rayland baxter find inspiration in unexpected kentucky retreat

Rayland Baxter. Photo by Shervin Lainez.

Seeking solace and sanctuary in some form of geographical retreat is nothing new for artists. For centuries, many have created some of their most lasting works in remote and even foreign settings away from the masses. The locales could be as plush as an oceanside villa or as isolated as a country cottage.

Rayland Baxter found his in Kentucky, but it’s not the kind of retreat you might expect a song stylist still in the early stages of his career to find inspiring. After all, how enticing would you think an abandoned rubber band factory near the Kentucky/Tennessee border might be?

For five months, the Nashville-based songwriter used one in the Simpson County city of Franklin to compose nearly all of the music on his third album, “Wide Awake.” The record brings the more contemplative alt-country soundscapes and storylines of his first two albums into broader, power-pop territory. Given how cheery much of “Wide Awake” wound up sounding, the Southern Kentucky factory dwelling must have been accommodating.

“A friend of mine lives in Franklin,” said Baxter, who performs Jan. 24 at The Burl. “He had a place that was once this rubber band factory. He was like, ‘Hey, Ray. I hear you’re looking for a place to live for awhile and write. I’ve got a place that I’d like for you to come up and check out.’ So I checked it out. It was free. It was quiet. It was perfect. It was in the wintertime, so I didn’t know how long I was going to stay out there, but I got up there and it became like my bird’s nest. I could do everything I needed to do. I could keep to myself. This was from the end of October 2016 to early February 2017.

“I wanted to write tight songs. There are a million different ways to say ‘I love you,’ a million different ways to describe the wind blowing through the trees and a trillion bazillion different ways to look at the world and yourself. So I just wanted to keep on doing what I thought felt natural. I wanted to write nice melodies and some words I would never get sick of singing. That was it. That was the objective.”

To get the full effect of Baxter’s stylistic expansion on “Wide Awake,” start at the finish line with the quiet morning affirmation of “Let It All Go, Man.” Then let the album rewind to its opening track, “Strange American Dream,” which typifies the record’s more pop-inclined disposition. Lyrically, the songs are like kin. Musically, they travel more diverging stylistic trails.

“That all just happened in the studio, really. I wrote some pop forms on the guitar. For everybody that was in the studio, that was just what came together. It’s what everybody decided to play in support of the song. I mean, Butch Walker (the producer for “Wide Awake” who has overseen albums for Weezer, Fall Out Boy and Panic! at the Disco) is a pop guy, but he’s got grit. He’s got this cabin-in-the-woods kind of thing about him. I don’t know. I have no other explanation for it other than every time we were done tracking, we liked what happened. It was like, ‘Okay, that’s cool, that’s it.’ Also, it’s just the third album, you know? They’ll be more.”

Helping Baxter out on pedal steel guitar during the sessions was an esteemed musical vet – his father, Bucky Baxter. The elder Baxter played extensively with Bob Dylan during the ‘90s and was a frequent visitor to Lexington during the late ‘80s as a member of Steve Earle’s band, the Dukes.

“Well, he’s a part of my project of life,” the younger Baxter said of his dad. “But I’m really his project, I guess. He’s been on every album of mine. He played on ‘Feathers & Fishhooks’ (his 2012 debut album), ‘Imaginary Man’ (the 2015 follow-up) and this new one.

“He tried to get out of it, too. He was like, ‘Oh, Ray, I’m not really well rehearsed. You should call Lloyd Green (now 81, who has recorded with everyone from Johnny Cash to Paul McCartney). Here’s his number. That was great, too. But my dad had to play on this record. I mean, he’s my dad. It’s a dream situation. I’m beyond fortunate to have his opinion about music.”

Rayland Baxter/Illiterate Light performs at 8 p.m. Jan 24 at The Burl, 375 Thompson Rd.

Tickets are $15, $18 at theburlky.com.

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