide Awake, Baxter exiled himself for three months to a converted rubber band factory amid corn fields outside Franklin, Ky.—the town where Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash wed in 1968. He wore the writer-as-recluse hat that’s suited artists from Henry David Thoreau on down to Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon, yet the trail between watching Charles Gaines fade into the trees and wrapping Wide Awake wasn’t a straight line. But it led him to the best music of his career. Baxter grew up with divorced parents—and Bucky was often on tour. First came the Steve Earle days, then the Bob Dylan-era and the Ryan Adams period. “My dad got lucky. My mom was working two jobs, going to school, taking me to sports practice. He got all the fun times,” laughs Baxter. “‘He’d say, ‘Let’s go to Jackson Hole and go snowboarding or Nova Scotia to go fishing,’ or he’d say, ‘Let’s drive out to Hollywood blasting music the whole way.’” Music was great, but that was Bucky’s thing. Rayland was a blaze on the lacrosse field and, after high school, he played for Division I school Loyola University in Maryland. A torn ACL benched him his sophomore year; that winter, Bucky finally bought him a guitar. “He’ll never admit it, but he was planting seeds,” Baxter says.In a shift that Baxter calls “an explosion,” he was swiftly asked to leave school for a year due to bad behavior. Athletics were yanked from his life, and music began to fill the void. He moved out to Creede, Colo. (population: 296) and played at the only open-mic in town. “People said, ‘Man, you can sing! You’re rocking the hell out of that Sublime cover,’” he laughs. “I wrote my first song out there, called ‘Loving Life.’ Sounded like Jack Johnson.” Within months, the seasonal ski slope work had worn him down—an invitation from Bucky to join him on tour as a guitar tech came just in time. After three weeks in Europe, father and son decamped to arid, Southern Israel to visit a Dylan-days friend of Bucky’s. The elder Baxter returned to Nashville after two weeks; the younger stayed in the desert for six months. “[My dad] said I should stay out there, just live and write. It was my first big push to get these words out of my mind,” he says. “The magic, the romanticism of the desert [inspired me]; and coming from the mountains of Colorado, I wrote these nature references: nature as love, nature as relationships. I was listening to the wind, listening to Townes Van Zandt, Leonard Cohen and Dylan and playing guitar all day and all night. I had everything I needed. And starting from then, I was full-on.” In the summer of 2008, he left Israel convinced that he’d found his second calling. Baxter decamped to Nashville and dug into the local scene, recording his first EP which he “wrapped up in brown paper and sold after gigs at coffee shops all over the Southeast.” Baxter released his full-length debut, Feathers & Fishhooks—a gorgeous, mellow collection of acoustic folk—in 2012. Then, determined not to be pigeonholed as an Americana act, he carved deep grooves into the songs that made up 2015’s Imaginary Man. “I was frustrated—I wanted to rock out,” he says. “I wanted to rip into the guitar.” All the while, Baxter was enjoying Nashville. He’d become a scene staple, living closer to Bucky than he had since childhood. He was touring with bigger names, playing for bigger crowds. Then, during a 2016 opening stint for The Lumineers, Charles Gaines reappeared in his memory, walking with purpose into the woods. Baxter searched Airbnb for the most remote local properties available, but he found the solution in Kentucky, where an old buddy extended an open invitation to the factory he was transforming into a studio. “I moved up there with notebooks, pencils and markers, and blanketed the windows. I hung up paper on all the walls and re-listened to voice memos from my phone. Bits of songs. I made lists and got in the flow,” he says. “I was so eager to wake up in the mornings—or afternoons—because I’d often stay up for 18 hours a day. I’d walk the whole property and see a bald eagle flying over the corn fields, or hear coyotes crying out in the trees.” Bockrath—Baxter’s close friend and sometime roommate—would check in on the songwriter regularly. “Once you’re out there, you’re out there,” Bockrath says. “He was alone almost all of that time, just writing.” Songs started to take shape from those science-professor-like scrawls. While Baxter was blissfully tucked away from modern, everyday stresses, the country was in upheaval over a reality TV star becoming president of the free world. His far away view proved to be the perfect songwriting fodder. With “79 Shiny Revolvers,” he pointed out the absurdity of America’s gun culture. (“You really wanna save the world, man?,” he sings. “Well, I wanna save it, too. We can blow ‘em away—the American way!”) He wrote of student debt as an ex-lover on “Casanova.” (“Got a real bad feeling Imma let her down,” he admits in the song. “Got a hole in my pocket, and I’m runnin’ around.”) “I’m not gonna tell people what to think. I’m gonna suggest it with a smirk on my face. I wanted to trick people into singing along to something that might make them think,” he says. “Like, ‘Hey, that was funny. He’s talking about his ex-girlfriend. Wait, this is about Sallie Mae loans?’” Baxter drafted these more pointed songs—there were plenty others about love and loneliness, too—with a subtle, clever approach, taking cues from his songwriting idols. Through humor and hope, he says, the songs could help people who are “stuck in the short vision, not looking through the bugs splattered on the windshield to see the sun rising in the distance.” After three months of Spartan living (and a diet of mostly cereal and burritos), Baxter returned to Nashville to assemble his perfect studio band. Bockrath was a lock, and suggested another one of his former roommates: Slick. But the early 2017 sessions fell through, and Baxter had to regroup.
“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.’” Photos by Shervin Lainz