The alternative country star delivered a magnetic & wholesome performance at Phoenix’s Crescent Ballroom
“We gather here to celebrate everything.”
Rayland Baxter is a champion. With his right leg clad in a thick white cast, he crutched his way to a makeshift throne on the far side of the Crescent Ballroom stage, uncomfortably kicked his foot onto an ottoman, and ripped away into the night. A gnarly Colorado timber sled injury in late March could have crippled Baxter and his hopes of playing his new record If I Were A Butterfly across the United States, but he was not willing to give in. At great risk to his health and his sanity, he is still trekking with his band across the country to tell his stories, only postponing two shows. “The show must go on.”
I had the incredible opportunity to sit down with the man and chat about challenges, comforts, and big ideas backstage on April 4, 2023 before Liz Cooper opened the show at Crescent Ballroom in Phoenix. It was not an ordinary sit-down. Josh, my good friend and Rayland’s biggest fan, joined me in the interview. Josh is a young man with Down syndrome that dreams of becoming a rockstar himself. I’m not sure I’ve experienced a more wholesome moment. It can be dangerous to meet your heroes, but the grace and good energy of Baxter’s music doesn’t come out of nowhere. We can all rest assured that the effortlessly smooth and groovy feel in his specific brand of alternative music – which swings seamlessly from rock to country to jazz to hip hop on his newest offering If I Were A Butterfly – is a genuine representation of the man himself. I have decided to include a few of Josh’s excited interjections here.
Just wanted to check in and see how the energy is. Obviously, there are a lot of challenges on this tour, but how are you feeling?
RAYLAND: I’m good, man. I could dread the challenge of having a broken ankle with screws and plates and pins in there now, but it would be a lot harder if I was by myself. Everybody’s been helping me out big time. I’m talking like…a good barback to a bartender: you’ve got an empty bottle of tequila, you turn around, and there’s a full one right there. They’re always predicting the next move. Because it can get awful awfully quickly. The show must go on, though. We only postponed two shows.
I noticed that. That’s huge. When I first saw the announcement (of the injury), I was pretty spooked.
RAYLAND: The idea of going home was depressing. If I could sit down and play, maybe be in a little pain, it’d be all good.
JOSH: I had a chicken burrito.
RAYLAND: I had some steak today. Did you eat the whole burrito?
JOSH: (Giant smile) Yes.
RAYLAND: It was a battle and you won? Heck yeah. The shows have been sold out and well-attended, too. The band is awesome. This is the first time I’ve gone out with just a four piece, so there’s more room for everybody to do their thing. Mistakes stand out a little bit more, and everyone’s got more responsibility. It feels right.
Beautiful. What’s something that’s bringing you comfort?
RAYLAND: The people that I’m with. The mission that is greater than whatever I personally feel like doing in a day’s time. It’s a social service – being a musician that people would want to listen to. That brings me peace. Traveling brings me peace. Being able to fall back on these guys…it’s a good team.
I feel like it’s important to check in and make sure everything is grooving amidst everything.
RAYLAND: Absolutely. We’re playing music for a living, man.
And we can’t thank ya enough for coming through. What’s a meal you’re missing from home?
RAYLAND: VN Pho & Deli. It’s the best. They have this coffee-slushi-boba drink, and it’s so good. I miss it. Sky King Pizza, too.
Josh: I’m getting a job soon.
RAYLAND: Heck yeah, brother! (Impossibly, Josh smiles bigger).
Well we hope you get back there soon, but not too soon. There’s a new record. What’s been a pretty part about bringing it around the country? Any special riffs or lyrics or moments that come to mind, specifically with the new music?
RAYLAND: This is the first time ever that I’ve made a record with the guys I’m touring with. There were probably 15 other people that made the record with me, but these three were there the entire time, so they know it. They made it. I don’t have to pull the weight of explaining the creation of the song when we just created it. It feels good.
It feels good that the energy can be maintained throughout and expanded almost?
RAYLAND: Yes. And with musicians in Nashville, at least, lots of musicians play on lots of records and they do lots of tours with other artists, so for everyone to be available is amazing. And our van is really shining right now. We’ve got 435,000 miles on our sprinter van.
Making it work!
RAYLAND: Oh, it’s like it’s brand new.
Are you able to write right now? Do you write on tour?
RAYLAND: I don’t really write until it hits a head after a record cycle. I’m always recording stuff with my phone. Then I go and dedicate a few months to sift through all the voice memos and pull out the good stuff, but I hardly ever write stuff down these days. 15 years ago, all I had was notebooks. But I’m always composing and compiling. When you’re driving down the road, something’s beautiful, I’ll remember it. I’ll hear a melody.
Something to take with ya. Solid. I want to take a moment and thank you personally for “Let It All Go, Man.” That tune…I lost my father a couple years back and that tune helped me out a bunch.
RAYLAND: My dad is playing on that song – that was always his advice. “Calm down, Ray. You’ve just gotta let some things go. You’ve gotta let it go.”
From the bottom of my heart, man, thank you.
RAYLAND: I don’t know where that song came from. I can’t even say you’re welcome.
Do you mean you were just a sort of conduit?
RAYLAND: I think that’s all it is. I don’t know. I could put words together, but there’s something way bigger going on. Songs take form and then they have meaning. We were on our way to a guitar shop today, and I was saying that on the next record, I’m going to write about sitting on a beach with a horse to see if it comes true.
Just gonna manifest it?
RAYLAND: Yes. And I’m gonna play “Let It All Go, Man” tonight now. It’s just such a heavy song. It’s not obvious, but it is heavy for the listener because you can translate it for yourself. There are some lines like “the lines on my face” or “the blind see the same as me,” and you can have an epiphany within that song.
On my favorite days, that whole record was the one I’d toss on. So thank you, truly. It means a lot to me. What tunes are helping you out nowadays like that tune helped me out?
RAYLAND: Buck Meek and Adrienne Lenker (Grabs his phone and scrambles for the goods) This song “Jonathan.” I love this song, man. “Time After Time,” Cyndi Lauper.
JOSH: “Time After Time”?
RAYLAND: Yeah, you know that one. (He sings the melody for Josh.) “Raven’s Song” by Aaron Embry. All of Time Out Of Mind. “Passin’ Me By” by The Pharcyde. And this dude…GRW. He’s my neighbor in Tennessee. He was a pot farmer in California. He quit, probably made a bunch of cash, and he bought a farm in Tennessee. I came across his album at the local coffee shop, listened to it, and tracked him down that day. His wife is babysitting my dog right now. This album called Marijiuana Murder Ballads…it’s good. It’s great, actually.
Excellent. Well, we’ll let you get back to it. We can’t thank you enough for taking the time to check in with us.
JOSH: Thank you, Rayland!
RAYLAND: Of course. Josh is getting a job here soon! What shirt size are you?
Arm in arm, Josh and I danced the night away with the crowd of strangers that Baxter brought together. There were smiles. There were tears.
In the meat of the show, Baxter swooped up his acoustic guitar, queuing the band to dip backstage for a few. “I want my show to be a party, but I’ve gotta quit that shit. This can be heavy for me to sing, but I want to sing it.” He picked the first couple chords of “Let It All Go, Man.” The room became palpably, dreamily calm. There was reflective peace on every face within sight. I believe that we all had something to “let go” that night. We have Rayland, his father, and that “something way bigger” to thank for the reminder.