On the opening track of his new album, Wrong Side of the River, Rob Baird forcefully declares “Ain’t Nobody Got a Hold on Me.” With a down-to-the-bone, funky blues lick, the tune echoes the swampiness of Memphis blues before it rockets off in the direction of an early Tom Petty rocker, replete with crystalline lead riffs to close out the tune. Baird’s vocals moan momentarily over what he’s lost before shouting out: “ain’t nobody got a hold on me/Been runnin’ like a dog for all my life/And I guess I’m gonna always be/playin’ my cards in the dark of night/But ain’t nobody got a hold on me.”
It’s a perfect opener for this Austin songwriter who’s declaring his independence from the clichés of Nashville country pop on this new album. After being on the wrong side of the river—so to speak—for his first two albums, he’s back on the shores of the soulful waters from which he’s drunk since his days of growing up in Memphis. Baird’s invests his wide-open approach to songwriting with a hard-wrought honesty burnished in the fires of compromises with himself and struggles to make music he felt was not true to his own vision. Wrong Side of the River delivers wrenching punches to the gut, with powerhouse blues rock and soul, as well as poignant pulls on our hearts with heart-rending ballads like “Run of Good Luck.” The band that joins Baird on this new effort includes producer Brian Douglass Philips on guitar, steel guitar, and organ; Fred Mandujano on drums and percussion; Z Lynch on bass; Jacob Hildebrand on guitars; and, Jamie Harris on background vocals.
“Mercy Me” opens with Phillips’ screaming B3 and gallops off into a fast shuffle that begs at once for some kind of insight into the ways that love has the strength to make use powerless; once we find love, we can’t hold it; once we find love, if we hold it too tightly it causes our hearts and bodies to bleed: “seems like finding love is harder than I’d ever thought it’d be/been holding onto nothing/now it’s tearing at the seams/my hands are on the reins and I’m runnin’ wide open/beaten down and broken/your gentle ways remind me of the man I wish I was.” On the last phrase of the song, Baird elides the title words just enough that they come across as “no mercy,” a fitting end to a song that pleads for the mercy of understanding and stability. The racing rhythm of the instruments mirrors the frenetic character of the singer’s search for some clarity about love.
Duane Eddy meets Elvis meets Dwight Yoakam on the guitar-fueled “Pocket Change,” a defiant declaration that the singer won’t be a kept man: “I don’t want to love you anymore/I’m nobody’s pocket change.”
Phillips’ spare piano weaves under Baird’s stark vocals on “Run of Good Luck,” a tender, steel-drenched ballad that looks to life beyond the borders of the place where life constrains every choice. As his lover stares out in the wind, the singer reminds her that there is a world beyond what she can see; let’s find our way; let’s take our chances, he reminds Maria: “I got no expectations/life just gets in the way/why don’t we just roll the dice/and head down the interstate/ain’t you tired of this town/life just seems to sink into the ground/we were born to be better than this/pack your bags, Maria/think it’s time we rolled the dice and hoped for a run of good luck.”
“Wrong Side of the River” opens with the sonic guitars of a power pop ballad before shading off into a spoken story-song replete with another Petty-like guitar bridge. It’s a tale of going down to the place where you make your destiny and recognizing that sometimes the bright lights that seduced you in the first place might just be on the wrong side of the river.
It’s fitting that Baird closes the album with a slow folk ballad, “Cowboy Cliché,” in which he sings of being “a perfect stranger in a strange, strange place.” On an album that opens with such a powerful pronouncement, the final song puts the exclamation point on the theme: nobody’s going to hold me back now, shouts Baird, who’s also not going to be confined to any musical clichés that reduce his music to a simple generic category.
I caught with Rob Baird recently to chat about his new album.
Henry Carrigan: Tell me the story of the album.
Rob Baird: Well, I got out of college, and I was lucky enough to get a record deal. I got a crash course in the music business, and I recorded two records with Carnival Records. I moved to Nashville, but after a year, and I realized I needed to get back to Texas. On those first two albums, I didn’t feel like I was translating who I really was into the music. On this new album, I think I’ve captured the essence of who I really am as an artist. Plus, on this album I got to record with good friends in my touring band. We just started our own record label down here in Austin, Hard Luck Recording Company, and we put the record out on it.
HC: How did you select the songs? Did you leave some one the studio floor?
Baird: Man, I had a bunch of songs; I had a handful that I knew that I absolutely wanted to record. Ideally, I wanted to have all the songs, but I had about seven songs finished and completed three more during the sessions. I wrote the album in Nashville, and I’d write with Ruston Kelly—he and I co-wrote “Run of Good Luck.” He’s an uber-talented guy; you put a guitar in his hands, and magic comes out. We went down to Music Row, and I stated a song about how weird it was in West Texas; we finished the song in about 45 minutes. I’m already five songs into the next album.
HC: What’s the narrative arc to the album?
Baird: It reflects my own journey. Life is hard; life is tragic, life is beautiful. You have to push things along to get where you want to be. This album was kind of like therapy.
HC: Where did you get the title?
Baird: “Wrong Side of the River” was one of the first songs we recorded. It embodies the process of life and my own journey. It’s about trying to push through the bad stuff to get to the stuff that’s meaningful.
HC: Talk a little about your approach to songwriting.
Baird: I try to spend three days a week where I sit down and write from 3-5pm. I don’t always like writing at 10 in the morning. (laughs) Songwriting is a craft you keep honing; you just have to keep doing it and have to be diligent and focused. I have the chance to listen to my gut instincts, and then I listen to as much music as I can in a week; I also read a lot of books about songwriting. One of my favorites is Tom T. Hall’s book about songwriting [The Songwriter’s Handbook].
HC: So, what music are you listening to right now?
Baird: If you ask me tomorrow, my answer will change (laughs), but right now I’m listening to Courtney Barnett, Lera Lynn, Chuck Berry, and this group called Japancakes because I love the way they use pedal steel in their music.
HC: What are the elements of a great song?
Baird: It’s gotta have a level of honesty and a little bit of tragedy. My favorite songs are the ones where you can really tell the singer is saying what really happened; plus, a little tragedy goes a long way.
HC: Who are your three greatest musical influences?
Baird: Tom Petty: he’s been able continually to move through the times and write through the eras. Lucinda Williams: she’s also always had some great guitar players in her band. Whiskeytown: Stranger’s Almanac is one of my favorite albums; I really like that element of freakishness that Ryan Adams was displaying back then.
HC: What’s your favorite mistake?
Baird: I had a few false starts on this album. I hadn’t really built a vision for the album yet, so I lost a lot of blood, sweat, and tears over it; I broke my soul down some; once I started it, though, it was the right time and it fell into place.
HC: How do you think you’ve evolved as an artist?
Baird: Man, I play a lot of shows, and that has really helped me to be a better musician, singer, and songwriter. I’m a lot happier than I used to be, too, and I’m excited about where I’m going with my music and my life.
HC: What’s next for you?
Baird: I definitely want to do more producing; looking forward to that. I want to have the next record going by January. I am also lucky to be working with so many people who are passionate about the music. I feel like I’m writing more personal songs now, too.