by: Thomas D. Mooney
On the first three releases of his career, Texas songwriter John Baumann displayed, more than anything, potential. He was a young, budding storyteller who morphed into characters who were familiar, sometimes flawed, but endearing nonetheless. You knew them because you’d met them at whichever Texas school you were attending. He described regional affairs and painted vivid landscapes with a vast understanding. He went off exploring with West Texas Vernacular, High Plains Alchemy, and Departures.
Hell, for the first two, he even had three names, John Edward Baumann, much like the songwriters he was often compared to–Robert Earl Keen, Willis Alan Ramsay, Billy Joe Shaver, Ray Wylie Hubbard, Guy Fucking Clark.
Two weeks back, Baumann released Proving Grounds, an intimate and personal journey that detailed the highs, the lows, and most often, the unknown of growing up. Proving Grounds is a point in which Baumann’s growth and maturation as an individual and as an artist has crossed. Previously, you only caught glimpses of the real Baumann on previous projects. Here though, you’re introduced to John Baumann, the artist, storyteller, songwriter, and most importantly, the man who behind them.
So many songwriters are great on the technical side of storytelling. Getting from Point A to be B, C, and D within a song. But often, they lack understanding that those stories must have something worth saying. Proving Grounds is Baumann having something to say. There’s a lesson in it all.
The songs of Proving Grounds are lived in. They have fingerprints on them. The pages are worn. You see Baumann’s boot heels as he paced back and forth. But instead of these songs being (day)dreams, they’re memories. Instead of being transported to the Panhandle, the Permian Basin, or down to Eagle Ford, Baumann’s pulling back the curtains and letting you into his own world.
Opener “Here I Come” lays the foundation and by the time you reach the culminating “Pontiacs,” you’ve seen a transformation and progression of a child with a dream into a maturing adult having to deal with tough losses, difficult decisions, and life.
Album highlight “Old Stone Church” is as beautiful as it is heartbreaking. It’s the ultimate example of how fragile and unfair life can be. But Baumann proves that while these moments can wear on an individual down to a state of unknown and void, you too learn to appreciate the time you’re given.
While “Old Stone Church” may serve as the cornerstone for Proving Grounds, other songs explore the life of an up-and-coming musician (“Here I Come,” “Holding It Down”), addictions (“Heavy Head,” the Aaron Lee Tasjan cover “The Trouble With Drinkin'”), missed connections (“Meg”), and deciding the difference between love and lust (“Turquoise,” “Lonely in Bars”). At times, it’s a rough map of how to navigate through your twenties without becoming engulfed.
Still, more than anything, Baumann’s Proving Grounds tells the story of how just when you think you’ve figured it out, life has a way of showing you that you don’t. All you can do is forge ahead. It’s alright to come out the other side with a couple of scars. No one makes it unscathed.
We caught up with Baumann last week to discuss Proving Grounds. Find it on iTunes here.
New Slang: To this point in your career, your song catalog has been dominated by geographical sketches and character-based storytellers. With Proving Grounds, you started telling your own story. These songs are more personal and intimate. How’d you get to where you were more comfortable with revealing yourself more?
John Baumann: I came home from Steamboat in 2016 and saw a lot of acts who I was impressed with. I thought it was time to dig a little bit deeper with my songwriting material. I’ve always been my harshest critic and I was never really happy with my previous projects and felt like it was time to dig deep and do my best I could possibly do. We’re all getting up there. I’ll be 30 in November.
The very first song I wrote was “Meg.” It’s still a song about someone else, but I was able to put more of myself into it. I started going down these rabbit holes. “Old Stone Church” is 100% my story. That led to “Heavy Head” and then “Here I Come.” It felt like it was becoming more and more me. I was kind of tired of writing, like “Bay City Blues,” which was about a friend in a semi-fictional kind of way.
NS: This progression, was it easier getting these songs out since you weren’t necessarily putting them through another filter of a character–since they’re more based on your own personal feelings and thoughts?
JB: This came a lot easier. My buddy Chisum and I were talking and he said it felt like the first record without any geography songs on it. With the first three projects, I was always able to mentally transport myself into an area. Those songs always felt like they took a little longer to write. Almost everything on Proving Grounds, nothing felt more than a few hours per song. There wasn’t any that took months to end up finishing. “Pontiacs” took some time. But a lot of these came out faster.
NS: You think that’s partly because there was “less homework” involved in these songs? You weren’t having to look up street names or anything.
JB: Totally. Nothing where I was looking up the county name to see if there’d be a better rhyme than the city name kind of stuff. One thing I was kind of getting irritated at was after shows people constantly coming up and saying “You write songs about this place. You from this place?” Well no, I’m not. “Well, how come then?” I’ve kind of had enough of that. I’m a Panhandle-born guy. Spent time in Lubbock at South Plains College. But I’ve really lived all over the state. I really don’t like being boxed in as an up-and-coming geographical songwriter.
NS: Yeah. There’s not any specific geographical songs, but there’s still that Texas backdrop. You still have an homage to Texas in your writing. I always thought Guy Clark was the best at writing about Texas without falling into the cliché tropes of writing about Texas that we often see. “Here I Come” and “Holding It Down” have a lot of that in them. It’s easy to fall into those clichés as a writer. How do you avoid the potholes?
JB: I love being from Texas. As a musician, you kind of develop a love-hate relationship though since it’s a lot of the same places every weekend. It’s a lot of the same highway. I’ve got to the point of knowing which gas stations to hit in Coleman, Texas and which to skip. It’s the difference between quality of fruit and getting shitty burritos.
When it comes to writing, I really can’t stomach clichés. It has to be genuine to me. So like with “Here I Come,” everyone has a troubadour blues song–a song about how tough the business is. I was really trying to draw from where my love of songwriting started. It really started with Lubbock (on Everything) back when I had my first day job. I really hated that job. It was drawn from hearing Robert Earl Keen on boomboxes at summer camp. Those images are so ingrained into me. Like my dad taking me to Floore’s Country Store or to Gruene Hall to see Cory Morrow when I was fourteen. I thought that was heaven. “Here I Come” was so easy to get out. It was easy to stay genuine with.
“Holding It Down” on the other hand, I’ve gotten mixed opinions because I say Texas like 12 times in that song. That song though, it’s really about just being another dude in Texas trying to do the best I can to make a living. I’m not necessarily crushing it. I’m just holding it down.
NS: Yeah. I think there’s typically a misconception about the music business. A lot of fans think if a band is playing around every weekend, they must be earning a lot of money. They think everyone is successful and–
JB: –living the dream. People have said, “You opened for Willie [Nelson]. You noticed a huge change yet?” or been told by some that we’ve already gotten the money and accolades.
NS: That line–“Too soon for accolades, too late to quit” is just great. It’s a powerful line. You remember when you actually thought of it?
JB: I was sitting at my kitchen table writing that song. It was over two or three days doing like forty minutes at a time. I always liked the word accolades. I was doing David Wilde’s West Texas Live show and remember singing it and afterwards seeing him giggling over saying, “Holy shit. That was a line.”
I’m like any other guy. I get online and read reviews and press. With West Texas Vernacular and High Plains Alchemy, I was getting some praise, but I’d listen back to the record and just know I wasn’t ready. It didn’t sound like it was ready to me. I think with this record, I’m closer to some accolades. But when I was writing it, we were really in some middle ground just busting ass and consistently growing, but we’re not where we need to be.
NS: Something we’ve talked about before with those records was how sometimes you’d try to cram a whole lot of words into songs. You’d say as much as possible. Departures had a lot less of that happening. You started finding a balance of space and vocabulary. You really let Proving Grounds breathe.
JB: Yeah. I think I had a clear vision with what I was wanting to get across in each song. A lot of these songs were simpler. I wasn’t trying to outsmart anyone or be over someone’s head. I think a large part of that was having the guitar in my hands before writing down lyrics. I was picking, thumbing, and working out melodies before. Before, I’d type out two verses and a chorus on a Word doc and then take it to a guitar.
NS: We’ve already mentioned how much more personal this record is. Family and specifically, your father, are very much on it. You talk about him on “Old Stone Church,” some on “Here I Come,” and while I don’t think you specifically mention him on “Pontiacs,” it’s a song about growing up and maturing. That transition runs through the Proving Grounds as a whole.
JB: Absolutely. My dad died in 2013. On High Plains Alchemy, the last song on there is called “Last Great Eagle Scout.” It’s a mess. My dad passed halfway through that project. I really couldn’t wrap my head around what was happening. I wasn’t taking good care of myself physically or mentally at the time. I was in my mid-twenties and not sure about where I was in a music career, who I was as a person, just all of it. I didn’t know what was happening. Four years have passed since then. Time does heal wounds. I think I’ve evolved quite a bit since then. I’m comfortable and confident now. A lot of that anger and bitterness has gone away.
My dad is kind of split into three songs. One about what you want to be when you grow up and him taking me to my first Texas Country shows, one about me kind of making peace with his death, and one kind of about becoming an adult at the end of the record.
NS: “Old Stone Church” is one of the best songs you’ve written–maybe the best. How difficult was it to write out? Revisiting that time.
JB: I wrote that in my bedroom–in my bed actually. Just me and my guitar. It’s a pretty simple song structurally. Each first line repeats at the end. It wasn’t hard to write, but it was hard to record. I’m no softie–OK, I’m a little bit of a softie. I cry during the National Anthem and stuff like that. But, we were in the studio and I lost it. There’s a part of that song when the drums, this big cannon drum, and this droning guitar kicks in midway through. I remember my producer asking if I was alright. I said I was, but he told me to take 20 minutes. I just went outside by myself. If you really listen to my vocals, there’s some quivering.
I haven’t really performed it much. There was a few times I was able to get through it when it was new and no one knew it. But to be completely honest, I’m not really looking forward to playing it live.
NS: Sonically, the album pops. It’s concise and flowing. “Pontiacs” has a nice, long outro though. Was that always the idea for that song or was that an addition in studio? Was this sprawling outro always something you visioned for the album?
JB: Yeah. I love any song with a sprawling intro, outro, or midsection. This song was the one to do it. There were some people in my camp pushing me to have it third or fourth on the record since we live in a time of instant gratification where people listen to the first couple songs and never move on. I thought it had to be at the end though. From a music fan point of view, I love putting a CD in the car and driving and getting to the last song when it goes on for eight or nine minutes. I’ve dreamed about that for a long time. I’m glad we were able to execute it. It’s probably my favorite thing on the entire record.
NS: It feels like punctuation for the album. A statement. A ribbon that wraps it up.
JB: Right. It’s kind of making peace. The record is kind of an emotional rollercoaster. But it feels like we’re making peace at the end. Life goes on.