Posted February 7, 2016 by Jeff in Tunes

Rayland Baxter Gets into the Groove

Rayland Baxter
Rayland Baxter

Following December’s run of shows opening for alt-country singer-songwriter Jason Isbell, singer-songwriter Rayland Baxter, who released his new record Imaginary Man last year, embarked on a winter solo tour. Baxter comes from a line of musicians. His dad Bucky Baxter is legendary pedal steel player who has toured with Dylan and R.E.M. and passed the music gene to Baxter, who has an upper-register voice that recalls that of Paul Simon. We spoke to him via phone as he drove to an Atlanta tour stop from Birmingham.

You were just on the road with Jason Isbell. What was that experience like?
It was cool. We did four shows, including a two-night run in Denver. It was great. I’m pretty new to the scene and he’s been around for a while. I think his bandmates were really into the music we were making and the songs we were writing. That’s the name of the game when you go out. You try to infiltrate as best you can. I thought we did it. Jason is a great songwriter and I thought he killed it every night. His band is great and he’s great solo too. He’s a captivating human being. Hopefully, we’ll see some of his fans when we go back to the three towns that we played with him.

Your dad is a legendary pedal steel player who has played with Dylan and R.E.M. Talk about what your childhood was like and what kind of influence he had on your musical career.
He was like a superhero when I was a kid. He was touring a bunch and this was back in the day when you could walk your family up to the gate at the airport. He would disappear into the tunnel and get on the plane and call us from France or Japan or California or Brazil. When he was home, we would go on major trips and drive everywhere. We would drive to Nova Scotia for the summer time. We would drive to Jackson Hole to go snowboarding. We would drive out to L.A. He schooled me on music on all those trips. He would play me what he thought was cool and explain why he thought it was cool. That helped a lot with my musical tastes. It permeated so much and stuck around in my head. He’s a rockin’ dude. He’s not your typical father. He played with Bob Dylan, whom I adore. I didn’t adore Dylan until after the fact. But my dad is a musical man through and through and that rubbed off on me. He toured with Steve Earle and Bob Dylan and Ryan Adams. He recorded with Sheryl Crow and the Beastie Boys and R.E.M. and Los Lobos.

That’s a wild mix for a guy who plays pedal steel.
 He doesn’t play it like a typical instrument. He was always the cool pedal steel guy. He’s not the cowboy steel player.

What got you to start writing songs?
I started writing a little bit after college when I moved out to Colorado for about eight months and started getting my feet wet. One of my first completed songs was there. Then, shortly after that, I was in Israel. That’s when I took a turn and got crazy into it.

Did you ever just want to write songs or did you want to perform too?
I always wanted to do my thing. I wanted to sing the songs. When I first moved to Nashville, there were all sorts of opportunities to sign a publishing deal and sit in a room. There’s no way I could exist properly like that.

Your debut came out in 2012. How’d you end up signing to ATO?
My manager whom I met via my lawyer who lives in Nashville. That was the chain of events. I had to get a lawyer because I’m not a lawyer. My lawyer introduced me to my managers, Kevin and Christine. They are with Red Light and they share an office with ATO Records in New York. It’s all owned by the same people. They were the only record label that showed any interest at all.

Talk about your approach on that album.
With the first record, I didn’t know anything. I surrounded myself with talented musicians and talented people. I didn’t know what I was doing. I had never recorded before other than an EP I had made. I was just blind, walking in the dark, trusting my instincts and the instincts of the musicians around me. In terms of whatever musical sound I could shape and we’ve been able to shape, that was the first go at it. That was the first brick in the house.

What approach did you take for Imaginary Man?
We wanted to make a record that didn’t push me into the corner of singer-songwriter American band. I feel like the dance floor is fairly occupied by those types. I wanted to put some groove in it. I wanted to put some California in it and draw from my more recent influences. When we first started recording “Mr. Rodriguez,” which was track one, we envisioned people at Bonnaroo moving in a crowd and what type of groove we would need to make that happen. We’ll see how it goes. We play Bonnaroo this year. We all knew more. I used some of the same musicians and some new guys. They’re three more years into the craft. That’s it. Another brick in the house.

Where did you record?
With Eric Masse at his studio called The Casino. It’s in East Nashville. He’s the co-producer and engineer and mixing engineer. He’s one of my best friends. We’re brothers. We fight it out. Everything that’s done has intention, for the most part. All the notes have a purpose. He doesn’t allow the extra noise. He and Adam Landry, the other producer, got me out of the old solo singing world and pushed us all in a new direction.

Was the song “Mr. Rodriguez” written about someone in particular?
The first verse is about Sixto Rodriguez, the Detroit singer-songwriter who’s the subject of Searching for Sugarman. The first verse is a passing of the torch and it’s about the recession. The other verses are about a struggling family. It’s all set in Detroit. It’s a song about Detroit. I was watching the documentary shortly after I took my first and only trip to Detroit. I was there for four days a few years ago. I think his story is an amazing story. How humble he is to not even look or care about his record sales and not understand and then he just got caught in the trap. He’s so great. What would his life had been like if he had known about his success? Would he be dead? I don’t know.

How do you feel about being compared to Paul Simon?
I’m fine with that. He’s incredible. I think it’s a phrasing and tone thing. I don’t look back at him as a major influence on my music. But I like that. I like his flow.

Do you think you’ll go in this direction with the next album?
I’m not sure at the moment. I think it’ll be a full band effort and straight up on the groove again. The songs I’ve been writing these days are focusing on having an awesome groove behind them. You get a nice groove and melody and you’re saying something, which is the triple threat, then you’re all good. We’re putting out a new EP, Soho. We picked them up tonight in Atlanta. It’s five songs that are all solo electric. I did in London when I ended this tour in summer. My buddy works at a studio there. We went there at midnight. I think I get my fix with the sensitive type thing with those. I want to keep carving out our own unique sound on the albums.

Upcoming 2016 Shows














Grand Rapids, MI – The Stache at the Intersection

Chicago, IL – Schuba’s

Madison, WI – Frequency

Davenport, IA – Redstone Room

Iowa City, IA – Blue Moose

Des Moines, IA – Vaudeville Mews

Minneapolis, MN – Turf

Lawrence, KS – Granada

Columbia, MO – Rose Music Hall

St. Louis, MO – Old Rock House

Indianapolis, IN – HiFi

Cincinnati, OH – Madison Live

Cleveland, OH – Beachland Ballroom Tavern


Jeff started writing about rock ’n’ roll some 20 years ago when he stood in the pouring rain to hitch hike his way to see R.E.M. on their Life’s Rich Pageant tour. Since that time, he's written for various daily newspapers, alt-weeklies, magazines and websites. Feel free to comment on his posts or suggest music, film and art to him at [email protected].