From opener to headliner, Rayland Baxter brings warm, weird country to World Cafe

 Tennessee native Rayland Baxter will play a genre-defying set at World Cafe Live in Philadelphia on Saturday.

Tennessee native Rayland Baxter will play a genre-defying set at World Cafe Live in Philadelphia on Saturday.

Rayland Baxter’s sound is intoxicating — a stubborn adherence to a personal sonic aesthetic that scuffs up neat categorization. His newest, “Imaginary Man,” does just that.

I sat rapt, in the summer grass above the band shell at Susquehanna Bank Center last July (which I guess we’re calling the BB&T Pavillion now?). Rayland Baxter and his band, who I’d never heard of, were opening for Grace Potter and the Nocturnals in the waning hours of WXPN’s XPoNential Music Fest main stage action with a rare genre-defying sound. Gold streamed out in stereo, from the Delaware River sunset and from the stage below, and I’ll never forget it.

By then, Baxter had released only his debut, “Feathers & Fishooks” (ATO Records, 2012), but he’d opened for an impressive list of live acts: The Head and the Heart, Shakey Graves, Boz Scaggs, Tedeschi Trucks Band, and his good friend (and my current Nashville hero) Kacey Musgraves.

Ahead of a World Cafe Live performance this Saturday, I knew I had to talk to him about his progress and his current tour.

Baxter’s sound is intoxicating — a stubborn adherence to a personal sonic aesthetic that scuffs up neat categorization. His newest, “Imaginary Man,” issued just a few weeks after I saw him perform it live in the twilight of the Camden waterfront, does just that.

 

Brotherly love

Baxter speaks with a slow, even tone, very gently spiked with some good ol’ southern drawl. “My first album, I was in the Americana world.” On the new one, he said, “I wanted to be in my own house. It’s the second brick in my house, and by record 10 maybe we’ve shaped out our sound. Or maybe by record three.”

With just two records, he and his band are able to shred sets for hours on end, if the venue allows. He says “Imaginary Man” was also designed to allow for him and his band, which he says is “on fire right now,” to use as a template to work from, not a stencil. It’s fitting, because Baxter’s done the runty, earn-your-keep show rundown for some time, and now he’s stepping into proper sound checks and headlining for rooms that max out at around 1,000.

That wasn’t always the case. “I’ve played Johnny Brenda’s before. There were like 12 people there,” he said with humility. “That was also four or five years ago.”

Baxter loves Philly. “I’ve noticed that Philadelphia is turning into a nice little sweet spot,” he said. “There’s not a better place to play shows, in my opinion. The audiences have always been exceptional. I love everything there is about Philly.”

He escaped his Tennessee adolescence (it was just him, his sisters, and his mom and aunt) for a Connecticut boarding school to play lacrosse. He had threatened to simply leave, but they found a home for him in private school, where he started honing his creative writing skills. Afterward, he attended Loyola College in Baltimore.

“We’d go up to Philly,” he confesses. “A couple times we did the cheesesteak trip at 2 a.m.”

‘Just outside of Philadelphia’

I asked him about a lyric about a character who’s “just outside Philadelph” (the final syllable dropped off for rhythmic style). “‘Tell Me Lover,'” he said, naming the song. “With songwriting it’s all based on truths, and that story is more of a made-up story about some sad character I had in my mind.”

Baxter has family ties to “just outside of Philadelphia.” His grandfather went to Lafayette College in Easton. “There are so many ‘outside of Phillys’ — that could be 400 or 500 townships,” he acknowledged. Very true.

With this tour, he says he and his tall band are on a roll. “Everyone’s six foot. Somehow there’s a height requirement. I’m 6’5″,” he said. Makes sense, Connecticut and Loyola lacrosse and all. At the moment, Baxter is giddy about a new toy that’s a good fit for his band. “I just bought an all-black Dodge Sprinter. It’s a big black bullet that’s 20-something feet long, and it’s tall and skinny and beautiful.” Like van, like man. (“I can stand up in it,” he enthuses.) It has six captain chairs, so they can jam all of their equipment in without a trailer, and still have room for an XBOX.

In the Sprinter, they’ve just ripped through a sold-out show in Mobile. “Atlanta was almost sold out,” he said, visibly pumped up. “Nashville was sold out, some 600 people. Philadelphia’s going to be a big show. New York is going to be a big show.”

He gives an indirect nod to that 12-deep show in Fishtown five years ago. “That’s the way I like it — I appreciate how it’s grown. When you’re a runt, you get thrown into the mix and make it work. When you come to the headlining, you really earn that hour-and-a-half sound check. It’s been great.”

Is there a movement for non-commercial country that reflects hungry audiences’ desire for Nashville to shine its light on bluesier rock, indie sensibilities and jammy flavors? I would argue a big fat “yes.” Pushed to identify some other comrades in this genre-defiance, Baxter ticks off some big names: Mo Pitney, Brothers Osbourne, John Moreland, Andrew Combs, and Sturgill Simpson.

The days of ‘Feathers and Fishhooks’

Baxter calls Tennessee home, but he says he honed his twang out in Colorado. It paid off. He describes the town of Creede with awesome color: “It’s a beautiful silver-lining town full of artists and mountain hippies and mountain rednecks at the headwaters of the Rio Grande, with a huge valley and mountains; a beautiful river with tons of trout in it; and great human beings.”

There’s no question his debut was born there, as the title reflects, but perhaps some of his scribbles from those days are still bearing fruit like “Mother Mother,” “Memories of Old Hickory,” or the singles “Yellow Eyes” and “Young Man,” from the new record.

 

He breezily admits that writing songs isn’t all that challenging for him. “I might pick up a guitar and blurt out some syllables. I’ll poke around and work it out, write it down in my little notepad, and when I get time with the guitar … there are 50 different ways to go about it. What a gift I’ve been given to have this type of life, and I’ve got lots to think about, and I think about a lot of things.”

His candor is warm. His conversational tone is welcoming. I can tell that he has a writerly spirit, which he drives home with his last few thoughts. All he has to do, he puts it lightly, is “put it in a song form that’s easy to listen to and make people think a little bit. That could be as easy as likening a bird flying south to a relationship with your drug-abusing cousin or your beautiful wife, or why the soles of my shoes wear down on the right side of my shoes — does my heart weigh more?”

Rayland Baxter performs with Margaret Glaspy at World Café Live, 3025 Walnut St., Saturday, Jan. 30, at 8 p.m. Tickets: $13-$15. Information: 215-222-1400. Philly.worldcafelive.com.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

It will take 126,000 members this year for great news and programs to thrive. Help us get to 100% of the goal.