It’s introspection and retrospection with a chin lifted to the horizon on John Baumann’s Country Shade. Tackling his pains and passions with honesty, Baumann brings the world into view with personal and heartfelt songs that question what it is to be alive while making the most of every “ride around the sun.” Country Shade marks the second recent project for the Texas singer-songwriter following the release of The Panhandlers, a collection of songs written and recorded with fellow Lonestar artists Josh Abbott, Cleto Cordero, and William Clark Green that debuted this past spring. Speaking from his home in Austin, John took the time to talk about the new album, his craft, and what’s happening in his life as he– like so many other artists– attempts to navigate the music industry during the COVID-19 pandemic.
AI- I imagine that you’d planned to be out either touring the Country Shade album or out with your pals in The Panhandlers at this point. What’s the landscape in Austin lookin’ like right now?
JB- Man… Things are not good in Texas right now. All of a sudden again! (Groans) It would have been a Country Shade tour or a Panhandlers, one of the two, and I really wished that was what’s going on. But yeah, Texas is not the best place to be all of a sudden.
How’s it goin’ with the live music out there? I recently spoke to Whitney Rose and she said there was a few places opening back up.
It seems like a few places opened back up, but just to be honest, a few of the bands that have been out playin’ have all got guys in their crew that have gotten sick. So it’s kind of a strange time on both sides of the stage. I’ve been doin’ occasional, like backyard, social distancing house concerts here and there when I feel safe about it. But, man, it is just a crazy time. I know Randy Rogers Band was supposed to have a show at Floore’s this weekend and they had to cancel because of the government regulations. It is all over the place, but I have a feeling it’s about to shut back down.
I kinda got that same feeling, but the silver lining, if you want to call it that, is that everybody is continuing to release new music and you’ve just done that with Country Shade. And it’s something that I find extremely wild, so wild in fact, that it can’t possibly be a coincidence is the number of albums that are coming out that deal with the heartache and confusion that so often accompanies change, whether that’s a personal change or it has wider implications. And that’s certainly an ongoing dilemma on your new album.
Yeah, it really is. I tip my hat to everybody that’s out there releasin’ records ’cause it’s such a gamble, but at the same time, if you’ve been sittin’ on something for a year or two, you want to get it out and get it heard. [Country Shade], especially on a number of songs, really deals with what’s going on in the world right now and in our country. So kind of a strange coincidence that they aligned– not for the better but just coincidentally.
You even preface the album with a quote from Teddy Roosevelt that I’ll just sort of paraphrase, but basically that inaction is no action at all. Either you win or you fail, but you can’t know the feeling of either one until you try. I think that that’s a really a defining quality of what’s happening in the country right now for music and amongst the civil unrest.
I couldn’t agree more and it’s kind of like an object in motion stays in motion. Also on top of that, I love that Roosevelt quote. I’ve put it on my last two records in the liner notes. It hangs in my house too. It just means so darn much to me. I’m glad you noticed that.
You bring up the last couple of records. Let’s talk about Proving Grounds. The emotion that was on that album is still very fresh on Country Shade. Mortality seems to be a recurring theme as well. How old are you?
You got kids?
I got one. He’s five months old and he’s screamin’ in the other room (laughs)!
So I would guess that some of these songs that you had been writing during the enthusiasm of becoming a new father? Is that where a lot of that particular emotion is coming from? Those questions?
It definitely starts there, but I have to say just over the last decade, I’ve experienced a decent amount of loss in friends and family. It’s something that is always on my mind and it’s something I struggle with and something I wish I didn’t think about so much. It’s found its way to some of my songs. But sometimes it feels good to write songs in that vein and get them out and get them off my chest. It just helps me deal with the anxiety of how fragile life is.
I’ve always felt that writing from that personal aspect is very therapeutic. Do you feel like you’ve become more personal in your songwriting? And is that one of the reasons why? Is it helping you make sense of a lot of these questions that you have?
Yeah, I really have become more personal in my songwriting and I didn’t really realize I was doing it until people started sayin’ it to me. I started noticing– and on Proving Grounds people were sayin’, “This is the first John Baumann record that feels like it’s actually John’s story.” I’ve read some reviews and whatnot, and people have said even more so on [Country Shade]. But these are things that I think about all the time, and I feel like they’re the important things to talk about in a strange way. I’m a kind of guy, like if we’re having a beer in the backyard, man, I’m all about gettin’ right into the nitty gritty of life and death in a weird way and theories and philosophies… Small talk’s fun and joking around’s fun, and I’m all about it, but these are some of the most important questions. They might be a bit of a buzzkill, but it does help me deal with it. And I think it’s one of the more interesting aspects of life. That’s what encouraged me to write about it more.
There’s that quaint old curse, “May you always live in interesting times.” And it seems that we’re living in the most interesting. As a songwriter, but also as a father with a new five-month-old baby, you have to be gettin’ pulled in two different directions then– of wanting to chronicle everything that’s happenin’, but at the same time, wantin’ to enjoy that time that you have with your young family.
No kidding! In a weird way, I’m a little grateful. I’m not grateful, but I’ll say the silver lining of the pandemic is I’ve been able to be home for the first five months of his life, and I’ve gotten to see him grow. It’s not like I come home and he’s bigger every time, and I feel like I’m missin’ out. I’m able to be home– but at the same time, I love what I do and I worked hard on this album and I’ve been working hard for the last five to eight years on building my craft. I’m still a work in progress, but it’s an interesting time to be home with a record out. And it’s an interesting time to not be on the road with a record out. It’s ultimately confusing having no idea when things are gonna go back to normal. I don’t think it’s gonna happen anytime soon, unfortunately.
The main thing, the common denominator amongst everybody that I’m speaking to is that no one has a plan. No one knows what’s going on. And the main thing aside from the general fear of the pandemic that folks are lamenting is that they can’t go out and play their new material. They’re ready to go and do that. And so you’ve got artists sitting at home writing for albums that they don’t even want to make because they haven’t gotten to play the newest.
That’s a fair point. I’m a little bit in a different mindset. I’m not always writing, but I’m always like, “What’s the next song? What’s the next idea? What’s the next melody chord change? What’s the next thing?” The truth is I make a song or make a record and then I have it for six months or a year or two years before I release it. And I go through a bit of a burnout stage with it, I think, and that’s common. It’s probably not the best thing ever, but I’m always looking at what’s the next move with making music. I do enjoy touring, I like playing shows, but I’m really interested in catalog building and being able to look back on what I’ve done over a 20 or 30-year span and be like, “These are all the songs I wrote and records I made.” It’s a little bit of a detriment, but in a weird way, I’m always looking at what the next thing is instead of trying to really maximize the potential of one record.
Well, that’s interesting. You had Kenny Chesney release one of your songs in 2018 [“Gulf Moon”]. You talk about catalog building. Are you excited at the prospect of having other artists pick up your material and run with it?
No doubt. I think that’s my favorite thing about this whole business and the Chesney thing was such a crapshoot and such a lucky, lucky, lucky thing to have happened for me. Outside song, I don’t have a publishing deal, I hardly know anybody in Nashville… I know a few people, but it was just such a lucky thing. My goal in this business is to have songs recorded, but it’s a crazy goal because I just think it’s so incredibly rare in a way. If I get lucky, boy, I will go to the liquor store and spend $500 and celebrate! (Laughs) In the meantime, I just got to keep workin’ and hopin’ to write a good one and one that catches somebody’s ear.
I want to talk to you about The Panhandlers for just a minute, ’cause I really enjoyed that album and I’ll admit that was my first introduction to all of you fellas on that record. You had set out for that to be a Flatlanders tribute, but you ended up just goin’ ahead and writin’ your own songs for the album. How did that happen? How did you go from tribute to, “Hey, let’s write our own album?”
I think originally the guys and really [Josh] Abbott was the driving force behind, “Let’s make a great record of cover songs that originate from the West Texas panhandle region,” and we were all on board for that. I think once we got Bruce Robison on board to produce it and underwrite it and sponsor it, he was really of the mind that we should be writing our own original material. That sounded cool to me. I was on board and it morphed from a full-on cover project to an original project, but I would really say that it was Bruce’s ideas that encouraged us to do that.
Did you guys actually end up recording any Flatlanders songs?
We did not! We didn’t record one cover! (Laughs) Not one!
I appreciate how that evolved though! How did you guys get involved with Bruce Robison? I mean, Texas songwritin’ legend royalty?
To be honest, Abbott, really thought Bruce was the right guy to produce the record. Bruce has a studio in Lockhart, Texas about 35 minutes from Austin. He calls it The Bunker. It’s a little house, one giant room with a small control room, everything’s recorded to tape… But he just felt like aesthetically and sonically, it was the right place to do it. We did it over two weeks and Bruce also has a label called The Next Waltz. They’re in-house– they do marketing, social media, publicity, everything. It just a great way to not only make music but be able to present it to the world so that as many eyeballs and ears could get on it.
And you are now part of The Next Waltz label. Was that what led you to joinin’ up with that organization?
Frankly it is. Bruce and I have been pals for a few years. We’ve done a couple of acoustic tours together and just watchin’ The Next Waltz put this project out into the world was really impressive to me– and I’ve never worked with a label before. I’m getting a little older and I have a kid and maybe it’s time to take this and have some help with it instead of trying to do everything myself. It’s great to be on the team.
I read a quote about the new album where you said that once upon a time, “things were not so complex or complicated, and it’s comforting to think they could be that way again someday if we want them to.” How do we begin to get back or do we simply go forward to a new unconfusing time?
I think the only way out is through. You gotta move on to the next plane. Without getting too political, 9/11 really rocked the world– but if you really think about it, it really rocked the world in terms of air travel and homeland security. This is a whole new thing that’s caused reason for possible change. I feel like the last few years has been a really complicated time politically and socially, but there’s a whole new world on the other side of this that is waiting for us. It’s just gonna be up to humanity to see if we have it in us to make changes for the better. And it’s so many things from little things to big things! It’s an opportunity and it’s crazy to see if anybody will seize it or not.