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The 'Imaginary Man' Lives In Rayland Baxter Head


This is the song "Yellow Eyes" by Rayland Baxter on his new album, "Imaginary Man." It was singled out in the Songs We Love series by NPR Music's Ann Powers. She said it's a rare thing when an artist scores a hat trick like this - a great melody, a genius arrangement and finely crafted lyrics. No to mention, have you ever heard a song that begins with the line about a paperclip?


RAYLAND BAXTER: (Singing) There's a paper clip resting on my countertop. Sunday morning, I forgot what it's like to lose a friend.

WERTHEIMER: Rayland Baxter joins us in the studio. Welcome.

BAXTER: Hello, thank you.

WERTHEIMER: So what was the paperclip about? You found a paperclip on your countertop?

BAXTER: Yeah, I did, actually. No, it was, you know - this is funny that this paperclip has gotten so much attention.


BAXTER: I was dating a girl for a while for a few years, and we decided to part ways - just a simple conversation. We were sitting at the island in my kitchen. She kept unbending a paperclip into, like, teepee shape. And it stayed on the kitchen counter for a couple weeks after we had already broken up. And, you know, it just sits there, and I put my - put my groceries up on the table, maybe throwing a guitar up there. I was cooking, and it stayed there.

WERTHEIMER: (Laughter).

BAXTER: And I was - it became a challenge. Like, how long is that paper clip going to stay there and not get knocked over? This little paperclip becomes a symbol of resilience - of maybe, like, what we lacked as a couple.


BAXTER: (Singing) And now it's time I get find in my own way, and I'll leave you lonely.

WERTHEIMER: You name the album "The Imaginary Man." What's that?

BAXTER: Well, I had a list of probably 200 album titles...

WERTHEIMER: (Laughter).

BAXTER: ...During - when we were recording the album, and "Imaginary Man" was the second one on the list. All these songs - they exist as part of me. But within each one, there's also this - an imaginary character that I don't necessarily want to claim as me, so it's kind of a cop-out.

WERTHEIMER: (Laughter).

BAXTER: Like, yeah, I wrote this song, but I'm just going to go ahead and give it to old Mystery Joe over there. He's the imaginary man for "Paperclip" - for "Yellow Eyes," I mean. Or I got him - for example, "Mr. Rodriguez," the first track on the album.


BAXTER: I never walked down the street with Sixto Rodriguez, but an imaginary man in my head did when I was in Detroit, and I was dreaming about it all.


BAXTER: (Singing) Yesterday morning, I was walking around - me and Mr. Rodriguez on the wrong side of town.

I live in a dream world for most of the days. This is - this is why I love touring. This is why I love getting in the van with our band and singing the earth pass us by, and I can just dream.


BAXTER: (Singing) And he said, you're so much like the me, boy. Step out of your dream. Watch them all gather around, boy. It's your turn to be king 'cause you are the only one.

WERTHEIMER: Much of this album has a kind of alternative, country rock sort of feeling of it, so I wondered about this song. It's called "Rugged Lovers." This is sort of a gentle version of what you're doing.


BAXTER: (Singing) There's an empty field along the road where all the rugged lovers go to play at the end of the day.

I spent a lot of time losing relationships just 'cause I toured so much. I enjoyed touring. And I enjoyed going through these trials of life and learning how to deal with my family, learning how to deal with a lover, learning how to deal with my group of friends in Nashville. And "Rugged Lovers" is just kind of tapping into how it's hard to keep a relationship on fire when I'm gone all the time and getting along with somebody - there's just a little bit of a speed bump.


BAXTER: (Singing) 'Cause I'm so tired, and I'm so bored that I could die. Rugged lovers - you and I.

WERTHEIMER: Your dad is a famous Nashville musician - Bucky Baxter. He played pedal steel for Bob Dylan. He worked with Steve Earle and R.E.M. We can hear your father playing pedal steel, I think, on this track "Your Love."


WERTHEIMER: Sort of sliding back and forth.


BAXTER: There it is.

WERTHEIMER: You know, what I wondered about was - I assumed that when you were a kid, he was gone all the time.

BAXTER: Yeah, my parents divorced when I was two.

WERTHEIMER: Did you ever spend time with him, get to learn from him?

BAXTER: When I was young, we spent a lot of time apart 'cause he's always - he was always on the road with Steve Earle in the '80s. And then when the '90s came around, it was always with Bob. You know, in the early 2000s, he was out on the road with Ryan Adams a bunch. But when he was back in Nashville, we'd get in the car, and we'd road trip.

We'd go from Nashville to LA, Nashville to Jackson Hole, Wyo., to go snowboarding, Nashville to Nova Scotia to camp out for the summer. We'd listen to music, and he'd school me on what was cool and what wasn't in his mind. And that definitely shaped what I ended up getting into - you know, Jimi Hendrix, The Beetles, Ray Price, Creedence Clearwater. I mean, I have so many vivid memories of jamming out to all of these guys, and my dad saying - kind of pointing out - oh, this is a cool pedal steel solo, or check this out.

WERTHEIMER: If you see your recordings as a kind of a continuum - you start with one and build on that with this new recording - what do you think is going to carry you to the next place?

BAXTER: Well, I think what would carry me to the next place is experience and just kind of always being aware of my surroundings and taking notice of the way the wind blows through the trees and how the leaves make that sound on the pavement and becoming a better musician and constantly trying to tap into that song train that floats through the sky that - nobody really knows it exists, but you just pull it out. A melody comes from somewhere. And not sleeping on that, you know?

WERTHEIMER: Rayland Baxter - his new album is called "Imaginary Man." Thank you very much for coming in.

BAXTER: It's been a pleasure.


BAXTER: (Singing) I'll leave you lonely. I'll leave you lonely. I'll leave you lonely. I'll leave you lonely. I'll leave you lonely. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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