Tyler Baker used to mow graveyards for money. Raised in a double-wide trailer in Southern Indiana, he grew up in a home so rural it didn’t even have an address. As a child he rode motorcycles and played in the creek. His father spun records by Creedence Clearwater Revival and ZZ Top, while Baker played country hymns on guitar in church. The nearest Walmart was 40 minutes away. Life plans were simple.
“My grandparents just wanted me to marry in the church and be in the church all the time,” the Goodbye June guitarist tells us, as their excellent third album See Where The Night Goes threatens those plans. “Beyond that, I don’t think they cared. They wanted me to keep mowin’ the graveyards and go to church!”
Over in West Tennessee, his two cousins – now his bandmates – grew up with even godlier expectations, and only slightly less remote surroundings. Church was everything. Secular music was forbidden. Rhythm guitarist and bassist Brandon Qualkenbush’s father was a travelling preacher who evangelised across the Bible Belt. Meanwhile, Landon Milbourn, Goodbye June’s frontman (imagine a Bon Scott/Leon Russell hybrid), was coerced into singing by his choirmaster father.
“I hated singing,” Milbourn recalls. “I hated getting in front of people singing; I wanted to be behind something so I wouldn’t be seen.”
It’s a curious set of ingredients for one of rock’n’roll’s most commanding present-day prospects: the cemetery mower, the preacher’s son and the reluctant frontman. A band primed by the Southern Ministry, and formed in the shadow of tragedy after Baker’s brother, Shane, died in a car accident while on military leave in 2005. That later part of their story is well documented. But it’s their lives before then that really tell you what Goodbye June are all about, and which unlock some of See Where The Night Goes’s strongest moments.
It’s 7am in Nashville when Classic Rock catches up with Milbourn and Baker. They’re a little sleepy, but friendly and unfazed by the hour. “The whole vibe is similar to being on the road,” says Baker, sitting in his front room, as his four-month-old baby is passed to him. “There’s no sleep, people screaming and grabbing at you all the time.” he says with a laugh.
A lot has happened since the trio of cousins moved to Nashville to pursue music in earnest. They’ve released records, and picked up fans through huge shows with ZZ Top and Greta Van Fleet, tours with cool southern rock contemporaries such as Whiskey Myers and their own headline shows. The band has become their full-time job, as of “about 2013”. All of which they’ve processed somewhat on the new album.
A game-raising amalgam of hooky, swampy classic rock, punch-the-air vocals and outlaw twists, it’s deeply evocative of the world in which they grew up, while leaning into the sort of timeless, soul-searching themes that make it resonate more globally. Think AC/DC running moonshine with Creedence Clearwater Revival. It was sparked off by bare-bones jam sessions in Baker’s garage when the world shut down back in March 2020.
“It made me feel like I was sixteen again,” the guitarist says with a grin. “There was an energy there and it gave us a purpose. We were supposed to be touring all of 2020, and when that was gone we were flapping in the wind a little bit. This record was uniting, and we said: ‘Hey, we’re gonna do this rock record.’ It was what I needed to keep me sane.”
“I think we drew a lot from our younger selves, in some ways, but [we were] also looking forward to the future,” Milbourn reasons. “A lot of our favourite records are those you can put on at a summer party and just let it play through. That’s what we’re trying to achieve. We wanted to have some youthful vitality to it.”
Even as it channels some angst of the past two years, See Where The Night Goes is indeed a record you’d play at a party. Strictly, it’s a product of the pandemic, although certain songs were pocketed from previous years. Joe Cocker-esque ballad What I Need, for example (‘It’s so hard to love yourself when you don’t think you should’), taps into the sort of human anxiety that we’ve probably all felt at some point in recent years.
But it’s Goodbye June’s past that comes through most powerfully, resulting in good-time songs with grit and substance. Lead single Step Aside sets the tone with tales of a travelling preacher’s son, watching his father ‘preachin’ and teachin’ the gospel true’, and ultimately finding ‘peace in this guitar’ while his friends head off to college and find ‘jobs and kids and wives’.
“The first verse is very accurate to my lifestyle and to Brandon’s lifestyle, just being children of people in the Ministry,” Milbourn explains. “The lyrics of that song are very close to home, just watching your friends do all the normal things. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but I wanted more. I didn’t want to just settle down and take what was in front of me.”
Step Aside’s ballsy bluegrass riff was conceived by Baker on a visit to his folks in the country. “I always end up writing or going out on the porch, walking in the woods or sitting by their little pond by the house,” he says. “That riff came out in that time in nature, away from everything, because we have terrible cell phone service out there; if somebody texts me, it usually takes twenty-four hours to reach me.”
He has a theory about songs: “It’s gotta sound good on acoustic. If it doesn’t sound good on acoustic, most likely it’s not that good a song.”
Elsewhere, their relocation to Nashville is written into Breathe & Attack, a sly, slow-burn roots-rocker on which they sing: ‘I was born on the river/raised by the rock/moved to the city and it gave me culture shock’.
“We all knew that if we were going to do music as a real thing, we needed to get to Nashville, New York or LA,” Milbourn says. “Somewhere that had outlets, that actually had a music scene. We got to Nashville, we did have a culture shock of how good everybody was here. We started going to shows and we were like: ‘Wow, we’ve really got to focus and step up our playing.’ It was a shock, but a positive, motivating shock, for sure."
Still, growing up in rural churches primed them for life on the road – as well as life on stage. Milbourn and Qualkenbush’s grandfather, Wilbur, the subject of feel-good boogie Three Chords, was an evangelist preacher who sang his way through fiery services and on stages across the South.
“That started it for us and our family,” Milbourn says. “He was avid on singing, and he was making records back in the late fifties and sixties. For his kids it was ingrained into them that this is what you do: you have music, and you have church.”
For Milbourn it was domestic matters as well as his father’s church choir duties that did this. His parents divorced when he was six, and he spent much of his youth shuttling back and forth between them. Henderson, West Tennessee (population 6,000 or so), was as close as he got to a ‘settled’ home.
“It was kind of a crappy, shitty town,” he recalls, “but you made the most of it. And it actually turned out to be a fun time."
The music might have been free from sin, but Goodbye June’s church experiences – huge-scale pentecostal services – had a lot in common with rock gigs; Godly worship came with generous sides of volume, sweat and dancing.
“Some people would spin in circles on the floor and do cartwheels if it got crazy enough,” Milbourn recalls. “There were a lot of shout-beats, as we call them in the gospel, where it’s all [Landon demonstrates] clapping, and people speaking in tongues, getting their blessing.”
“You would leave the church sweating,” Baker adds. “You’d be in a black suit, a button-up and a tie in ninety-five-degree weather, in the dead heat of summer, but it was always fun.”
In time, the three cousins found ways to include rock’n’roll in their lives. Baker had his father’s records. Qualkenbush listened to Nirvana on the radio under his bed. Milbourn drank in tips from friends at the church school he attended, even sneaking songs into the classroom.
“We were allowed to have a Discman at our desk when we weren’t having actual class,” he says, “but it had to be gospel or church music. The teachers would come around and check your music to make sure it was legit. So we would burn CDs where the first three or four tracks were gospel music, then after track three or four Metallica comes in. A little trick of the trade I learned when I was nine or ten,” he says with a grin. In time, their seemingly disparate worlds of religion and rock began to blend.
Milbourn recalls sneaking into the local church after school, where his father was (and still is) the choir director, and making use of its acoustics to blast through Metallica, Creed and Nirvana songs.
“It seems like in order to create art, somebody has to be going through a struggle or have some imbalance in their mind,” Baker concludes. “The scales have to be off kilter. With the upbringing we had, there was always a guilt. We were always under guilt of whether we were livin’ right.”
These days they’re non-committal on the subject of religion, while album closer Black is about as ‘political’ as they get. Written just as everything was being cancelled in 2020, it wraps up the record on a biting, sarcastic note (‘Feelgood hit of the summer, I’m gonna get high till it all turns black’).
Really, though, it’s the general feel of See Where The Night Goes that has some kind of magic about it – a sweet spot between old gospel fire, weapons-grade classic rock and the hunger of rising stars. Now, with plans cooking up as we go to press, the call of the road is returning. The same call that has resonated through generations of Goodbye June’s relatives.
“The biggest thing this pandemic has taught me is that every time I take that stage, I cherish it now,” says Baker. “I’m not saying I didn’t before, but there get to be moments where we were touring a lot, and maybe it feels like work at some point, or you go into work mode. Now [a grin starts to appear], I wanna go back in that Sprinter.”