.Rayland Baxter Flys into Rio Theatre for May 14 Concert

Rayland Baxter maps melodies like a hopeful scout surveying an ever-expanding territory of sound. A legacy artist (his late father Bucky Baxter was a multi-faceted guitarist whose resume includes Steve Earle & The Dukes, Bob Dylan, and the Beastie Boys among others), Baxter managed to avoid the lure of the stage for nearly the first three decades of his life, instead focusing on athletics and outdoor pursuits before answering the call.

The proverbial duck to water, Baxter glided onto the scene with 2012’s Feathers & Fish Hooks with subsequent offerings Imaginary Man (2015) and Wide Awake (2018) plumbing sonic and lyrical depths, and in 2019, Rayland paid tribute to Mac Miller with the largely self-produced Good Mornin’, a leg-stretcher of an EP that heralded his next evolutionary bender, his current album If I Were a Butterfly.

Gestating across a pattern of pre-COVID months and into the thick of the pandemic and beyond, Baxter’s Bufferfly manipulates genre and sound reminiscent of final-phase Beatles and ever-chimerical Bowie. It’s a mixtape of the artist’s life, a reach back and hurl forward that comes across equal parts adventure and therapy, and like the titular lepidopteran, chronicles Baxter’s “becoming.”

“That’s what we’re doing,” said Baxter during a recent early afternoon phone call, a woodpecker keeping time in the background. “Fifteen years ago, I was living in Israel with my dad’s best friend and he was kind of like my mentor of songwriting as a listener and a fan. All he had was Bob Dylan DVDs and Leonard Cohen DVDs and albums, and that Bob Dylan documentary where he says, ‘An artist is always in a state of becoming.’ Zooming out, a human, we’re all becoming—even on our deathbed. There’s always the next chapter.”

For this installment, Baxter set up hearth and shop in Franklin, Kentucky at Thunder Sound Studios. Then came the pandemic.

With no prospect of touring and no immediate call from his label, ATO, to issue an album, Baxter found an opportunity at Thunder Sound Studios to indulge in a dream recording experience for If I Were a Butterfly.

“It was at the third phase of it when I was there for a year, where the Swayze family rented me the studio for very cheap,” recalled Baxter, referencing the family of songwriter Billy Swayze, who founded the studio in 2016 and sadly died in a 2019 auto accident.

“There was no time limit, and coming out of it, that was ideal incubation for an artist of any kind, whether you’re a chef, a painter, musician, or a mechanic. All of these things were at my fingertips and I was allowed to become more of a defined me in that time,” he explained. “It’s the first record I’ve made where I leaned on myself a lot, thanks to the encouragement of guys like Shakey Graves and my friend Wes Schultz in the Lumineers and my dad. I love recording with producers, but this was my time to do this thing, and just be with my friends, the other producers, Kai Welch and Tim O’Sullivan—my buddies! There was no pressure.”

Highlights among Butterfly’s 10 tracks include the Tom Waits-ish and autobiographical “Tadpole,” the almost Gregorian “Violence,” the “Sgt, Pepper-y” “Dirty Knees” (with its trumpet and claim that “the heart is a beautiful instrument”) and the deceptive funk of “Buckwheat,” a master blend of strange poetry, cadence, and commentary.

For those curious to how Baxter intends to carry the mosaic of If I Were a Butterfly on tour, the artist himself admits to the challenge, but he also embraces it.

“I knew that it was going to be a little tricky when I was making the album. To really pull off that album live, to sound similar and present it as though it is the album happening, I would need 12 people in the band,” said Baxter. “[But] a song should exist in all forms. It should exist as a poetry reading, a chapter in a book, the President of the United States should be able to read it and it makes sense to somebody, or with a symphony and anything in between. It might sound a little different than the record, but it’s going to pump in a whole new way.”

As far as how the songs fit around the rest of Baxter’s catalog, new and longtime fans can expect an experience curated for the moment.

“I got all colors of the spectrum in a set from “Feathers & Fish Hooks” and “Willy’s Song”—it’s almost too much at points. Some nights, we’ve got to lean a little heavier on the quieter stuff, and some nights we want to take “Young Man” and play it for 20 minutes. “If I Were a Butterfly,” usually, we start the set with that song,” Baxter said. “It’s a whole new thing like coming out of the cocoon.”

Rayland Baxter plays May 14 at 8pm at the Rio Theatre. Tickets are $29.50. Advance tickets at etix.com.


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