BY: JIM VILLANUEVA
Attempting to pigeonhole someone’s music in any particular box is usually a frustratingly futile exercise – and it should be. Consumers and critics’ attempts to categorize a musician’s work into a nebulous genre serves no purpose other than to spur said singer-songwriters into crafting tunes that are simply designed to be enjoyed and not classified. In the case of Nashville-based artist Rayland Baxter, he would like listeners to know that he spends absolutely no time trying to describe his sound, and conversely, he devotes all his attention to simply making music that makes him happy, and in turn, makes his fans feel good, too. “The most important thing to me is for me to be entertained by what I’m making, and if I’m entertained hopefully my taste, as in how I entertain myself, actually turns around and I can entertain other people,” Baxter says.
Baxter’s wanderlust has served as a musical roadmap for many of his sonic sojourns, including more than a few songs on his internal GPS-inspired second album, Imaginary Man, available now. So it was more than fitting that our recent conversation took place while Baxter was behind the wheel of his car, navigating his way through the streets of Nashville, the place he calls home and the city in which his new 11-song travel log was recorded.
I’m back in Nashville, yeah, for a month. [I’m] just half homeless, a bunch of loose ends floating around that I spend the first three days after touring tying up, and then I get into my nice relaxation mode.
Well, you deserve it, man, because it looks like you’ve been working hard, and most of what we want to talk about today is this brilliant album of yours. First off, let me say that I think your album, Imaginary Man, is built to be listened to with your eyes closed, or maybe a candle lit – or both. It’s a beautiful piece of work. How would you like folks to listen to it?
I always suggest a joint (laughs). Smoke a joint and put your headphones on and checkout for a little bit. Go through the little musical journey that records allow the listener to experience.
Yeah, I definitely would have added the headphones, too. I’ve been living with this album for several days now, non-stop, and like I said, most of the time while listening to it I seemed to close my eyes and take that journey you’re talking about. So your songs are a veritable smoothie of genres…
There you go!
How do you describe your sound?
Uh, man it’s not easy because I think I wear the same shoes as a lot of artists do in that we don’t want to categorize ourselves. So, man, I, I, f**k, I tap into a lot of things. When I describe my sound I say that I have no idea. But I know that I’m doing my thing and I’m doing what I wanna do, and that’s the most important thing to me is for me to be entertained by what I’m making, and if I’m entertained hopefully my taste, as in how I entertain myself, actually turns around and I can entertain other people. That’s the goal. I’m influenced by the old country, and a few of the great songwriters like Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan and Townes Van Zandt and Paul Simon, but I also dig a bunch of new music. I listen to all types of music. I’m a paint-by-numbers with no lines.
There you go. I use the smoothie analogy because you throw a bunch of stuff into the blender and it comes out sounding great, starting with the opening track “Mr. Rodriguez.” This 11-story – that’s what I call it – songscape, Imaginary Man, begins with the story of this man, so who is Mr. Rodriguez?
Mr. Rodriguez is Sixto Rodriguez from Detroit, MI, the songwriter that was a huge cult figure down in South Africa, and everyone thought he was dead down there and they made this brilliant documentary called Searching for Sugar Man. So I was in Detroit walking around in between two tours and whatever memories and snapshots that I took from that time in Detroit, when I went to write that song I was just thinking about walking down the road with Sixto, man, and kinda handing off the torch to the next generation of music makers. So I was just trying to tap into a little family love and a little Sixto Rodriguez in that song.
Speaking of family, I’m gonna try and make a segue here: track two is titled “Oh My Captain,” so speaking of your captain, you have some guy named Bucky Baxter playing some pretty fair pedal steel guitar and other stuff on this record. Tell everyone who doesn’t know, who he is and why he got the gig.
Well, Bucky Baxter is a legendary pedal steel player who lives here in Nashville, TN. He’s played with a bunch of cats. He played with Bob Dylan for 10 years in the 90s and before that with Steve Earle, and after the Dylan era he was playing with Ryan Adams, The Beastie Boys and Sheryl Crow. He’s kinda like the rock and roll pedal steel player. And he just happens to be my old man, which is super cool. I’ve never tracked any other pedal steel player than him because even if he wasn’t my pops I’d still track him down cuzz he’s got the coolest style and he’s great.
Absolutely! Now obviously, as you say Bucky is your dad, so obviously music is in your DNA, but let me ask you to talk about when you decided that you wanted to make music for a living. Tell us about your personal musical big bang moment.
The big bang moment – although I didn’t know it was the big bang moment when it was happening – after college I moved out to Colorado and lived in a little town called Creede, CO. I was living out there, I was working at a guest ranch, I was working at a taco bar in town, slinging margaritas, and every Wednesday night at Tommyknocker Tavern there was an open mic night, and so I’d go down there and play songs; I’d play cover songs. People were like digging what I was doing and I was like, oh cool, I guess I’ll come back next week and do it again. So I did. After that, I got a gig in a band my dad was playing in; I was the guitar tech, and we went to Europe for three weeks…and after that was over my pops and I went to Israel [to visit] his best friend Andre. After the two-week trip was up, pops flew home and I stayed and I kinda went to home music school. I started reading a bunch of books, watching a bunch of documentaries and listening to a bunch of albums. And then writing a whole bunch of material that was kind of the foundation for the big bang moment. It was just me living in Israel and experiencing life on the other side of the planet, in a really crazy place to live, chock-full of history – beautiful and terrible history. I came back with a bunch of notebooks full of songs and I kinda hit the ground running when I got back to Nashville, and I’ve been hittin’ the ground runnin’ ever since.
And hittin’ the road, too, which we’ll talk more about in just a second, but real quick, can you recall a couple of those albums that you mentioned you were listening to?
Yeah, Planet Waves by Bob Dylan. I was listening to so much Bob Dylan when I was in Israel. I never even started listening to his lyrics until I was 22 or 23 years old. And I had a bunch of greatest hits stuff of Leonard Cohen that I just barreled through all the time. And the Townes Van Zandt album that I first got hooked on, The Highway Kind.
Dylan’s not a bad place to start.
Yeah, he’s my Jesus. Plus he’s Jewish and he’s spent a lot of time in Israel, and I want nothing more than to be able to play shows in Israel. I want to go to Israel and play music.
Let me get into the record and ask you about a couple of specific songs. Part of how you yourself have described Imaginary Man is that “it is a multi-colored dream of song.” That said, I think any songwriter worth a lick can only dream of writing a song like “Yellow Eyes.” Give us the backstory of this really stunning piece of work.
“Yellow Eyes” is a love triangle song. There’s been two women in my life in the last 10 years, and one has become a great companion, but we started off more on the romantic level. In the beginning, and still to this day, I only wanted to be her companion; I didn’t know it in the beginning, but there’s a little bit of heartbreak when we split ways on that level. Uh, but then the paperclip line (“There’s a paperclip resting on my countertop/Sunday morning I’d forgot, what it’s like to lose a friend.”) is, um, I was dating a girl for a couple of years here in Nashville, and when we were breaking up we were sitting in my kitchen and she had unbent a paperclip and rested it on the countertop. When it was all over, she walks out and I see this triangle paperclip sitting on the countertop; I paid no mind to it, but it was a little symbol of our relationship. It became a little symbol, in my mind, of resilience, like in my mind this little paperclip was much stronger than our relationship was. The song just kind of unfolded in the next 15 minutes. And there you have it.
You never know where they’re (songs) gonna come from. Let me quote a lyric: “Full of holes and missing parts, paper planes and broken hearts/you see, not a place I’d like to be.” That is a great line in the song “Rugged Lovers.” Am I right to say this track is a musically beautiful song about a not-so pretty personal picture?
Yeah. Juxtaposition. You know you get into a relationship and sometimes s**t just gets tough. Love ain’t easy, man! As that song should, it took me like six months to finish that song, but it’s quite fitting because of the content of the song. I’m doing my best to paint the picture…of emotions that an everyday man experiences with the trials and tribulations of living and love.
Listening to that one, it took me to some of the finest work by Damien Rice…
…and Alejandro Escovedo…
Oh cool, man.
You’re familiar with both, I assume?
Yes I am. Not so much, but I’m familiar more with their names than their music, but I know their styles.
Yeah, you know, the string work and the real plaintive vibe. It’s really a beautiful song. Another song I wanted to ask you about is “All In My Head,” which has certainly been in my head for days now; I can’t get it out, it’s really good. Are most of your songs written about people or places you observe, or personal experiences?
They usually come from some type of daydream that I’ve been in – a daydream that’s magnified on an experience of mine. With “All In My Head,” that’s just kind of me painting a picture of the perfect woman who I’ve only met in my mind. And in my mind I’ve also married this woman, and taken her out to dinner and given her my family jewels – literally! No sexual innuendo there.
Yes, exactly. You know, that’s why the album is called Imaginary Man is because the way I see it, and the way it is, really, is that life for me – currently, and it always has been – it’s very easy for me to find time to just disappear. I don’t have much to do in the day other than do what I wanna do with my mind and my thoughts. So I like to disappear and sit around and just daydream and sit on my front porch and stare off into the crowds and make stuff up because that’s kinda all it is. What else am I gonna do with my time. I’m gonna make stuff up and I’m gonna entertain my mind.
That’s not a bad gig you have there, Rayland (laughs).
(Laughs). Yeah! I enjoy the gift that I’ve been given – that we’ve all been given – of existence. I was brought into this world against my will, but I’m glad that I was born into the world that I was born into because I can get a firm grip around it as much as I need to to get by. I’m happy. I enjoy every day.
We’ve touch on a few of your favorite songwriters. Do you have a current crop of favorite songwriters that you really enjoy?
Yeah, my buddy Ryan [Lindsey], he’s the frontman for a band called Broncho. They got two albums, two killer albums. When you can understand what he’s saying, he is twisted in the most beautiful way. And I’ve got the Alabama Shakes album in my phone, and Brittney [Howard] is a good friend of mine. The whole band are good friends of mine and that album (Sound & Color) that they just put out is a powerful son of a bitch, man. Let’s see, what else? T. Hardy Morris, do you know this cat?
Dude, go listen to his first album called Audition Tapes. It was produced by Adam Landry, who is a co-producer on my album. So anyway, the T. Hardy Morris albums I dig a lot, Broncho and Alabama Shakes.
I will check them out. So I saw your performance of “Young Man” on AudioTree.TV. So is the young man you sing about in that song the guy you see in the mirror every morning?
Yeah, definitely. I think it’s the guy that a lot of people see in the morning. Songs are whatever you want them to be as a listener. For me, I wanna make songs that catapult people into hope, or some type of emotion. That song I want for people to listen to and like disappear with. I always envision when I’m singing that song of this dude who’s like, peace y’all, I’m outta here. I can’t help but do this right now. I love you, I love you, too, but I’m goin’, and I’m gonna walk straight into the sunset with my shoulders high, ready for action.
Clearly, travel has played a big part in your songwriting. Does where you are influence what you write?
Of course it does. I don’t know how my mind changes when I go from state to state or country to country, but I’m functioning at a high, efficient rate when I’m seeing earth pass me by. This is all from traveling. I love it. It makes me feel like I’m living a whole existence.
Final question for you, Rayland, and again I appreciate the time.
Of course. I appreciate it. I like talking about this stuff.
Good. Now one particular quote of yours that I read in my research stuck out to me. You said: “I had nothing to write about until I was 25.” So what advice would you give a 25-year old who maybe metaphorically has yet to figure out what to write about for the rest of their lives?
Um, hmm, I would say, just keep exploring, keep pushing yourself as a human being. Take chances. Jump off the cliff.
My job as a music maker and as a songwriter is – this is my duty now – to the universe is to try and relate things through song for people. Some people go to a therapist, some people go to the ocean to get all these little moments to feel freer than they maybe are, and one of those ways is to listen to a song and be affected by it.
Perfect. Well I’m glad you reported for duty (laughs) for this record, Imaginary Man.
This is a beautiful piece of work. Congratulations.
Thank you very much. Thanks for the conversation.
**To hear more audio of my extensive conversation with Rayland Baxter, please “LIKE” Facebook.com/CurrentClassics and look for a link to an upcoming episode of my weekly Current Classics podcast. Listen HERE.