Nashville Crooner Rayland Baxter's Music Explores "What Is Love, What Is Existence"

Rayland Baxter will perform at the inaugural Okeechobee Music & Arts Festival March 3-6.
Rayland Baxter will perform at the inaugural Okeechobee Music & Arts Festival March 3-6.
Photo courtesy of the artist

Rayland Baxter is a gifted and literate singer/songwriter, but he didn’t begin his career in earnest until the latter half of his 20s. All it took for this late bloomer to get going was a career-ending knee injury and some heartbreak.

The son of Bucky Baxter, a distinguished steel pedal guitarist who’s worked with Bob Dylan and R.E.M., Baxter had the pedigree, but not necessarily the drive. Once his first love, sports, was no longer a feasible career option, he turned his attention to his guitar. While visiting Israel, he experienced a musical and spiritual awakening, immersing himself in the sonic tomes of Leonard Cohen and similarly affected, philosophical songwriters. He came out the other side with a sense of what kind of musician he wanted to be: introspective, but never losing sight of the big picture. His gentle crooning is reminiscent of a modern-day Paul Simon, fronting the type of folksy, American sound Ryan Adams so often takes up.

Baxter’s latest, the Soho EP, is very sparse and sounds like an acoustic album that was recorded in the '50s or '60s. Recorded spur-of-the-moment at a friend’s studio in London, Baxter never intended it as a proper release, doing it mostly to get some songs out he’d been toying around with. When his label, ATO Records, heard it, though, they loved it. That process very much sums up the Nashville-based musician who, for the entirety of his career, has forged his own path without thought as to what might sell or top the charts.

New Times: Since the last time you were in Florida, about three years ago at Tortuga Festival, you said in an interview, “I don’t have a hit record; I don’t have a hit song. Brick by brick, I’m building my house.” Now you have several well-received records, including 2015’s Imaginary Man, and the new EP. How have things changed, for better or worse, since then?
Rayland Baxter: Well, nothing’s worse. It’s all better. This is the second in a long line of many releases, hopefully, I’m getting to. We’ll go back to the brick reference, build my house. We’re headlining a tour right now; it’s our first headlining tour, it’s going really well. The record has been well-received; I’m kind of a still a bit, you kinda have to be paying attention to music to know that it’s out there, but you have to be paying attention a little less than Feathers and FishHooks, you don’t have to dig as much.

Some radio stations are having fun with a couple of the songs and we’re growing as a band. The band has changed quite a bit since then. It’s really a great group of people onstage with me making each night different and exciting and emotional and loud and quiet and sensitive and screaming and it’s really all over the map and it’s cool.

Are you still humping around in the old van that broke down on the way to Tortuga?
Up until four months ago I was. Then I bought a used [Mercedes-Benz] Sprinter. Everybody in the band is six-foot-plus. Yeah, we’d make a killer touring hoops game as well. We can all stand up in the van. I worked my ass off last year and saved up some money. That was the next step in the forward progress of this machine in getting the traveling situation down-packed for the dudes. So far it’s been good to us.

A lot of your music is personal, biographical. You're in your 30s now. How has experience and maturity as a person and as a musician colored Imaginary Man?
I just have a better grip on what I wanted to become as a musician and an artist and a songwriter and a performer and an entertainer and just as a human being in general, as a man, you know? Just like anything, you get your claws stuck into something, which I’m doing day by day and I’m getting deeper and deeper and more involved into this type of existence, I get a little more cozy. It’s kind of like breaking a horse that continually needs to be broken more. It’s like punching through the roof of each tier and then you’re back to the bottom again and then you’re up at the top and then at the bottom again… All that being said, my hands are still up in the air and I’m a leaf in the wind. 

Rayland Baxter at Tortuga Music Festival.
Rayland Baxter at Tortuga Music Festival.
Photo by Angel Melendez

Nearly every interview or review of yours mentions your dad. You ever feel any pressure to live up to a certain standard?
We’re driving different ships. He was a sideman, and a legendary sideman, and that’s not where I’m going with my career at all. In terms of the comparison of can I ever fill those shoes, I’ll never fill those shoes because I don’t play pedal steel. [laughs] I do what his bosses did. And so, I remember I was in Israel maybe eight years ago and he was like, ‘Right now Ray, they know you as my son, but one day, they’re gonna know me as your dad.’ He’s always been encouraging. I’ve already exceeded his expectations as a son on some levels. I’ve been a stand-up citizen for the most part and I keep my nose clean and I’m friendly and I’m doing my best to instinctually be a good person and not trying too hard to be anything else but myself. The people I surround myself with are doing the same thing.

What do you want people to know about you and your show, especially people attending Okeechobee Music and Arts Festival?
That it’s all-inclusive. From rock 'n' roll to the softest, tenderest moments of a singer/songwriter. It’s a dynamic set. It’s loud and it’s soft and it’s everything in-between. The content of the songs is not like, ‘I love you baby. Let’s go drive around in my car!’ It’s not shit. It’s talking about being a young man, the will to travel, the will to jolt you when you’re in comfort zone, what is love, what is existence, where do we go when we die, why did I break up with my girlfriend six years ago and drive to Colorado and why does that make sense now. I’m doing exactly what I want to do and no one is telling me what to do and I hope that comes out through the music. 

Okeechobee Music & Arts Festival
With Rayland Baxter and more. March 3 to 6 at Sunshine Grove, 12517 NE 91st Ave., Okeechobee. Three-day advance passes start at $269.50. Visit

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