With his new album “100 Summers,” which dropped September 4th, this Amarillo native reaffirms he’s one of the most gifted singers and songwriters on Americana’s musical horizons.
James Lee Baker’s success comes as no surprise to many fans, as his last full length LP “Home Again” charted in several folk and roots-oriented publications, garnering over 400,000 streams on Soundcloud and Spotify. That led to a number of enthusiastic accolades from several industry journals, music publications and radio programmers, including Billboard who cited him as an Emerging Artist to watch while No Depression rounded out its review by saying that “to call him anything other than brilliant would be criminal.”
Released September 4th, Baker’s latest album “100 Summers” is an 11-song collection of soothing folk-song melodies that circle around the theme of change. It was recorded in one take at Blue Rock Studios in Wimberley, Texas. Baker teamed up with an exceptional group of collaborators for the album including Chris Bell (the man behind the boards for The Eagles, Don Henley and Christopher Cross), Doug Pettibone (John Mayer, Jewel, Lucinda Williams), Roscoe Beck (Leonard Cohen, Eric Johnson), Paul Simon’s Grammy-winning accompanist Joel Guzman, Americana Songwriter of the Year nominee Mark Erelli, and Laurie MacAllister from the folk group Red Molly.
We caught up with this talented artist to talk about his new album and the inspiration behind it.
What was it like growing up in your hometown, Amarillo, Texas?
I had a lovely upbringing that, looking back on, I was fortunate to have had. My parents were close and family was a vital part of their lives. I participated in music and sports in school, attended church on Sundays, and always valued a good football game and a warm plate of good barbecue.
Amarillo has its own vibrant and proud Texas heart. It has a small-town feel, charismatic and kind locals, and a love for food, sports, and music.
Who or what inspired you to make music?
I discovered the creative process early on, dabbling with drawing and painting as a kid, eventually discovering a passion for creative writing and eventually vocal performance. At a certain point, I wanted to challenge myself to write a song and, once I realized the impact of making something out of nothing, I continued to pursue and refine it. The act of making something, a thing we all do in our lives in some capacity, is a gift and a joy.
Can you explain the theme of “100 Summers” and what it means to you?
All of us go through changes in life, some more painful than others; this is inevitable. These changes create personal transformations within us and, it is these new iterations of ourselves that bring on better experiences; experiences that would not have happened without pain and struggle. 100 Summers is about that greatest iteration of the self – a learning of lessons, the overcoming of struggle in change, and a finding of one’s true values.
What are your highlights on “100 Summers” and why?
While I feel like all of these songs have something to offer listeners, there are several that stand out. The title track, “100 Summers“, is near to my heart because it is a mantra of sorts for how I strive to live my life. If given any wish, I would want to simply live a long and meaningful life. It is in those years I can fill my time with tender moments with other people. I don’t necessarily feel like money, fame, or adventures bring meaning to my life as much as the experiences I share with those I love. There are days in our lives where we will experience both “sunshine and thunder” and that contrast is a metaphor for our joys and struggles that, ultimately, give life meaning.
“A New Man’s World” dives into the struggle we face becoming more cynical as we get older. It’s not hard, as the world changes around us, to start seeing things from a protective point of view and this constricts our ability to love those who are different and the opportunity to experience things we wouldn’t normally experience without an open heart and an open mind. “There’s safety in the shadows of the cynical and afraid / as the world around me changes with every passing day / but there’s always a choice between fear and love / so i’ll embrace the changes when they come.”
It is about accepting that change is inevitable and not letting it affect your core ability to see humanity from a positive, inclusive and loving perspective.
What do you hope people take away from the album?
Change, or transformation, is a beautiful and necessary thing in life, even when we aren’t ready for it or don’t want it to happen to us. All of my struggles have made me a better version of myself and it was those difficult times that were the most meaningful and rewarding in the end. Embrace change, welcome it, encourage it as a constant in your life and have an open mind for what the future has in store for you – the outcomes are almost always unexpectedly rewarding.
What are some items you can’t live without and why?
Haha, well, in the song “100 Summers“, you’ll find that there isn’t much I can’t live without. In the end, all I have is the present moment – a gift from existence. If I had to pick something I couldn’t live without, I would say humanity. The interdependence I have with everyone around me is what brings joy and meaning into my life. If I were utterly alone, I wouldn’t be able to survive and, even if I could manage to take care of myself, what would be the point?
On Chris McCandless’ dying day, lying in an abandoned bus alone in Alaska, he wrote the words “happiness [is] only real when shared” – a lesson learned along his path of solitude.
Cover photo courtesy John E. Hunt
Leean Vargas is an Editorial Assistant at Texas Lifestyle Magazine and an honors graduate of Texas State University with a bachelor’s degree in Public Relations.