The first time I heard Nashville singer/songwriter Rayland Baxter’s “Yellow Eyes” I was seized by an unlikely association: Santana. There’s a careening, golden guitar riff strung all throughout the song that evokes a billowing, unmistakably Latin vibe. This was only one of many times Baxter’s album surprised me as I listened, but I was drawn back to that track over and over — it’s easily the record’s stand-out. Still, the way Baxter pulls in nearly every genre imaginable without losing his own voice is what helps Imaginary Man float above the over-populated Americana/songwriter fray.
Baxter is the son of moderately-famous slide guitar player Bucky Baxter, who jammed with Bob Dylan, Steve Earle, Ryan Adams and R.E.M., and it’s easy to imagine son eagerly listening and internalizing each of these artists while his father was off recording or touring. Raised in Nashville, Baxter eventually struck out as a musician in 2012 with Feathers & Fishhooks. Three years later he’s left such explicit signifiers in the past, and emerged with an impeccable sophomore break-out.
Racking up praise from reliable indie-Americana supporters like NPR and Rolling Stone Country, Baxter also caught the ear of the fashion crowd and the illustrious New York Times, who are streaming his new record ahead of its release next week. And it’s immediately clear why he’s escaped the country/roots pigeonhole: his voice has the same pliant dreaminess as Marcus Mumford. Arguably, Mumford’s gorgeous tenor is a huge part of the reason his folksy band shot to fame, he’s that compelling a vocalist — but Imaginary Man doesn’t go anywhere near the blender-bluegrass and always-soaring heights of Sigh No More or Babel.
Instead, it’s all about balance. Album opener “Mr. Rodriguez” twists magical realism into a song, imagining a friendship between Baxter and the elusive, legendary cult figure Sixto Rodriguez aka Sugar Man. Jittery electric guitars stipple this day dream, and are reprised in even scratchier, menacing form for wanderlust anthem “Young Man.” Even when this song gets heavy, it never loses its ’70s swampy outlaw vibe. “Freakin Me Out” is almost stoner-pop psychedelia, and “Your Love” will please all the Musgraves diehard types who vow to love they will Glenn Campbell vibe well into the next millennium and beyond. There’s a few moments that get straight-up Shins-era-twee — “Mother, Mother” is a bit of a struggle, even for me — but mostly this record is choose-your-own-adventure indie-country-bliss. Don’t even try to tell me “Yellow Eyes” doesn’t grab you from the opening note and thrust you into doe-eyed sunset reverie. On Imaginary Man Baxter proves that Nashville sensibilities can work like a prism: filtering indie, pop, outlaw and gospel into the musical ethos of a single man. One thing’s for sure, he’s got a hell of an imagination. Listen.
Baxter is currently on tour opening for Grace Potter. Check out his upcoming tour dates below:
08/06 Boulder, CO @ Triple A Radio Conference
08/06 Denver, CO @ Lost Lake Lounge
08/07 Santa Fe, NM @ Lensic Performing Arts Center
08/08 Phoenix, AZ @ Celebrity Theatre
08/09 Tucson, AZ @ Rialto Theatre
08/11 Los Angeles, CA @ The Hotel Cafe
08/13-14 Hollywood, CA @ The Fonda Theatre
08/15 Oakland, CA @ Fox Theater
08/30 Nashville, TN @ 3rd and Lindsley
09/26 New Orleans, LA @ The Landing Festival
10/02 Austin, TX @ Austin City Limits Music Festival
01/06-11 Miami, Belize City, Cozumel @ Jam Cruise
Imaginary Man is out 8/14 via ATO Records. Pre-order it here.