"He’s got such a heavenly voice and talent for writing deeply inspiring and intimately connective songs...."
– No Depression
"Storytelling is one of the calling cards of this young Folk singer."
– American Songwriter
"Over the past few years Americana singer/songwriter James Lee Baker has been on a personal journey to discover his place in existence. '100 Summers' is about being alive and enjoying the tender moments of living."
– The Bluegrass Situation
"Ultimately, what Baker created is a moving testament to his mission to live a life of meaning. "
– 303 Magazine
"With his stunning new album 100 Summers, James Lee Baker reaffirms the fact that he’s one of the most gifted singers and songwriters on Folk's musical horizons. Recorded in one-take recordings at Blue Rock Studios in Wimberly, Texas, 100 Summers finds Baker working with an exceptional group of collaborators — among them, 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), Matt Hubbard (Willy Nelson, Billy Bob Thornton), Paul Simon’s Grammy-winning accompanist Joel Guzman, Americana Songwriter of the Year nominee Mark Erelli, and Laurie MacAllister from the famed Folk group Red Molly.
'I elected to record at the most appropriate studio I could find, with the best session players I could afford and the right engineers for the genre,' Baker reflects. 'I aimed to give this everything I had in hopes that people who are seeking it can receive it.'
Indeed, his efforts paid off. Brandishing an easy and accessible folk-rock sound, Baker traces echoes of Gordon Lightfoot, Jackson Browne, Tom Rush, and any number of other tenured balladeers whose narratives found a universal bond. Not surprisingly then, the album’s flush with soothing melodies — the title track, 'Misinterpreting the Angels,' 'Wipe the Dust Off Your Bellows,' and 'Returning to Paris,' among the many — and melodies so soothing and stirring, they find calm even in the midst of confusion.
At the same time, the message that accompanies the music rings with reassurance and resolve, stocked with emotions that strike a universal chord. It’s poetry at its purest — tender, touching and flush with sweetness, sadness and sentiment in equal measure.
'While traveling my journey, these songs came to life,' Baker says when asked about his inspiration. 'I unknowingly was following the path of a centralized theme, that of change. It wasn’t until I was three quarters of the way through creating this album that I realized that each and every song touched on that central subject.'
He cites some specific examples. ‘Santa Barbara is about a divorce, but it’s also more about rebirth — the gift of a new identity that becomes your best persona yet as a result of the fact you’ve ceased to be your previous self. The Last Cowboy in Hutchinson County is a rumination on how the world keeps evolving and either leaves us behind or forces us to adapt to the changes. A New Man’s World offers advice on avoiding the pitfalls of cynicism, a mindset often seems to accelerate with age.'
So too, the new album caps a year of achievements. In 2019 alone, Baker scored a number of honors from several prestigious competitions.
Two of his songs — 'Returning to Paris' and 'The Last Cowboy in Hutchinson County' —- qualified him as a finalist in The Falcon Ridge Folk Festival's Emerging Artists Contest. Those same two songs also found him a finalist in the Wildflower! festival as well. In addition, he was named a semi-finalist for the Unsigned Only songwriting contest. He also qualified as a 2019 Official Showcase Artist at the Southwest Regional Folk Alliance (SWRFA). He toured extensively over the past two years, playing stages throughout the Southwest while opening for singer/songwriters Ellis Paul and Vance Gilbert and becoming an established presence in the Folk Alliance community.
'What's the use of having a studio full of paintings if they are never taken out and showcased to the world?,' Baker explains. 'Art must be judged, and it takes courage to be that vulnerable to the world. We all have a gift to give existence, regardless of what we do. It’s our contribution to the furthering and betterment of our species.'
In 2016, he caught a big break when Ellis Paul agreed to mentor him. A short time later, he enrolled in the New England Songwriter’s Retreat, where Paul was one of the tutors. 'I came to him with an open mind and a star in my eye and he quickly deconstructed my reality and showed me where I was oblivious,' Baker recalls. 'I was innocently ripe with an inflated ego formed in the vacuum of my upbringing, isolated from a community of artists like myself. I learned that what I was trying to say was a muscle that had very rarely been used. It was something that had atrophied because it had never been built up to be applied properly. I was pouring out my feelings, writing them down, and considering them to be the final version of the blessings of a misunderstood and charitable muse.'
At that point, he began recording in earnest, beginning with a pair of EPs -- 2011’s Something You’ve Left Behind, which featured a cover of Ellis Paul’s unreleased track 'Everything’s Broken,' and A Brilliant Defeat in 2014. He returned to recording in 2017 with the full length LP Home Again, utilizing the Fiverr platform to recruit session players from across the U.S., U.K. and Canada. Four of its songs were gleaned for a radio sampler titled The Canadian River EP. The title track charted at #23 on the Folk music charts and another, 'Disappear for the Weekend,' was included on two compilations representing the best new music from current Texas singer/songwriters.
The album itself 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. Billboard cited him as an Emerging Artist to watch while No Depression hailed him for his 'heavenly voice and talent for writing deeply inspiring and intimately connective songs,' rounding out its review by saying that “to call him anything other than brilliant would be criminal.' American Songwriter said 'Storytelling is one of the calling cards of this young Folk singer.'
'It’s still a challenging craft to be an artist, especially a songwriter,' Baker muses. 'We take the emotions we feel, experiences we observe, and epiphanies we have and distill them into some form that is received by the masses. In order for people to be receptive to it, it needs to be relatable. At the same time, this now relatable product must hold a unique depth to it that is reserved for the esoteric place where the most profound beauty and poetry lies. A song must be as particular to one individual as it is universal to so many.'
Clearly then, Baker’s best efforts are still ahead of him, and with his new album, he’s an artist that will be well worth watching.
'How do I, as an artist, stand out in the crowd and bring something to the table that is worth the time of the listener?' Baker reflects philosophically. 'That has been my quest and it has led me through countless voice lessons, songwriting critique sessions, retreats, workshops, prayers, and moments of self-reflection.'
With the shimmering 100 Summers, that quest continues."
– Lee Zimmerman