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Thoreau had Walden Pond. Kerouac had Big Sur. Rayland Baxter? He had an old rubberband factory in Franklin, Kentucky, and it suited him just fine. As one of the hardest-touring artists on the road today, Baxter’s spent most of his professional life in transit,but ever since he was a kid, he dreamed of creative seclusion someplace lonely andisolated, somewhere he could sit still and devote his every waking hour to writingwithout interruption or distraction. When the opportunity finally presented itself inlate 2016, the Nashville native pounced.
“I packed everything in my van and moved to Franklin for three months,” says Baxter.“It was the fist time I ever got to be alone and focus solely on songs like that. All I didwas write, write, write all day every day. I was obsessed.”
By the time Baxter emerged, he’d penned more than 50 tunes and crafted a detailedblueprint for his spectacular new album, ‘Wide Awake.’ Deftly produced by ButchWalker, the record infuses Baxter’s easygoing, soulful sound with British Invasionmelodies and rock and roll swagger, marrying lean, muscular songwriting withadventurous, inventive arrangements. It’s a cutting, insightful collection, one thattakes a sardonic view the violence, greed, and division that seem to define themodern American landscape. Rather than point a finger, though, the music holds up amirror, offering a sober reflection of the times thoughtfully bundled in bright,infectious hooks. There’s no judgment here, only keen observation, and Baxterimplicates himself as much as his neighbor through it all.
“This is an album about decision making,” he explains. “It’s about being a human atthe crossroads. Do I do good or do I do evil? Do I lie or do I tell the truth? Am I going tobe happy or am I going to be sad? All of these questions and emotions are things I seein myself, and they’re the same things I see in everyone else no matter where I go.”Baxter’s built a career on capturing those sorts of timeless, deeply human sentiments,bringing colorful characters to vivid life with equal parts humor and pathos. His debutalbum, ‘feathers & fishhooks,’ was a critical hit praised by Interview for its “well-wornmaturity,” while NPR described “Yellow Eyes,” the lead single from his 2015 follow-up, ‘Imaginary Man,’ as “close-to-perfect.” Stereogum dubbed the record “animpeccable sophomore break-out,” and Rolling Stone hailed its pairing of “whimsicalnarrative with often deceptively complex arrangements.” The music earned Baxterfestival appearances from Bonnaroo to Newport Folk in addition to tours with anastonishing array of artists, including Jason Isbell, The Lumineers, Kacey Musgraves,The Head and The Heart, Shakey Graves, Lauryn Hill, and Grace Potter.
“The six months leading up to the release of ‘Imaginary Man,’ that was the first time Ireally started playing electric guitar and performing with a band,” says Baxter. “Wedid my first headline run and toured that album for a year-and-a-half, and theexperience really opened up this whole new sound for me. It helped me figure outmore of who I was as an artist and a songwriter and a traveler and a human being.”It was with that newfound sense of self that Baxter entered Thunder Sound, theabandoned rubber band factory-turned-studio in the cornfields of Kentucky that wouldbecome his home for three months of intensive soul searching and songwriting.
“I blanketed the windows so no one could see inside,” he explains. “I laid a mattressdown next to an old Wurlitzer so I had somewhere to sleep. I had a guitar, a desk witha lamp and some paper and pencils, and that was it. For fifteen hours a day, I wrote.”When it came time to record his mountain of new songs, Baxter relocated to SantaMonica, California, where he wrangled an all-star studio band that included Dr. Dog’sErick Slick on drums, Butch Walker on bass, Cage The Elephant’s Nick Bockrath onguitar, and piano wizard Aaron Embry (Elliott Smith, Brian Eno) on keys. A producerand artist equally at home working with massive pop stars and indie stalwarts, Walkerimmediately embraced Baxter’s vision for the album, and the result is a sunny andaltogether charming collection. Scratch beneath the surface, though, and you’ll findit’s populated by a cast of characters who project a vision of the good life as theystruggle to keep it all together behind closed doors. On the punchy ‘Casanova,’ thesinger reckons with debts he knows he’ll never be able to repay, while the volatile“Amelia Baker” charts the narrator’s descent into near-madness as he pines for astarlet perpetually out of reach.
“We have this society where we’re obsessed with celebrity and living on the top of themountain,” says Baxter. “But what’s at the top? Maybe it’s a lonely place to wake up.”Late 2016 was a particular tumultuous time in the country, and though Baxter did hisbest to isolate himself from the outside world while he wrote, it was inevitable thatsome of the chaos would seep in. On album opener “Strange American Dream,” achiming piano and spare Motown groove give way to lush harmonies and unexpectedmelodic twists as Baxter sings, “I close my eyes and realize that I’m alive inside thisstrange American dream.” Meanwhile, the soaring “79 Shiny Revolvers” finds himreflecting, “you really wanna save the world, man / well, I wanna save it, too / wecan blow ’em away / the American way.”
While ‘Wide Awake’ offers plenty of broad, wide-angle musings, some of its mostarresting moments arrive bundled inside deeply personal memories and snapshots. Theheartfelt “Everything To Me” is a tender tribute to family (Baxter’s father Bucky, whoplayed pedal steel with Bob Dylan and Ryan Adams among others, contributes to therecord), and the laidback “Let It All Go Man” is a reminder that there’s beauty insimply being alive.
“I actually started that song two years ago on a trip to South America,” says Baxter. “Iwas sitting on the porch of a house in this little town in Colombia, and I was all aloneplaying a gut string classical guitar, just staring out at the ocean and the beach in themiddle of the night. It made me realize how much unnecessary stuff we hold on to, allthe grinding away we do chasing success and money and missing the big picture. Itmade me realize what an incredibly beautiful gift it is to be human.”That empty South American beach may have been a world away from the rubber bandfactory in Kentucky, but for Baxter, the effect was the same. The solitude offered achance to observe, to reflect, to grow, to appreciate, and most importantly, to write.