Rayland Baxter was ready to get away from the world in the autumn of 2016. In this, the Nashville singer-songwriter was hardly unique, but in the three months that he spent living in an old rubber factory in rural Kentucky, with little more than a mattress, a guitar, and a Wurlitzer, Baxter did something with his political angst: he wrote an album.
“I knew I had a bunch of song ideas that I wanted to start getting going on, and I knew I wanted to go out to some place in the woods. I looked at cabins, Airbnb’s, stuff like that,” says Baxter, who, at the time, was fresh off a tour supporting the Lumineers. His friend was busy converting the factory, about an hour north of Music City, into a studio, which proved the perfect solution. “Sometimes other people were there in the studio, but for the most part it was me and the coyotes and cornfields, so I was really loving it.”
The end result is Baxter’s third LP, Wide Awake, a catchy collection of pop hooks that mix Beatles melodies with a bottom-end groove torn from the Stax Records playbook. But it’s far from the detached work that its isolated origins might suggest. Released last week on ATO Records, it is Baxter’s sharpest batch of social commentary, a 10-song rumination on the state of the country – or, as he puts it on the opening track, life in this “Strange American Dream.”
“Just because I was by myself doesn’t mean I wasn’t tapped in. I wasn’t just writing about a bird sitting on a tree. I was wide awake,” says Baxter, speaking from New York City, where he’s getting his new tour underway. “The news channel was always on. I was always overhearing about the Cubs winning the World Series, Donald Trump being elected, all the school shootings that were happening. There was no drowning out, nor would I want to drown it out.”
Plugging in by checking out was no accident on Baxter’s part, as getting away was primarily a means to immersing himself in his craft. “I was loving it. I could barely sleep, I was so excited to get back up and continue to write,” he says, recalling that he only returned to Nashville on a couple occasions in that three-month span. “It was the first time in my life where I’ve been a writer and been able to get into it and live the life I wanted to be living – writing all the time and being excited about what I was writing about. It was good shit to me.”
“Maybe I was born sick,” Baxter muses in the opening line of “Strange American Dream,” in which he ponders the disconnect between how he imagined the world would be as a child and the one that today’s children will be left with. The album ends with an attempt to bridge the gulf with other human beings on the brittle “Let It All Go Man,” a denouement that’s empathetic rather than pedantic or judgmental. Baxter balances it all with humor, namely on lead single “Casanova,” about a sugar mama who expects to be paid back – i.e. college loans.
“Until this last two years, where lots of people have kind of woken up it seems – me being one of them – there weren’t really major issues being discussed. I feel like my whole group of contemporaries are speaking out just a little bit so that everybody else can start making up their own ideas about what they’re thinking,” Baxter says. He insists that, rather than breaking new ground, he was tuned into tried-and-true fundamentals. “It was always, ‘What would Bob Dylan do here? What would Neil Young do here? What would Leonard Cohen do here?’ It’s the turning of a [simple] phrase that makes somebody go, ‘Oh.’“
The most obvious influence is, of course, the Beatles, which Baxter says is hard to escape. “We’re all influenced by the sun and the moon and the Beatles and the Rolling Stones,” he says, pointing out that the first album he owned, at the age of 6, was Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. That comes through clearest of all on the album’s centerpiece track, “79 Shiny Revolvers,” which references “Happiness Is a Warm Gun” with its “bang-bang” voiceover, and even shares the skepticism of “Revolution” as he sings, “You really want to save the world, man, well I got news for you.” “I think it’s a perspective song,” he says. “It’s a stab at the idiots with the guns. I’m not against owning guns – I’m against poor decision making.”
Equally important to the fabric of Wide Awake is how the band stays in a tight, R&B pocket. Baxter gives the credit for that to his fellow musicians, Nick Bockrath (Cage the Elephant), Erick Slick (Dr. Dog), Aaron Embry (Elliot Smith), and Butch Walker, who produced the album. “It started with my demos and the strumming pattern in my demos. [The band] chewed it up and spit out this really grooving record,” says Baxter. His father, Bucky Baxter, plays pedal steel, as does Nashville vet Lloyd Green.
For all of the topical material on Wide Awake, Baxter tends to keep his references oblique, working his commentary into the fabric of storytelling that leaves equal space for love songs and humorous vignettes, like the woozy “Sandra Monica” or the devilish singalong “Hey Larocco.” That goes right back to his emphasis on song craft – which is, for someone like Baxter, an integral part of growing as a person, too.
“I like telling stories, and beautifully told stories as well. To captivate another human is a really cool thing to do. I want to be captivating, always, and to be captivated,” Baxter says. “I’ve just been getting better at it, because I feel like I should be a songwriter and a singer. It’s the thing I’m best at in life at the moment, it’s the thing I’m getting better at the most. It’s an evolution.”