Monday, Mar 25th
7:00 pm - 10:30 pm
T. Hardy Morris
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Thoreau had Walden Pond. Kerouac had Big Sur. Rayland Baxter? He had an old rubber band factory in Franklin, Kentucky, and it suited him just fine. As one of the hardest-touring artists on the road today, Baxter’s spent most of his professional life in transit, but ever since he was a kid, he dreamed of creative seclusion someplace lonely and isolated, somewhere he could sit still and devote his every waking hour to writing without interruption or distraction. When the opportunity finally presented itself in late 2016, the Nashville native pounced.
“I packed everything in my van and moved to Franklin for three months,” says Baxter. “It was the fist time I ever got to be alone and focus solely on songs like that. All I did was write, write, write all day every day. I was obsessed.”
By the time Baxter emerged, he’d penned more than 50 tunes and crafted a detailed blueprint for his spectacular new album, ‘Wide Awake.’ Deftly produced by Butch Walker, the record infuses Baxter’s easygoing, soulful sound with British Invasion melodies and rock and roll swagger, marrying lean, muscular songwriting with adventurous, inventive arrangements. It’s a cutting, insightful collection, one that takes a sardonic view the violence, greed, and division that seem to define the modern American landscape. Rather than point a finger, though, the music holds up a mirror, offering a sober reflection of the times thoughtfully bundled in bright, infectious hooks. There’s no judgment here, only keen observation, and Baxter implicates himself as much as his neighbor through it all.
“This is an album about decision making,” he explains. “It’s about being a human at the crossroads. Do I do good or do I do evil? Do I lie or do I tell the truth? Am I going to be happy or am I going to be sad? All of these questions and emotions are things I see in myself, and they’re the same things I see in everyone else no matter where I go.”
Baxter’s built a career on capturing those sorts of timeless, deeply human sentiments, bringing colorful characters to vivid life with equal parts humor and pathos. His debut album, ‘feathers & fishhooks,’ was a critical hit praised by Interview for its “well-worn maturity,” while NPR described “Yellow Eyes,” the lead single from his 2015 follow-up, ‘Imaginary Man,’ as “close-to-perfect.” Stereogum dubbed the record “an impeccable sophomore break-out,” and Rolling Stone hailed its pairing of “whimsical narrative with often deceptively complex arrangements.” The music earned Baxter festival appearances from Bonnaroo to Newport Folk in addition to tours with an astonishing array of artists, including Jason Isbell, The Lumineers, Kacey Musgraves, The Head and The Heart, Shakey Graves, Lauryn Hill, and Grace Potter.
“The six months leading up to the release of ‘Imaginary Man,’ that was the first time I really started playing electric guitar and performing with a band,” says Baxter. “We did my first headline run and toured that album for a year-and-a-half, and the experience really opened up this whole new sound for me. It helped me figure out more of who I was as an artist and a songwriter and a traveler and a human being.”
It was with that newfound sense of self that Baxter entered Thunder Sound, the abandoned rubber band factory-turned-studio in the cornfields of Kentucky that would become his home for three months of intensive soul searching and songwriting.
“I blanketed the windows so no one could see inside,” he explains. “I laid a mattress down next to an old Wurlitzer so I had somewhere to sleep. I had a guitar, a desk with a lamp and some paper and pencils, and that was it. For fifteen hours a day, I wrote.”
When it came time to record his mountain of new songs, Baxter relocated to Santa Monica, California, where he wrangled an all-star studio band that included Dr. Dog’s Erick Slick on drums, Butch Walker on bass, Cage The Elephant’s Nick Bockrath on guitar, and piano wizard Aaron Embry (Elliott Smith, Brian Eno) on keys. A producer and artist equally at home working with massive pop stars and indie stalwarts, Walker immediately embraced Baxter’s vision for the album, and the result is a sunny and altogether charming collection. Scratch beneath the surface, though, and you’ll find it’s populated by a cast of characters who project a vision of the good life as they struggle to keep it all together behind closed doors. On the punchy ‘Casanova,’ the singer reckons with debts he knows he’ll never be able to repay, while the volatile “Amelia Baker” charts the narrator’s descent into near-madness as he pines for a starlet perpetually out of reach.
“We have this society where we’re obsessed with celebrity and living on the top of the mountain,” says Baxter. “But what’s at the top? Maybe it’s a lonely place to wake up.”
Late 2016 was a particular tumultuous time in the country, and though Baxter did his best to isolate himself from the outside world while he wrote, it was inevitable that some of the chaos would seep in. On album opener “Strange American Dream,” a chiming piano and spare Motown groove give way to lush harmonies and unexpected melodic twists as Baxter sings, “I close my eyes and realize that I’m alive inside this strange American dream.” Meanwhile, the soaring “79 Shiny Revolvers” finds him reflecting, “you really wanna save the world, man / well, I wanna save it, too / we can blow ’em away / the American way.”
While ‘Wide Awake’ offers plenty of broad, wide-angle musings, some of its most arresting moments arrive bundled inside deeply personal memories and snapshots. The heartfelt “Everything To Me” is a tender tribute to family (Baxter’s father Bucky, who played pedal steel with Bob Dylan and Ryan Adams among others, contributes to the record), and the laidback “Let It All Go Man” is a reminder that there’s beauty in simply being alive.
“I actually started that song two years ago on a trip to South America,” says Baxter. “I was sitting on the porch of a house in this little town in Colombia, and I was all alone playing a gut string classical guitar, just staring out at the ocean and the beach in the middle of the night. It made me realize how much unnecessary stuff we hold on to, all the grinding away we do chasing success and money and missing the big picture. It made me realize what an incredibly beautiful gift it is to be human.”
That empty South American beach may have been a world away from the rubber band factory in Kentucky, but for Baxter, the effect was the same. The solitude offered a chance to observe, to reflect, to grow, to appreciate, and most importantly, to write.
T. Hardy Morris
Fresh outta high school, T. Hardy Morris caught his first show at the historic Georgia Theater in Athens. Up on stage, the late Vic Chesnutt (backed by members of Widespread Panic) played a benefit concert in the memory of Lee Lawrence, a locally renowned sound engineer from Morris’s hometown who had died in a tragic tour van crash.
The sonic energy and raw emotion that night solidified in Morris the same call to adventure that had launched other Athens-born bands (R.E.M, B-52’s, The Drive-By Truckers, The Elephant 6 Collective, and more) and put the artsy college town on the map.
“A lot of southern artists who might not feel quite right in their hometowns migrate to Athens. Drawn here by the sound of a weird Southern heart, I guess,” Morris said. “I knew I had to live there.”
At its heart, Morris’ third solo-record, “Dude, The Obscure,” released via the New West Records imprint Normaltown Records, captures the Athens songwriter contemplating the paradox of everyday life. In captivating songs, Morris sheds the traps of ambition and nostalgia and uncovers the strange satisfaction of living in the moment.
Morris beautifully warns us not to succumb to the fear of missing out that stands in the way of contentment on the album’s defining moment, “Cheating Life, Living Death.” Every dream is an invitation/ To leave your love up on the shelf/ When you walk out every evening/ Cheating life and living death.
On Dude, The Obscure , Morris deftly side-steps the nostalgic, storytelling perspective in his adored solo-debut, Audition Tapes , a collection of songs inspired by defining moments growing up on the edge as America’s modern opioid epidemic struck the rural South.
Audition Tapes started as a handful of “back-pocket songs” Morris wrote while touring with Dead Confederate, the psychedelic southern rock project conceived with friends he grew up with in Augusta, Georgia.
Dead Confederate’s first single, “The Rat” anchored their debut record and introduced Morris to life on the road. They played 200-plus shows a year, opened for R.E.M., toured Europe with Dinosaur Jr. and made their national television debut on “ Late Night with Conan O’Brien.”
“We did everything, played the big festivals, toured half the world, but after our original drummer left the band, it kind of changed,” Morris said. “We still consider ourselves a band, somewhat, but we just needed to slow down after a while.”
Out on tour, Morris met Deer Tick’s John McCauley, a kindred creative spirit who invited him to join an impromptu Nashville jam session where, somehow, the indie-rock supergroup Diamond Rugs was born.
“I didn’t know most of the guys. We just hung out and recorded whatever song came up. We didn’t have a name, and weren’t even a band until the first album was almost done,” Morris said. “It was the purest way to start a band or make a record.”
Diamond Rugs — Morris, McCauley, Bryan Dufresne (Six Finger Satellite), Robbie Crowell (Deer Tick), Ian Saint Pe (Black Lips) and Steve Berlin (Los Lobos)— produced two records at the converted garage studio tucked in indie-rock producer Adam Landry’s overgrown backyard.
“Adam works like a maniac, gets invested in every song and doesn’t let anything slide until we feel good about it,” Morris said. “Right away, I knew I wanted to make records there with him.”
Since then, Landry and his partner Justin Collins produced and engineered Morris’ first two solo records, including Drownin’ On A Mountaintop , a loud country-grunge affair recorded in a mad rush before his first child was born. Landry agreed, and his along-for-the-ride vibe, and so many for-the-sake-of-the-song moments cemented their personal and professional connection.
“My first impression of Hardy? Musically, this guy is out there, like, Jimi Hendrix meets the Sex Pistols,” Landry said. “And personally, we value the same things outside of music. That’s the stuff that makes creative partnerships last.”
Morris made the familiar pilgrimage to Landry’s studio to record Dude, The Obscure in a series of almost secretive recording sessions that were different from the others thanks to his journey.
Even the album title, Dude, The Obscure , hints at the songwriter’s self-discovery. In the homage to English author Thomas Hardy’s novel, Jude, The Obscure , Morris reveals his deep love for literature, philosophy and poetry — along with a secret about his stage name.
“Thomas Hardy is my given name, and ‘Dude, The Obscure’ is a moniker I considered using as an artist,” Morris said. “The hat tip to the novel seemed appropriate for the album because it deals with doubts, joys, regrets and spirituality, a lifelong journey and such. Thankfully, my life hasn’t endured even a fraction of the tragedy the novel holds, but life is certainly complicated and unique, an individual experience for everyone, no matter how obscure.”
Morris and Landry took their time in the studio and gave each song the opportunity to grow unaffected by outside influence except the magic that happens when two friends lock themselves in a smoky shed to make music, and a few pals stop by.
“We tried to stay present in the recording process. We weren’t concerned with genre or style to take songs in any direction other than where they seemed to take us. If it was creepy, we followed the creepy,” Morris said.
“The record has a darkness but it’s held in harmony with a light that acknowledges the other side of our personalities. It’s not as important to drive out the shadows as it is to acknowledge their existence and keep them where they belong.”
In a lot of ways, Dude, The Obscure flows from a conflicting creative space Morris found at the intersection of dreams and reality. Each song on the album seems compelled by Morris’ desire to help himself— and others— conquer the void of everyday meaninglessness. It’s an effort philosopher Maurice Blanchot described as the anguish of writing: “You have to cross an abyss, and if you do not jump, you do not comprehend.”
Morris takes that leap to find universal truth by navigating sometimes opposing perspectives within moments that change lives.
On “Homemade Bliss,” Morris’s haunting vibrato (backed up by McCauley) perfectly frames a fatalist view on our uncertain future with poetic precision: “Wherever it is that you are standing/ That is the center of the earth / Wherever it is that we are going / We have been going there since birth.”
“NY” is the familiar story of how the big city, for better or worse, changes people who search for better lives in different ZIP Codes only to discover you “Can’t fight the everyday / No matter where you are.”
“The Night Everything Changed” (featuring Vanessa Carlton) examines the dramatic cumulative effect of nights of debauchery from the perspective of a man confronted by the consequences. “Chaos, brought on the spot / Got what we needed / Wanted it or not.”
Lyrically, Morris doubles down on the theme of living through the aftermath of one’s choices on, “When The Record Skips”: Where will you hide when I cave in / When the party is over, and the record skips.”
With Dude, The Obscure , T. Hardy Morris has stepped into the sun and shed himself of the genre-bending labels critics used to define his earlier works.
Within 11 powerful songs, the Athens rocker reveals scars and shares lessons from an indie-rock odyssey that has taken him around the world and back home to find himself a little older and closer to something like enlightenment.
And just in time for a new journey to begin.