By Mike Ethan Messick
Brandon Rhyder’s career in the realm of independent country music has been marked by growth, change, and collaboration. A native of Carthage, Texas who started honing his craft on the east side of the Lone Star State — not always heralded as a hotbed of modern original music — Rhyder grew from a straightforward country crooner to an artist with a more expansive approach, with elements of folk, rock, and R&B woven into his sound. Putting in his time on the road and in the studio did wonders for his voice, which soon earned acclaim as one of the biggest and best in the state, and working with producers and co-writers the caliber of Walt Wilkins, Radney Foster, Matt Powell and Wade Bowen helped him find new ways to deploy his burgeoning talents.
Rhyder’s 2005 album Conviction was a hard-earned career boost, one he’s been able to build upon with several albums of solid work in an increasingly crowded and competitive Texas-country field. His latest (out July 14) reunites him with Conviction producer Walt Wilkins after four years away from the studio. Featuring songs co-written with such noted writers as Lori McKenna, Michael Hearne, and Keith Gattis, Brandon Rhyder revisits the earthy textures and lyricism of his best-known material with refreshed energy and matured perspective. We caught up with Rhyder (who now lives in Austin) to talk about where his his head is at now both as a seasoned Texas troubadour and as a devoted family man.
So, you’ve been four years away from the studio since your last album (2013’s That’s Just Me.) Tell us a little about what you’ve been up to in the meantime.
Raising a family, mostly, you know … that’s been priority number one, as I’m sure you understand, too. Other things that were really important 10 years ago, maybe they aren’t as important nowadays. In my 40s, I guess I sound a lot more like my father than I used to, but I certainly have enjoyed watching these kids growing up. They’re in a lot of extracurricular activities and stuff, and there’s just a point where you say, “Wow, I’m just going all the time, but then again I want to be.” And time sure moves faster than it used to, you know? What used to be two years [between albums] gets to be four really quick. And it takes a while, getting those juices flowing again. But it’s been a good break, it’s good for me. When you spend as much time on the road as we did, between say 2006 and 2012 or so, it was nice to take a step back. And I think this record kind of represents where I’m at with all of that.
I did kind of sense a thread of serenity running through it. This is your first self-titled album, which folks usually interpret to be sort of a personal statement. Was there anything specific you wanted to say with this album?
Well, I think you kind of hit the nail on the head already, with the serenity thing. It has been four years, things are different for me now, and things are different on the record. When I think of this record, when I describe it, I think it’s almost shining. It’s not all up in your face, but it’s got that great touch to it that [producer] Walt Wilkins provides, where you don’t fill up every space. You allow it to breathe. I think it feels like a breath of fresh air. But at the same time, you and I both know that it’s not just a matter of what’s the most popular choice to go with these days. Still, it felt right to me.
Walt Wilkins’ gifts as a songwriter and singer are self-evident, but tell us a little about what he brings to the table as a producer. His albums with you have been among his most high-profile projects.
Well, Walt is … when I step into the studio with Walt, it’s like stepping in with a brother. And that, to me, is paramount over everything. I’ve always loved his production … he leaves room in the songs, he doesn’t fill it all up, and it doesn’t have to be too polished. The sounds he can get almost anybody to make in the studio — he’s got that great rapport, and that great ability to tell somebody that what they did might have sucked and they need to do it again. [Laughs] He’s very, very good at that. And also, Ron Flynt at Jumping Dog Studios, he was a big part of it. I’d want to thank them both for what they did on this record. If it wasn’t for their ears and their direction … they’re both listed as producers on the record, which I think is the honest thing to do. They’re both phenomenal artists.
There had been some talk that your hiatus after the last album might become permanent. Were you considering stepping away from making music entirely?
You know, we have friends who’ve done that. But I think it’s something that’s in us, something that will never go away. But I think at times we can lose sight … When I first started this, it truly was all about passion. The drive, being able to hopefully make a difference. But then at some point in all of that it does turn into a job, too. And there are more mouths to feed, more people to take care of. Back when I started this there weren’t kids involved! Nobody needed me to look after them or take care of them, so I think it’s just that as we age, as we gain some wisdom and grow, we learn the direction that we want to go and then we scratch that muse however we can so we can continue to do this. But I’ll say this, I don’t know that I could ever really step away. It’s still a passion, I’ve got such love for it, I still can’t believe I get to do it for a living.
Does the songwriting part of it come as easily to you as it used to?
I don’t think so. I think maybe now, more, when you know you’ve got a good song or a good hook, something you believe in, it works. When you’re putting together a record, you know that you’re not just sitting there trying to make it all singles. There are songs there that are for me, from my perspective, doing just what I wanted to do. [Laughs] And I know it sounds like I’m blaming the kids again, but man! Sometimes you just get so busy! You don’t find the time and you can’t say when the inspiration’s going to hit you.
You’ve had a pretty impressive list of songwriting collaborators throughout your career, but some of the names on this new one really stand out.
Well, I worked with Michael Hearne, who I met a few years back at Red River and fell in love with his style and what he does, his songwriting. I wanted to make an effort to write with him, and I love “Good Morning Sunshine” that we wrote in just a couple of hours. I love how he structures things, and that’s one of the joys of co-writing, getting someone to help you step out of your realm. And he’s such a great player too. So yeah, Michael was a gem to work with. I recorded “Evergreen” on the record, too — he wrote that one with Susan Gibson and Monica Smart. And then Bri Bagwell, kind of the queen of Texas music in my opinion, she’s a gem and she was coming through and stopped off at my house. We wrote a great little song that turned into a duet, the closing track of the record. And I got to write with Keith Gattis — “I Hate This Town” — maybe four years ago. In typical Gattis form, it takes you through about four different states … we wrote it while drinking a couple beers on his porch. And then Lori McKenna, we actually had the same publisher back in Nashville around 2007, and I’ve always been a fan of her material and so’s my whole family. Writing with her was kind of a dream come true. We wrote “Half the Time I’m Crazy” and then that one that’s out as a single, “They Need Each Other.” That one made a great video for us, too. Kyle Hutton shot that one in one afternoon.
For awhile you stepped away from working with a band almost entirely, playing mostly just solo shows. Is that still a big part of your approach? What are most of your upcoming shows going to be like?
Oh, a combination of the two. Some of each, sometimes mixed up. I’ve always said, when you’re playing a whole show, there can be definite peaks and definite valleys. We’re already playing five of these songs live, they’re coming off really well. I like the more acoustic-driven stuff, and feel like that’s kind of a direction I’m going, but with the band we’ve also been adding on old stuff, stuff we haven’t played in a long time, so we’ve got a lot of options every night.
Your vocal growth was pretty outstanding back when you did that long stretch of acoustic shows leading up to making Conviction. Anything in particular you have to do to take care of a voice like that after a few years on the road?
You know, I am finding it to be more of a challenge, as I get a little older. I find new things I have to do to take care of myself. I just turned 44, and I recall a conversation I had with Radney Foster. He was talking about the need, as you grow older, to take care of that voice and yeah, it does take longer to recover. But then again, with time it has developed a depth to it that I didn’t use to have, which is nice. If I have to modify some of the highest pitches, I’m not afraid to. [Laughs]
Conviction was a big part of getting you on the map around here. Do you feel that was your best album leading up to this one, or do you have a different favorite?
I think every time somebody comes out with a record that really puts you on the map, really gives you a career … You know, I’ve got an old friend, a dear friend, and I was with him not too long ago and he puts that record on. And I’m like, “Come on, man … I don’t want to listen to me.” And he said, “No, you really need to listen to this record again.” And it was a great record for us. All the things that built up to it and culminated, and it was the first record I made with Walt. And I’ll say this again, in honor of Walt Wilkins, the records that have been my best-sellers were Conviction and then Head Above Water, which we made with him, too. And I feel like this one could be, too. I think people dig that approach, where it’s more acoustic and more laid-back and again, great producers.
You’ve been doing this a fairly long time by now. What aspect of the business seems to have changed the most in your eyes?
The social media stuff. Seems like we didn’t really have it 10 years ago or so, and five years ago it wasn’t what it is today. As with any business, we have to grow and learn and refocus and put our efforts to where the fans are at. Streaming is another part of that, too. A lot of it sucks with the rates, etc., but at the same time you’ve got to have focus on what’s new and where the people are at. And if that’s the format, we’ve definitely gotta be there. That’s what puts butts in seats, at the live shows, and that’s mostly what we live for, anyway.
What would you advise an even younger artist who was trying to get a career going playing this kind of music?
I just feel what I’ve always felt: you’ve gotta be yourself, do your thing, stick to your guns. I think it’s rare that something can be duplicated and be successful. Individuality and creativity, that’s what you bring to the table, that’s what your God-given talents are. Doesn’t mean you can’t continue to learn and get better … I feel like I’m spending more time now on the guitar and fiddling with piano, trying to get to a different place. But yeah, learning and growing is what it takes. We’re all products of our influences; I’ve just always preferred influences that are so unique in themselves that I can’t duplicate them. I know I’m not near the writer or player that I aspire to be, or that a lot of the people that I look up to are, but that drives me, too.