Life in small town Marion, Arkansas sounds idyllic in songwriter Bailey Bigger’s telling: a first gig in a diner in 7th grade, working on a farm while in high school, family history going back generations. But the truth—and Bailey is so dedicated to truth in her songwriting that she has a three tattooed on the back of her left arm for three chords and the truth—is that the preternaturally observant twenty-year old didn’t quite fit in even as she loved the feeling that the whole town was her backyard.
That tension of coming of age in small town America while pursuing a larger world marks her debut EP on Big Legal Mess Records. “It was magical in a way,” she reflects, continuing, “We lived in my great-grandfather’s old house. I love the community part of it. You say your name to a stranger and they say, ‘Oh, you’re Eddie’s granddaughter, David’s daughter.’” When, as kids, her brother got a guitar for Christmas and she got a piano, she knew that she was destined to become a guitar-playing singer-songwriter so they negotiated an even trade.
Like two of her favorite writers Mary Oliver and Joan Didion, Bailey often writes about the grace of nature and the outdoor world—and she also shares their commitment to unflinching honesty. She says, “The best songs are super honest and you can tell when it’s super honest because somebody says something that’s so personal it’s never been said before.”
The stunner “A Lot Like I Do” sets the scene, the small town picket fence in twilight with the departing harvest moon metaphors for her first true love, now lost. Lines like “Even the sunflowers seem to turn from the past,” remind a listener of John Prine, even as they are signposts to her own writing voice emerging. “Dragonflies/Chase in the open air/Cattails hide/All the secrets you don’t share” betray an attention to detail as well as to form. Her vocals, influenced by Joni Mitchell and Gillian Welch, stand out. She remembers how that chorus came about, saying “There’s a line about my grandfather. He and my grandmother were married for 56 years. Every day after she passed away, his shoulders sunk lower and lower. It was hard.”
After a year of living in Memphis, Bailey’s back living on a farm in Marion. This summer, she received delivery of her grandmother’s piano. She’s careful to say that she loves Memphis, just that city-living isn’t for her. Her song “Weight of Independence” tackles the loneliness of growing up quickly after leaving home. She’s seen changes these last two years, from losing her first love to escaping a situation with self-destructive friendships, losing her grandmother the same day as a subsequent breakup. About that day, she says, “It let me step back and see bigger picture. A lot of things matter way more than that breakup. I had a realization that that person was nothing in the big story.” The writing process gave her the clarity to see that she had been lying to herself, freeing herself in the process. She confesses, “I saw how hard it was to be honest, even with myself. I knew I didn’t want to be with him anymore the night I wrote that song but it was easier said than done to leave him,” she reveals. The words to “Let’s Call It Love” singe as she releases them: “Cause I’ve made myself a liar/Too many times to count/I bet you relax with your feet on the dash/When I tell you/Time’s running out/’Cause who wants to fight for a girl/Who’s never gonna leave anyways/So I’ll keep on lying/And you’ll keep not trying/But let’s call it love for today.”
Even prior to entering the studio with producer Bruce Watson, she’s already had success in Memphis, TN, playing The Levitt Shell, site of one of Elvis’ first performances, twice, the second time joined by the University of Memphis Wind Ensemble orchestrating her original songs. She’s also been featured in the alt.weekly Memphis Flyer.
Watson turned her down at first, saying that her songs weren’t ready; she says, “It made me really respect him and It created this fire in me, that I’m so thankful for.” She challenged herself to sharpen her craft, and it shows. Upon hearing the new batch, Watson didn’t hesitate, setting studio dates right away with some of the best musicians in Memphis, such as Joe Restivo (Don Bryant, The Bo-Keys), Mark Edgar Stuart (Alvin Youngblood Hart, John Paul Keith), Will Sexton (Dale Watson, Luther Dickinson, Shannon McNally), Al Gamble (Don Bryant, St. Paul & the Broke. Bones, The Hold Steady), George Sluppick (Chris Robinson Brotherhood, Ruthie Foster), Jana Meisner (The Reigning Sound).
Of recording with Watson at Delta-Sonic Studio, she says, “Bruce brought a little bit of soul into my music. He brought in the organ and the electric guitars and things like that that I never would’ve thought to do on my own. It’s Americana but Memphis. We ate a bunch of Cozy Corner [barbecue] and hung out.”
Watson hears realness in her writing, saying, “Bailey pours her soul into her songwriting and the results are stunning. Great songs combined with a beautiful distinctive voice, this is something really special,” noting, "In a time where we are inundated with junk culture, it’s refreshing to hear a young artist reinventing older music and making it vibrant again.”