Sometimes all it takes to move forward is remembering where you’ve been. And for Nashville artist Brandon Lay, that’s where his next step lies. Back with new batch of vintage-inspired country rock, the hard-to-tame son of a Tennessee preacher has re-embraced the organic edge of his own sound – a potent style he knows by heart.
Born in Jackson, Tennessee, Lay’s early life was a perfect illustration for his gutsy musical identity, raised right in the geographical middle of Memphis rock and Nashville country. Coming out of college, he combined that influence with a reputation for captivating crowds and guitar-slinging charisma, signing a major-label recording deal in 2017. But after a handful of early singles took him elsewhere, Lay’s primed for an all-natural change.
“Every artist is different, but I’ll put it this way. I grew up playing all the honky tonks and biker bars, but that aggressive kind of sound didn’t match what was on the radio,” he explains, considering his new path. “That was a bridge that I felt like this project had to make. … We wanted to match the live show with what people were hearing.”
The shift arrives just in time for this gifted singer-songwriter – and in a way, it all feels meant to be.
Wearing his soul on his sleeve, Lay’s disconnect between the studio and stage brought him dangerously close to disillusion. But with the forced recalibration of a global pandemic, and the move to a 50 acre spread on the outskirts of Nashville with his wife and two children, he’s pulled himself back from the brink. And with tracks like “Broke,” he’s trusting his instincts once again.
“I guess there was a lane I was trying to fill, but this way [of making music] is a lot more fool proof, and down to the point,” he admits. “I think the breakthrough for me was getting the perspective to say ‘What am I trying to do here? Who am I, really?’ And really, I’m just a country boy that likes to rock ‘n’ roll, so that’s what I need to do.”
Officially done overthinking, Lay will roll out eight fresh songs as 2021 becomes 2022, produced by Jonathan Singleton and hardwired to the fundamentals of his live show – part rock ‘n’ roll heat and part country heart.
According to him, the fellow Jackson natives first met while opening a show on Kenny Chesney’s Trip Around the Sun Tour, so Singleton knew exactly what Lay was capable of … and that he was selling himself short. “I approached Jonathan about this project, and he pretty much nailed it when he said, ‘You gotta have that thing I saw that night on record,’” Lay explains.
“Broke” leads the way back home. Co-written with Country Music Hall of Famer Dean Dillon (“The Chair,” “Oceanfront Property”), it welds Lay’s gravel-road vocal to a smooth-driving power ballad, comparing a relationship on the rocks to broken-down car – and imagining Lay as the mechanic who can fix it.
With a wide open country-rock sound and all the passion he was missing, it’s an anthem custom built to take another shot at forever. And with it, Lay turns the ignition on a new chapter.
“It’s the one song we cut where I almost feel like I’m singing a classic George Strait song,” he says. “Comfortable is a great way to describe it. It will point my fans in the direction this whole project is going. … It’s got that throwback feel and it’s harmony friendly, and I think it’s got the elements that are gonna let people know what’s on the way.”
That Strait reference doesn’t necessarily preview Lay’s new approach – all about sweaty, dive-bar singalongs with feel-good hooks, euphoric guitar riffs and hammering drums you can feel from the parking lot. But it isn’t an outlier, either, since Lay has always taken emotional cues from the giants of country and rock. From Alan Jackson to Jackson Browne, and John Mellencamp to Bob Seger, Lay’s long been a student. Now he’s putting the lessons to use.
“Those guys didn’t sit in a room and try to write a hit, they wrote what they felt, and that’s what I’m trying to do,” Lay says, offering a hint at the honesty on seven co-written tracks.
Songs like “Back Home” are a perfect example – a high-energy honky tonker, putting so many forgotten small towns back on the map. “Summer In the South” offers a golden-days look back at the carefree perfection of youth, and “Rust” adds another layer of character to each unforgettable memory.
Meanwhile, others speak to the struggle which ultimately turned his world around. “Hung Up On You” sounds like a hangover feels, delivered with a buzzy bass line and a blues-rocking stomp. “Die Too Young” aims to put his wilder days in past (before they catch up), and “More I’m For” sends out a timely-yet-tender message of hope to nation on edge.
And then, in a stunning display of rock ‘n’ roll realism, Lay’s wife Nicole sings harmony on “You Don’t Want Me,” a haunting heartland rocker depicting a renegade saved by love.
Each is soaked in his rowdy, roadhouse-rocking roots, and delivered with a sense of confident freedom that only comes from getting back to the basics. Lay’s figured out the essence of who he is. And it seems that when you stop thinking – and just start feeling – there’s really nothing to it.
“These songs are a huge window into who I am,” he says. “But more importantly, I hope they’re just good songs that fans can jam and relate to, bottom line.