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Rob Baird will be the first one to tell you that he hasn’t always been 100%, shall we say, forthright as a songwriter. Back in college (not too terribly long ago), he recorded an album that he has since “completely buried” — primarily, he says, because back then, “I just wasn’t writing about anything that really meant anything to me.” His next album, 2010’s Blue Eyed Angels (which he considers his proper debut), was a fair deal closer to his heart, but even then he was still an artist in search of himself. Songs like “Could Have Been My Baby,” “Blue Eyed Angels” and especially “Fade Away” all demonstrated that he was ultra-confident in the hooks department and talented enough to sound like he knew what he was doing, but Baird himself was still not entirely convinced.
By striking contrast, one listen to his new album, the aptly titled I Swear It’s the Truth, and it’s clear that Baird has not only found his sincere artistic identity, but grabbed his sense of purpose by the wheel and pushed pedal to the metal. “I’m moving like the wind through the trees, like a train on a track, there ain’t no stopping me,” he declares on the opening “Dreams and Gasoline. “Let the wheels spin free.”
Three years of touring successfully can have an effect on one’s confidence, as does the benefit of just having a little more time to mature. Baird, now 25, wrote and recorded Blue Eyed Angels when he was only 21, at the end of his senior year at Fort Worth’s Texas Christian University. Baird stayed in Texas after graduation (relocating to Austin) and began carving out his own niche. But even as Blue Eyed Angels found traction on regional radio on the strength of his steady touring and solid singles like “Could Have Been My Baby” and “Fade Away,” Baird formulated his own style, cut with guitars both jangly and crunchy and crisscrossed by rivers of pedal steel and tasteful organ, that quickly set him apart from rest of the Texas crowd.
Since then, Baird has drawn favorable comparisons to artists from the wider Americana landscape like Ryan Adams, Chris Knight, John Mellencamp, and Tom Petty.
Scott Davis, long-time Hayes Carll band member, produced both Blue Eyed Angels and I Swear It’s the Truth. “I met Scott through my first manager, and he started taking me under his wing,” Baird says. “Scott was a pretty big influence as far as going, ‘You can be two kinds of people: You can be a party band, or you can try to be an artist.’” Baird picked the latter.
Last March — three years after making Blue Eyed Angels but less than a year after the album’s release — Baird and Davis began work on I Swear It’s the Truth at Austin’s Cedar Creek Recording studio. They had to work around both Baird’s and Carll’s touring schedules, though, which allowed Baird plenty of time to fine tune his latest batch of songs and Davis time to assemble the perfect team. In addition to Baird (guitar) and Davis (guitar, banjo, piano, and organ), the album features guitarist Keith Gattis; Carll’s rhythm section of drummer Kenny Smith and bassist Cody Foote; pedal steel and dobro players Ricky Ray Jackson and Ben Kitterman; and background vocal support from Kelly Mickwee of the Trishas and Ed Jurdi and Gordy Quist of the Band of Heathens. Near the end of the sessions in January, guitarist Woodrow Morgan and drummer Nate Coon from Baird’s road band came in to play on one of the pedal-steel laced “Same Damn Thing.”
“That’s actually my favorite song on the record, I think,” says Baird of “Same Damn Thing,” one of several he collaborated on with co-writer Rick Brantley. “It describes pretty much how you feel every time you play, no matter if it’s a good show or a bad show. By the time that you’re walking out of the bar at 3 in the morning, you’re like, ‘Dude … everything’s good, but what an interesting life this is.’”
Baird and Brantley also co-wrote “Dreams and Gasoline” (another slice of life on the road) and the album’s emotionally gripping centerpiece, “Redemption.” “He’s really into desperation, the small town kind of stuff, and I am, too, so we complemented each other on that,” Baird says. “‘Redemption’ has a real kind of loneliness thing going on; it seems like a lot of these songs have that theme.”
In addition to Brantley, Baird also co-wrote songs with fellow Texas-based artists Ryan Beaver (“Along the Way,” “More Than Willing”) and Drew Kennedy (“Don’t Cry for Me”), as well as one with East Nashville’s Andrew Combs (the trenchant “Black and Blue”). Baird wrote the decidedly more optimistic-leaning (but still lonely!) “Can’t Stop Running” solo, and the album is rounded out by three outside contributions: Combs’ “Please Please”; “40 Days and 40 Nights,” by Brantley, Mark Shelby, and Tia Sellers; and “I Can’t Get Over You,” by Americana mainstay Buddy Miller. The miller song was a longtime favorite of Baird’s that he turned to during a trying time in a relationship, which made it the perfect coda for I’ll Swear It’s the Truth, an album that rings emotionally true from beginning to end.
“I just think it’s a really honest record, and it’s kind of the only record that I knew how to make at this point,” says Baird. “‘I’ll swear it’s the truth’ is how I feel about all of these songs. I’ve definitely felt this way in the past three or four years, and I feel like this is a pretty strong collection of songs representing where I am now and what I’m trying to do, whether it’s for better or worse.
“I’ve really spent a lot of time trying to perfect my writing, or at least trying to figure out who I am and convey that better in my songs, and trying to perfect the live show, because I want to be around for awhile,” he continues. “I just want longevity. If it takes a long time to figure out how to get enough fans to be able to tour the country and stay out there, then that’s fine. Because if it’s just going to be a flash-in-the-pan kind of deal, it doesn’t seem like it’s worth doing.”