“He’s a real weirdo,” promised Billy Kearins, Coast Projects founder, when describing singer/songwriter Rayland Baxter. A self-professed space pirate with a healthy fear of sharks and a taste for Dippin’ Dots ice cream, floral patterns and mind expansion, Baxter takes his place in the long line of weirdos who have found a haven in Key West and the Florida Keys.
Baxter first visited the island as part of the annual Songwriter’s Festival. “I flew into Fort Lauderdale and took a shuttle bus down to Key West in the middle of the night. I woke up and for the first couple of blocks I thought I was in the Bahamas.” Baxter’s affinity for the end of the road was cemented when he met Kearins outside of the Green Parrot, following a set at the nearby San Carlos Institute. “When I describe Key West, I always say that I know the right people. My whole experience of the place changed when I met Billy.” Baxter and Kearins became fast friends, with the former playing the inaugural COAST Is Clear benefit concert in 2017.
Of Coast Project’s now-defunct Stock Island location, Baxter remembers, “It was beautiful. I knew COAST was a huge community project and over the years there have been awesome shows there between G. Love and The Revivalists and Langhorne Slim.” The ethos and aesthetics of COAST have proven to be as inspiring to Baxter as the music they support. “It’s DIY. It’s everything that I love about a project from the start to the end. It’s how I would build something. I’m sure Billy remembers every nail that was hammered there and the community that helped lift the hammers.”
By virtue of hard labor and good deeds, Baxter can count himself among that community. Last December, after playing the final show at COAST Stock Island, Baxter stuck around to help Kearins move out. “The fact that Ray was there during that time and had committed to helping me not only move out but to move on just tells you what a good dude he is. And instead of being mad — or even sad — at that stressful juncture in my life, we enjoyed a week of good laughs, late-night singalongs, and more than a couple of cold Modelos, all the while turning a corner into something ultimately better for me and the company,” said Kearins
Baxter has taken to spending more time on the island and away from the reaches of Northern temperatures. “The older I get the more impatient I become with winter, that dead, wet, cold. I like dipping off to Key West.” The product of one of those dips is the music video for Baxter’s single “Hey Larocco.” “The concept (for the video) is me escaping from jail, and why not dig a hole in a cell and end up popping out in Key West?” he said. Shot entirely on the island and in part on the rambling grounds of the DePoo Palace artist compound, the video follows Baxter, clad in convict stripes on the back of a borrowed bike, as he rolls past the graveyard, the library and the abandoned Harris school.
No stranger to the transformative power of a journey, Baxter’s first foray into songwriting came courtesy of a post-collegiate Israeli vision quest. “I needed to do some exploring. I was supposed to go for two weeks and stayed for six months and I kind of never really was cured of jet lag. I stayed up all night and wrote. I got obsessed with it and I filled up a bunch of notebooks.” Baxter returned home to Nashville with the raw material that would become his debut album, “Feathers & Fishhooks.”
Baxter continues to spin stories into song. In the past four years he has released two additional studio albums, played to sold-out crowds at the Newport Folk Festival and Red Rocks Amphitheatre, and shared stages with The Lumineers, Greensky Bluegrass, Shakey Graves and The Revivalists.
Music is in the blood for Baxter. His father Bucky is an acclaimed pedal steel guitarist who has played alongside the likes of Bob Dylan and Steve Earle. A reverence for the past and a purity of purpose mark the younger Baxter. “When I truly turn all of the surrounding lights off and I look at my brain in a mirror, my existence as a human on this earth, this is what I should be doing. I move forward with respect but without fear. There’s a harmonious dance that I’m doing with music and writing and it comes with ease for the most part which makes me think I have been given one of the torches.”
A devotee of the written word as much as a practitioner of it, Baxter recognizes the late great Mac Miller as a fellow torch-bearer. Earlier this year Baxter released “good mmornin,” a Miller tribute EP. Baxter donated a portion of proceeds to the Mac Miller Legacy Fund, an organization dedicated to helping young adults struggling with substance abuse. What of Baxter’s catalog would he like to see covered? “I’d like to hear Jimi Hendrix do ‘Bad Things’ and current Bob Dylan sing ‘The Cold Easy Life of a Loner.’”
Loner is a fitting track for Baxter, whose creative process demands solitude. “I like to be separated from people. When I’m too close to a bunch of humans I don’t open up with myself on a writing level.” And that opening up usually comes after the sun goes down. “I like to work in the middle of the night. When I know that everyone is outside working, trying to get on top of their mountain, I feel less motivated; but when I know everyone is asleep except for the night owls, I like to tiptoe around and write.”
Baxter will trade his tiptoeing for boot stomping when he returns to Key West for the third annual COAST Is Clear Music & Arts Festival, this time with his full band in tow.
What feeling does Baxter find when he finds himself on the island? “There’s the feeling that I could always stay here a little longer and that I’ve been accepted.” Weirdos are always welcome, Rayland, stay as long as you can.
Baxter takes the stage Thursday, Dec. 6 at The Key West Lighthouse and Friday, Dec. 7 at Andy’s Cabana for an intimate, all-access passholders show. Baxter will be joined onstage by Charleston indie rockers SUSTO. Fellow COAST is Clear performers include Philadelphia songwriter Chris Kasper, Alabama spacefolk rockers Electric Blue Yonder, local songwriter Sam Carlson and Jerrod Isaman’s Coconut Victrola.
More information, including the full festival guide, map, artist profiles and tickets, is at coastprojects.com and @coastishere on Instagram has announcements and real-time updates.
We had a few more questions for Rayland Baxter….
Full name/nickname? Rayland Allen Baxter, my nicknames are Ray Ray or Ray Bax.
Astrological sign? Sept. 26; I’m a Libra.
Best Halloween costume: I was Buckethead for five years. He might come back. I’m trying to see if I can get Buckethead to play a solo on my next album. I haven’t dressed up in a while; I’ve kind of lost my mojo.
First Concert? Tom Petty; Taj Mahal opened up. They played the Starwood Amphitheatre in Nashville, which doesn’t exist any more. It was during the Wildflowers tour and my mom took me. I remember buying the Wildflowers cassette and listening to it at summer camp. I knew every word.
Go-to karaoke song? “Neon Moon” by Brooks & Dunn and “Straight Tequila Night” by John Anderson
First record you owned? Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band
What was the last book you read? I don’t read much. My brain is so active it is a book writing itself all the time. The last book I read was “Breakfast of Champions” by Kurt Vonnegut. I liked the book “The Only Alien on the Planet,” I read it the summer after eighth grade.
What was the last movie you watched? I watched “Dances With Wolves” last night for the 90th time. I love the idea of one man in a vast land searching for himself or creating himself and sinking his roots into the earth. I love the video game Zelda for the same reason.
What is the greatest advice you’ve been given? Who gave it to you? If you’re working hard, you’re using the wrong tool – My Dad. He told me that about 10 years ago. I was probably trying to move a huge rock or a refrigerator or a safe or something, and there was probably a dolly nearby.
What would your last meal be? Dippin’ Dots. I go for the banana split flavor, but I’ll eat any of them except the cookie dough.
What is the quality you most like in a fellow human? Generosity and intellect.
What is your most treasured possession? My Easter green 1969 Plymouth Valiant. I bought it eight years ago from a used car dealer. I traded in a ’91 Jetta and $2,000 cash for it.
The title of your autobiography would be: “Animal Supplies.”
Describe your perfect day in Key West: Coffee on the front porch, a bike ride, then the bike turns into a submarine and I go explore underwater for a little bit. Then, the submarine becomes a bicycle again and there’s a canopy of pigs in a blanket hanging from the trees and I get to eat them off of strings. Then, the bike turns into a dinner table and there’s seafood and tequila and then the table turns into a portal and I end up in a galaxy far, far away where the meaning of life is explained and then I sleep on a Tempur-Pedic mattress in a room with perfect temperature and a generous and intelligent supermodel is in bed with me.