Rayland Baxter has a thing for subtle detail. On “Strange American Dream,” the opening track of his 2018 album Wide Awake, the Nashville native sings of “Temporary devotion / With a picket fence and a rowdy crowd.” On “Angeline,” he’s a “captain in another wicked rain / A crew unordinary, beaten down by a hurricane.” And it’s only after the fourth or fifth listen to “Casanova,” Wide Awake’s lead single and a radio staple thanks to a herky-jerky beat, that you realize the woman whose money Baxter spends on “drugs and things” is really Sallie Mae—the lender of choice for student loans.
In person, Baxter’s just as precise, from a flat, picture-perfect brim on his five-panel hat to his neatly trimmed mustache and impeccable printed shirts. Embodying a style all his own, the 35-year-old seems both timeless and of the moment, just like his genre-defying music. He’s opened for (and learned from) big acts like The Lumineers and indies like Shakey Graves alike, while carrying on lessons learned from his father, Bucky Baxter, an acclaimed pedal steel guitarist who played with Bob Dylan, Steve Earle, R.E.M. and Ryan Adams.
“I always use the example of a bowling ball and a kid-proof bowling lane,” Baxter says on the phone, driving to New York City to record a live session in between tour dates. “If I go too far to the left or the right, Bucky would bump me back over: ‘Try this,’ or ‘Most definitely do not do that,’ or ‘I like how you did that thing.’ I’m fortunate that he’s a great father, but he’s also been an incredible musician and an observer of legendary bosses over the decades.”
Though Bucky Baxter helped to record Wide Awake with his son, Rayland needed time to himself to write it. He spent three months in an abandoned Kentucky rubber band factory grappling with his emotions, alternately celebrating and cauterizing the human condition. He emerged with a brilliant combination of alt-country, folk, power pop and glam rock.
“That was the first time I was able to go somewhere with intention and write songs,” Baxter says. “It wasn’t a patchwork, ‘Oh shit, I picked up a guitar and this thing came out and I’m going to try to finish this song today before I go to a party.’ I [could] focus more.”
Baxter adds that, nearly two years later, he’s still “dragging remnants of the songs I didn’t finish” around with him. Though he and his band are still focusing heavily on the album on their current tour, he says that his writing springs both from those ideas that already exist and from the new experiences he ingests every day.
“It’s the new characters I meet that spark some type of lock and key within my imagination,” he muses. “Or it’s the records I’m listening to that I’ve never heard before that sweep something up. There’s a filter that a writer can look at the world through and think, ‘How do I turn that shit into a song?’”
For someone as focused on the intricacies of songwriting, Baxter also embraces the spontaneity of performance, which should give his gig at Murray Hill Theatre an extra air of intimacy.
“I just want to grow and playing memorable shows,” he says. “I want to be moved every night with the music that we’re making. We’ve played the songs a bunch of times, but the live show’s so much different than the record. There’s a lot of room to improvise and add more beef to the songs.”
Whatever arrangements Baxter and his band present, he emphasizes that they all pay particular attention to the audience. This current tour presents a unique opportunity to cater to new fans, as well, since so many new markets on are the itinerary.
That includes Florida, which he calls “uncharted territory.” Even though his father grew up in Brevard County, where his grandmother and aunt still live, Baxter’s Florida touring experience to date is limited to one Orlando show and three in Key West. He spent last Christmas in the Conch Republic filming a music video for “Hey Larocco” and raves about the atmosphere there. He hopes to enjoy a few days off in North Florida after the current tour ends in Jacksonville. St. Augustine in particular is on his radar. Unprompted, his light Southern drawl booms, “The home of the datil pepper!”
Taking a momentary break from our phone call, he chats up a tollbooth agent, pointing out the time (11:11 a.m.), turning his total charge ($13.70) into a jingle, and asking the “beauty in the booth-y” if he can add a 30-cent tip to the total.
When he’s back on the phone, I ask Baxter for a hot take on the narrative arc of his career. Is he happy with the way things have gone? Does songwriting mean something different today than it did 10 years ago? Are there milestones he feels he hasn’t yet reached? Silent for a rare 30 seconds, he finally responds: “The deeper I get into this career, the more I’m feeling tempos as the striped lines that separate the highway lanes. They make the rhythm and I just follow it.”