Nashville Cream: What year did you start playing shows around town? Was it 2010?
Rayland Baxter: Yeah. The summer of 2010 was like my first gig at 3rd & Lindsley. I played with Natalie Prass, I think, and Gabe Kelley. That was when it began.
NC: I’ve noticed that when you do interviews with writers based elsewhere, they find it surprising that you’re a second-generation musician but it took you a while to get interested in music. Seems to me that’s one of the most typical reactions from musicians’ kids: They’re either all-in from the start or don’t want anything to do with it, at least for a while.
RB: Yeah. I had ripped up both my knees playing sports, so I really was immobile for a while.
NC: That’s what drove you to the comfort of your guitar?
RB: That was one of the things. Also, I was, like, listening to a bunch of different types of music in the beginning of college. I was just a little bit more open to everything, and I wasn’t just listening to The Beatles and Everclear, or whoever else I listened to when I was a kid.
NC: That happens when you have kids who’ve moved from all over the place living in a dorm together.
RB: Well, you know, before college I lived in a dorm for three years. I went to boarding school. I went to prep school up in Connecticut.
NC: For those who aren’t familiar with your pedigree, can you briefly summarize your dad’s musical career?
RB: OK. My dad’s name is Bucky Baxter, born William Temple Alan Baxter. He is a pedal steel player, multi-instrumentalist, and he’s played for quite a few people. Some of the more popular ones would be Steve Earle, Bob Dylan and Ryan Adams, all three really great songwriters.
NC: The first couple of Steve Earle albums.
RB: Copperhead Road and Guitar Town, yep. … He’s been a great musical influence in my life. So have those guys that he played for.
NC: Did he do the steel playing on your album?
RB: He did. Every bit of pedal steel.
NC: It’s a pretty straightforward, song-centric album, but it does have a lot of steel guitar on it.
RB: Yeah, yeah. We battled with this.
Eric Masse: Bucky’s not a background steel player. He’s rarely in bands where you don’t hear the steel, but everything he does is awesome. Like the solo on “Hallelujah” on [Ryan Adams’] Demolition is a perfect example of Bucky’s playing.
RB: Or “Majoria,” track No. 3 on Feathers & Fishhooks.
EM: I thought we were talking about pedigree.
RB: We’re talking about everything.
NC: I read that you feel like listening to steel guitar in your formative years shaped your melodic sensibilities.
RB: Yeah, I think so. That’s my theory.
NC: How so?
RB: Well just, you know, hearing a pedal steel your whole life, or my mom’s singing at church or playing the piano in the house. Between the two of those, that’s kind of where I think it came from. It’s gotta come from somewhere, at least my contributions to the melodies. Some of them maybe can come from another place that we have no idea about, like the whole belief in songs coming from nowhere.
NC: Your melodies do arc and glide. It’s not like you’re trying to write compact, punchy hooks.
RB: It all happened very naturally, too. I had a lot of time to work on the songs, and we had a lot of time to work on the songs in the studio. If it didn’t feel right, we’d scratch it and start over again. We probably did that with every song, at least once, some of them 10 times.
NC: So your urge to start writing songs came after your sports career ended?
RB: Yeah, many years after, though. I started playing guitar, and then I had a little cover band in college. I was out of college when I started writing, and I was living in Colorado. I started writing and playing this open mic night. Then moved to Israel and started really, really, really, really writing everyday, all day for months. And then came back and recorded the EP with Eric as well. And then sat on that, sold it at shows, did a little bit of touring. And then the winter of 2011, that was when we went into the studio and recorded the album.
NC: I wasn’t aware how serious you were about athletics until I came across an old lacrosse photo.
RB: Oh yeah.
NC: I wasn’t entirely sure it was you without the facial hair. But there can’t be that many Rayland Baxters walking around out there.
RB: There’s only one.
EM: His school won the national championship this year.
RB: Yep. Division One. Loyola College Greyhounds. I was a midfielder.
NC: Why did you wind up framing the songs with such spare arrangements?
RB: Because that is where all the songs came from, is me and a guitar with only me and a guitar in mind, and then thinking about all that stuff later with drums and bass and horns or whatever. I don’t think there’s horns on the record, actually.
EM: A lot of times it’s really easy to just put drums and bass and B3 organ and electric guitar and synthesizer on a song. It’s easy to do that. I think it’s hard to not do that.
RB: Yeah. Space and patience was always on our mind, and keeping it simple. We were always like, “Keep it simple. Keep it simple. Just put there what needs to go there.” That’s, like, the trick with music is trying to do that with as little amount of instruments as possible. That means playing the right parts, hitting the right sonic frequencies. … You can do it with five instruments, four instruments. If you can do it with one, cool.
EM: Earn your way onto the record.
RB: Yeah, exactly.
NC: There are some whimsical touches on there — whistling, hambone.
RB: Oh, on “Olivia"? That’s this [slaps his leg] and the top of a guitar and a box of rocks. Hambone — what’s that?
NC: People using their body for percussion.
RB: Oh yeah, we were hamboning. [Laughs]
NC: That’s you whistling, isn’t it?
RB: Oh yeah. You come to a live show, and I do a lot of whistling when I play by myself.
EM: That was a big motivation for leaving that on the record.
NC: Not everyone can whistle with that much pitch control.
RB: Whistling is how it all started. I got kicked out of college for a year and moved back down to Nashville to live with my dad for three months, out in Whites Creek. He had a little house in the big woods. … I was listening to Polyphonic Spree chopping wood in the woods, and I was whistling along to it. My dad heard me from way far away. Like an hour later, when I walked by he was like, “Was that you whistling up there?” I said, “Yeah.” He goes, “Oh man, you should write songs.” ... And I was like, “Oh, cool. I don’t know what that means right now.” Then four years later. … But that’s where I actually got the idea first implanted in my head: “Oh shit, writing songs. That’s an option in life.” But then again, he could’ve said, “Ray you should be a racecar driver,” and I’m like, “Cool, a racecar driver. I didn’t even know that was an option in life.”
NC: I read a feature that was written about you a year or two ago. It listed your influences, several heavyweight singer-songwriters like Dylan, and then Ronnie Van Zandt. Did the writer really mean Townes Van Zandt?
RB: Of course they did [laughing]. I don’t know who Ronnie Van Zandt is.
EM: [laughing] Isn’t that one of the guys from Lynyrd Skynyrd?
RB: That was what you call a typo.
NC: You’ve lived a bit of a bohemian life. Your bio says you currently sleep on an un-air-conditioned porch in a house over by the fairgrounds.
RB: Very true.
NC: And you’ve just kind of gone wherever the wind has taken you.
NC: But the sentiment of a lot of your songs is pretty traditional, the way you talk about romance, for one thing.
RB: Sure. I mean, traveling is a big part of my personality. I always battle with love. It’s a really beautiful thing to think about and try to dream about and romanticize about meeting the woman of your dreams and all that shit. I’m not putting all the words into it right now that it deserves. But that’s what I like to write about. I like to write about nature and love. Also peacing out. “Driveway Melody” is about being in another place with a cooler chick. “Dreamin’ ” is about getting the fuck out of Dodge, and then coming back.
EM: Your songs are literally about the dichotomy between love and freedom.
RB: Yeah, yeah. Love is an easy thing to write about, too.
NC: I just think it’s interesting that your nontraditional life experience gives rise to such classic romantic ideas. Your Fishhooks & Feathers imagery paints a fairly traditional picture of masculinity and femininity, too. So does the song “Woman for Me.”
RB: Mmhmm. ... I’m just covering all the bases, you know? I get my tradition fix with the music. I get my travel fix with the tour.
NC: There’s some overlap between the songs on the album and the EP, isn’t there?
RB: There’s three songs from the EP that we took over and then re-recorded one of them as well, and then added seven new songs.
NC: And they came over a period of a few years.
RB: Yep. The first batch I wrote when I lived in Israel and then recorded those. And the second batch I wrote from the time I was recording the EP on until we were done with tracking the record. You’ve got your whole life to write your first album.
NC: Soon people will be asking you when you’ll have your next batch of songs ready.
RB: Oh, it’s done. I mean, I’ve got 30 songs waiting to be recorded. I need a week to finish 'em all up. Lots of ADD going on. We’re already talking about recording the next album, getting started whenever we can. ... I’m eager to get back in the studio because I’ve grown as a musician and [Eric’s] grown as an engineer. Everybody that we did the first group of songs with is in the right place in life and everybody’s excelling at a rapid pace, and I can’t wait for all of us to get back in the studio and do it again. My voice has changed, also. I have much more control over it than I did a couple years ago.