John Baumann is an unassuming yet confident man. He strolled up to our interview at Austin’s Houndstooth Coffee wearing a black Under Armour polo with a subtle line of color running horizontally across the collarbone, matching his black Ray Bans with clear trim around the inside. He’s not flashy, but he understands how little accents of differentiation can go a long way in helping one stand out.
The rest of Baumann’s character fits with his style of dress. His handshake is firm and strong but not overbearing, and his Texan accent is the same, laden with a twangy warmness that evokes his southern pride without ever coming off as elitist. The man knows who he is, that much is clear. His strengths, weaknesses, likes and dislikes. He bares it all openly, just as he does in his music.
The San Antonio-raised Baumann, who now calls Austin home, is almost five years into an ever-more promising career that started with the humblest of beginnings: writing songs in his car during 15-minute paid “breaks” from work:
I graduated from TCU around Christmas of 2010 and after moving home for two-to-three months I ended up getting a job at a call center in Austin. I always had a love for songwriting, country, folk, and americana, and I always found myself going down YouTube wormholes at work to listen to other artists. Before I knew it I was sneaking out to my car, taking 15 minutes off from work here and there, writing songs on a 3/4 size acoustic guitar. I was always cheating the system (laughs). The ‘West Texas Vernacular’ EP was totally written in the parking lot of my job or at my apartment.
Now Baumann is being managed by Pat Green’s drummer and Willie Nelson’s tour manager, just two of the Texas legends who have inspired his love for singing and songwriting. He’s almost ready to release his third project, a six-song EP which will follow the aforementioned West Texas Vernacular and 2014’s High Plains Alchemy. He’s also recently engaged to his long-time sweetheart, and he’s taking life’s twists and turns graciously — step-by-step, day-by-day.
Read on to hear the now clean-shaven Baumann talk about the legendary ‘stache he was rocking on the West Texas Vernacular cover, the knee injury that led him to teach himself guitar, and where he sees himself within the tradition of Texas music.
Interview by Cameron Gibson and Yunus Church, words by Yunus Church.
How did the first EP, 2012’s ‘West Texas Vernacular’ come about? Who produced it?
Rich Brotherton produced it. He’s Robert Earl Keen’s guitar player. I just sent him an email and he called me and let me know who he was and what he was about… Which was funny because I already had heard of him since I was a kid. You grow up listening to Robert Earl Keen, you listen to the No. 2 Live Dinner album, and it’s Rich Brotherton on the guitar, so… I just went into the studio and they brought the whole band in to back me up. It’s easy, they just write music charts out that the whole band can follow.
That was my first professional studio experience and it was kinda like a holy crap moment. It’s weird being 24-years-old with a bunch of professional musicians and not really knowing what you’re doing. You go out and you have this really professional sounding record, and then you have to play a live show with your friends who aren’t pro musicians, they’re just your friends. The first two-and-a-half years were really tough. It’s hard to be a band. It’s a whole lot more than just songwriting and playing a guitar. You have to be an electrician, driver, manager, you know…
Were you doing all the social media and marketing/promotion stuff up until recently?
Yeah, and I still am doing a lot of social media stuff. At the time I really liked it, it was fun. Lately it feels a lot like more work (laughs).
Who were you listening to growing up who made you want to write songs?
James McMurtry and Robert Earl Keen were big ones. Guy Clark is another one. So many great songwriters come from the state of Texas and there’s such a long line of tradition. In my head it was always like, you want to be in that echelon. There’s something integral and there’s integrity in the Texas songwriting tradition that I’ve adored since I was 12 or 13 years old. When I got [to Austin] I started really thinking, “I can do this.”
When did you pick up the guitar?
About 13 or 14 I would say. I played high school football, tore up my knee in an Oklahoma drill, and it sucked, man. I was cooped up at my house for six months and I learned four basic chords on Guitar for Dummies and went from there. I was writing songs on Microsoft Word and I would print the lyrics out and leave them in the printer, my parents would find them and be like, “oh, what’s this song about?” They probably thought it was neat but I was always a bit ashamed of it (laughs).
I thought it was kinda silly so I kept it on the quiet throughout all of high school. I would pull the guitar out at a party here and there. People were into it but I would hate to know what I sounded like, looking back.
Did you ever get voice lessons back then, or did that start when you moved to Austin?
Yeah, at the request of one of the guys who’s managing me. It wasn’t like I was at the far end of the bad spectrum or anything, but I just had to get better at studio recording. Singing live is one thing; you’re feeling it, your whole body’s working, there’s something about it. It’s like being an athlete. But the studio is different. There’s strangers in the room, you’re paying for your time, and it’s sort of an uncomfortable feeling.
So I took some vocal lessons from a dude in Pittsburgh. I would call him twice a week and spend 30-45 minutes on the phone, for about three or four months. Learning how to go from your chest to your head, doing scales.
Was there a song on ‘West Texas Vernacular’ that really made you feel like you could do this?
Yeah, “Midland” was the one. I wrote it at my apartment in about 20 minutes. It was funny how that happened. It was just a reflection on some love experiences gone awry from the college days, of course. Some tongue-in-cheek sarcasm, nothing meant to hurt any feelings. The first time I ever played it was at an open mic and everybody there was just like, “damn!” I remember getting an applause that night and I was like, “alright, I can do this.” I got a rush that night and from there it was no turning back.
You are definitely a storyteller. Is storytelling a main focus when you write?
Yeah, I listened to other storytellers growing up. I’m not a great storyteller if we’re just sitting around drinking beers, I can’t always articulate from point A to point B and deliver the punchline, but if you give me a guitar and three-and-a-half minutes, I can put together the bits and pieces to get the story across and make it interesting. Sometimes to me, it’s harder to not tell a story.
You recently signed with Red 11 Music. How did that come about?
Pat Green’s drummer and Willie Nelson’s tour manager heard me on the radio one night and decided to reach out to me, it was incredible. They’re managing me now, and they helped open doors with Red 11. It’s a great opportunity. Every musician has knocked on doors that turn into dead ends at one point or another, so I’m just grateful.
We cut eight songs this past December and January. It’s me post-vocal lessons, a little more mature, a little more developed sound. We’re putting out a six-song EP and saving two songs for an upcoming LP. The EP will be out this October. It’s getting mixed and mastered in Nashville right now, and we’re going to release a couple singles to Texas/Americana radio next month.
Any plans to tour?
We’re out on the road pretty hard right now. I just bought a 15-passenger van and I’ve got the LLC set up (laughs). We’ve only busted out of Texas one time so far, which was for a show in Oklahoma. There will be more out-of-state touring soon, but I’m kind of waiting as long as I can. I can already feel everything ramping up a bit, and it’s like once you’re gone, you’re gone. Being on the road is awesome but you give everything up for it.
We’re out Thursday-Saturday every week, going to DFW, Houston, Lubbock, Midland, Odessa, San Antonio, etc.
What does the term ‘High Plains Alchemy’ mean to you?
Basically, the guy in the song is asking for rain. He’s in a drought scenario. This guy doesn’t know whether he should ask the Native Americans, or ask God, or who to talk to for rain. The bigger metaphor for me is that he’s looking for some help. If you boil the term down real fast, ‘High Plains Alchemy’ sounds like ‘help me’.
I’ve always been so fascinated by the imagery behind the high plains. The sky, the terrain, and mixing that with the notion of being up high on a different plane of thinking. But I really wrote that song thinking about performing it live, which is why it’s easy to sing along to.
Do you write most of your songs with the live experience in mind?
Not really, no. I write ’em all pretty much with the idea of somebody listening to the words. My joy is mostly found in the writing. I’m not the best singer or guitar player, but I feel like an English major with a guitar in front of me sometimes.
Where is your favorite place to play?
Gruene Hall in New Braunfels, TX. It’s a 100-year-old dancehall in a river town that’s geared towards my style. I opened for Pat Green and Turnpike Troubadours there. We were just getting mobbed by people after the show who were like, “Keep going! Keep going!” It gives you that fuel.
In Austin I really love playing the Saxon Pub. Also Stubb’s, but in terms of a place to listen, Saxon Pub has the best sound.
Who would you like to open for if given the chance?
I’d really like to open for Sturgill Simpson. Jason Isbell. Willie, of course. There’s a guy named Bruce Robison who’s a huge hero of mine. There’s a long list, but those are just a few.
At the end of the day when it’s all said and done, where do you envision yourself within the tradition of Texas songwriting?
That’s a great question. It’s funny, my dad wrote me a letter one time that said, “I don’t know if this road is going to bring you fame, riches, or personal fulfillment…” I’m not rich by doing this, but lately I’ve been feeling incredibly fulfilled. So that’s good.
In terms of my legacy — if there is a legacy — I would love for songs that I’ve written to be staples or standards. Not in the sense that you can listen to them on a jukebox, but more so for people to say, “man, that was a damn good song. That guy really knew how to write a great song.”
You’ve gotta grow the ‘stache back, man (from the ‘West Texas Vernacular’ cover).
That cover was a total joke! That picture was for my work ID badge at the time (laughs). So I was like, “this will make for a hilarious album cover.” Little did I know.