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On her way to recording music this year that she describes as “definitely a level up from the things I’ve done in the past,” Bailey Bigger responded to a knockdown of sorts to her songwriting.

Bigger already had a handful of low-key releases under her belt when she approached producer Bruce Watson in 2019 about working together. Watson — whose studio credits include Heartless Bastards, Thee Shams and many blues artists — said the material she presented to him was “not there yet,” Bigger recalls.

Unaccustomed to such criticism, she responded by digging deeper to raise her game, which led to writing songs that met his approval. By mid-spring 2020, Bigger had finished tracking the tunes for Let’s Call It Love, her first EP for Watson’s Big Legal Mess imprint, at his Delta-Sonic Sound facility in Memphis, Tennessee. Released Dec. 4, the collection features support from such seasoned veterans as guitarist Will Sexton and keyboardist Al Gamble.

Speaking from her rental house on a family friend’s farm, not far from where she grew up in Marion, Arkansas, the 20-year-old Bigger addressed a handful of musical firsts in her personal and professional life.

Her first favorite artist:
Bailey Bigger: “My first favorite artist was John Denver. I discovered him because my dad really loved him a lot. My dad would play him for me when I was little. ‘Rocky Mountain High’ was the first John Denver song I knew, and I thought, ‘I want to play that on guitar,’ so that’s why I started taking guitar lessons.”

Her first concert:
Bigger: “Oh, gosh. My first concert was Sugarland. I was probably nine or 10. I went to see them with my mom and dad. I loved their music when I was a kid.

“This is pretty crazy: Their manager came out into the audience and was looking for kids who would want to participate [in the show]. It was in Southaven [Mississippi] at this huge amphitheater, and we were way back in the lawn [section] — we didn’t even have chairs. And the manager came out there and came up to my mom and was like, ‘Hey, we’d love to use your daughter for this thing we’re doing tonight onstage.’ They talked it out, and I got to come to the front of the stage and get up there. [Jennifer Nettles] had spray-painted ‘LOVE’ on this big banner. It turned into a flag, and she handed it to me, and I got to run through the audience with it. And forever I had that flag up in my room.”

Her first guitar:
Bigger: “I still have it, but I could not tell you what brand it is. It’s one of those cheap guitars, and it’s nylon string. Forever, I was set on classical guitars. I would not play steel string: ‘Willie [Nelson] always plays nylon.’ That was a weird thing about me for a while.”

Her first gig:
Bigger: “My first gig was at a diner in my hometown [of Marion]. It’s called Tacker’s Shake Shack. It has a ’50s theme, and it’s been there forever. We know the owners. My brother is a musician, so he would play there a lot in middle school. I was still in elementary school, so I would always watch and think, ‘Wow.’

“We talked to the owners, and they let me have my first gig there. I played for tips. It became a regular thing; I think I was 12 when I did my first one.”

Her first tattoo:
Bigger: (Laughs) “My first — and my only — tattoo is on the back of my left arm. It’s like a Roman numeral three. I know Willie Nelson says it, but I know it’s been around longer than that: ‘Three chords and the truth,’ [what] country and folk are and always have been.”

First words that come to mind when asked to describe Marion, Arkansas:
Bigger: “Simple — take that how you want it. Let’s see — definitely peaceful. You know, it really depends. I think I look at it in two ways. One way, growing up, it was sort of magical. When you have a lot of family history in such a small town, it feels magical in a way. … But being different at all is not a positive experience, the older you get. In middle school, junior high and high school, Marion became less charming, and I became set on getting as far away as I could as soon as I could. That didn’t end up happening — not yet. Socially, I would say, it was not the best for me or my brother, but we both stayed true to ourselves, which is good, and we kind of avoided getting lost within any label or crowd. … We both made it out as individuals, and I have a different perspective on it now, for sure. It’s still very nostalgic and special to me, but from a distance in a way.”

Her initial reaction to producer Bruce Watson turning her down at first to work together:
Bigger: “At first, I was offended (laughs). I’ve had yes-men around me my entire career, and one compliment that I get consistently is, ‘Your songwriting is so mature for your age.’ And I take those things to heart.

“Bruce turned me down, and his critique was, ‘It’s not there yet. Your songs lack maturity.’ And I was like, ‘Hold up!’ (laughs) That was my first no-man. I think I really needed that, though, and it humbled me to step back and go, ‘OK, wait a minute. I’m good enough for all the stuff I’ve been doing, but if I want to get better and do something greater, I’ve got to be better.’ When I came with my second [batch] of songs, he liked them, so I guess it worked.”

The timeline for her first album:
Bigger: “Right now I’m just focusing on writing a lot more. I don’t really have any set plans [for an album]. … I’m co-writing a lot now; I’m using this time to do that. I’m also finishing school [at the University of Memphis]. It’s kind of a one-day-at-a-time thing for me right now.”

— Introduction and interview by Chris M. Junior

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