Over the course of three albums, Rayland Baxter has sketched his own picture of lush Americana and oddball folk, singing songs about fishhooks and females along the way. With his latest release, Wide Awake, he presents his own version of classic pop-rock. It’s a sound that’s rich in tone, texture and the unique songwriting of a Nashville native who grew up watching his father, pedal steel legend Bucky Baxter, playing with some of the late 20th century’s most iconic frontmen.
As the guest on this week’s episode of Walking the Floor, Rayland Baxter talks with podcast host Chris Shiflett about getting kicked out of school (twice), writing his latest album in a rubber band factory and, years earlier, ditching a surefire sports career for a musical gamble. Fortunately, the bet paid off. Read below for a list of episode highlights, then listen to the full episode after the jump.
Before launching his songwriting career, Baxter was a college athlete.
“I grew up playing lacrosse and soccer,” he tells fellow soccer-enthusiast Shiflett. “I played lacrosse halfway through college at a very high level: Division One at Loyola College in Baltimore. Halfway through college is when I got a guitar, though. . .so long story short, I’m out of shape.”
It took Baxter a number of years to find his true voice as a songwriter.
The son of pedal steel guitarist Bucky Baxter, Rayland grew up around music. . .but that doesn’t mean he felt compelled to play. It wasn’t until his college years that he began playing the acoustic guitar that his father gave him. “At the of my sophomore year,” he remembers, “my dad gave me an acoustic guitar, and I was like, ‘Cool,’ because I had just started to listening to lyrics of music because of the influence of my neighbors in college. And the music wasn’t good music — it was jam-band stuff. That’s fake bluegrass, as I’d call it, but it got me into real music.” Inspired, he began listening to songwriting legends like Bob Dylan. Later, while taking a break from school, he began sharpening his own chops as a writer, eventually forming a cover band and dropping out of his lacrosse team to pursue a career onstage. “We signed up for the battle of the bands, got rejected because we didn’t have any original songs,” he says. “Then by my senior year, I kept playing. I finished college, moved out to Colorado, played the open mics there. . .and people kept on wanting me to sing, and I kept singing.”
Wide Awake was written during a three-period stay inside a rubber band factory filmed with vintage recording gear.
“I needed a place to go right, after we got done with Imaginary Man,” he says. “I looked on AirBNB around Chattanooga, up near the woods, and it was all really expensive and not my scene. Then I remembered that Billy [Swayze, another Nashville-based songwriter] had a studio an hour north of Nashville, in Kentucky.” One week later, Baxter moved into a room in the makeshift studio, which had been constructed into a former rubber band factory owned by Swayze’s parents. There, he sifted through an endless string of voice memos on his phone. Within three months, he’d written upwards of 50 songs. “Thunder Sound is the name of the studio, and I stayed awake as long as possible,” he explains. “I was so excited to wake up and work. There was speed, for sure. Speed, coffee and cigarettes. That was my mission: I wanted to do it.”
Wide Awake‘s mix of modern sounds and vintage influences is as much a result of Baxter’s studio band as his songwriting chops.
“I have a band back home, but it’s always changing,” the songwriter says. “I’ve committed to no one.” Instead, he assembled an all-star studio lineup to help him record Wide Awake in Los Angeles. There, Butch Walker doubled as Baxter’s producer and bass player, while members of Cage the Elephant and Dr. Dog handled other instruments. Aaron Embry, a solo artist and former member of Elliott Smith’s band circa Super 8, played keys. Lloyd Green and Bucky Baxter split pedal steel duties. Together, the group recorded one of Baxter’s most acclaimed records to date.
He remains a proud road warrior, encouraged by the momentum he’s been seeing during his ongoing tours.
“I like seeing the ground pass,” says Baxter, who recently kicked off the new year with another string of stateside dates. “I like playing shows. I like the camaraderie from the band that happens.”