Seven years ago, Corey Baum wondered if he’d made a big mistake. At 24, the native of Bowling Green, Ohio, had moved 1,300 miles southwest to Austin, sight unseen. He knew almost nothing about the city — not even that the University of Texas is here.
All he really knew was that he wanted to dive head-first into music. The Midwesterner, who wrote what he called “sad-bastard singer-songwriter stuff,” recently had become fascinated with Waylon Jennings’ classic “Honky Tonk Heroes” album. In his mind, he envisioned the outlaw-country paradise that Austin had incubated four decades ago.
So when his only two friends in town took him to a Red River District club and the bands were playing indie electropop, “I was totally crushed,” he says. “I thought it was really going to be like whatever I pictured Willie and Waylon doing in the ’70s.”
Baum’s song “Back to Something,” from his new album as leader of the band Croy & the Boys, dates to those days. “I missed home, which I never thought I would,” he recalls, confessing that he almost didn’t stick around. “I really didn’t have any money, and I wasn’t part of any scene yet. I was just playing open mics, and all my friends had moved to Chicago or Detroit.”
It’s funny how things work out sometimes, though. “Luckily, I was too poor to move back home,” Baum says with a laugh. “There’s no way I could have gotten back up there with my things. So I was stuck, and I toughed it out.”
Fast-forward to 2016, and Baum is having probably the best year of his life. Croy & the Boys made their debut record with Adrian Quesada, one of Austin’s hottest producers. This fall, they toured for the first time, a Midwest jaunt that took them to Ohio and back. And in a couple of weeks, Baum is getting married. No wonder he’s our Austin360 Artist of the Month for November.
“Hey Come Back,” which the band released independently last week, is one of Austin’s best country records of the year, though it aims outside the center of the country target. As much as Baum loves the traditional classics, “I wasn’t ready to think about myself as a future Dale Watson,” he says, giving props to the archetypal Austin honky-tonker.
Not inclined toward the downtown indie-rock scene and a bit intimidated by the old-school pros at the Broken Spoke, Baum found his tribe at Hole in the Wall. The campus-area club was nurturing roots-music upstarts including Mike & the Moonpies and Carson McHone as well as Leo Rondeau, with whom Baum ended up playing bass.
When it came time to put together his own band, Baum purposefully steered away from fiddle and pedal steel, preferring to hone in on a fundamental guitar-bass-drums groove. Bassist Amy Hawthorne, the woman who assures that the “Boys” band name is tongue-in-cheek, anchors the rhythm section with drummer Casey Seymour.
Guitarists Steve Carlson and Jeremy Nail (our Austin360 Artist of the Month for May) both played on “Hey Come Back.” More recently, Sam Kossler, who often plays with McHone, has been part of the mix as well.
When Baum seeks to flesh things out, he turns primarily to keyboard-based instrumentation. Dan Patrevito’s piano and organ accents figure prominently in many songs on the album, while others get a distinctly Tex-Mex twist from accordion aces Joel Guzman and Michael Ramos. (At the band’s record release party, Joe Cornetti handled those roles.)
That subtle turn toward the music of Mexico reveals a lot about the breadth of Baum’s musical interests. He got heavily into hip-hop when he was younger, became fascinated with Appalachian old-time music during high school trips to West Virginia, and played drums in punk bands while studying ethnomusicology at Bowling Green State University. But the move to Texas has ignited a deep interest in Mexican music.
“My favorite part of Texas is its proximity to Mexico,” he says. Baum hasn’t yet traveled south of the border, though he and his fiancee have booked a trip to Belize for their honeymoon. In the meantime, he’s absorbed as much of the musical culture as he can find in Austin.
“I’ve seen Los Tigres del Norte the last two times they’ve been here,” he says, mentioning venues such as the Coliseum near the airport and East Austin bar La Tropicana as places where Austinites can regularly hear the sounds of Mexico. “I fell really hard for Norteño music in the last couple of years.”
It’s at least partly an extension of the cross-cultural bond Baum has experienced since moving to Austin. His day job as a landscaper has involved up-close interaction with co-workers who recently arrived from Mexico, and that has changed him.
“At this point, I don’t think I could live somewhere that doesn’t have a sizable Mexican population,” he says. “I wouldn’t have made this record with Adrian, probably, if it wasn’t for those guys (on the landscaping crew).”
Quesada was an intriguing choice, indeed. Renowned for his work with eclectic Latin acts Grupo Fantasma and Brownout, he’d recently branched out by producing metal band the Sword’s adventurous 2015 album “High Country.” But he’d never done a country record.
“I like to be in that position, taking myself out of my comfort zone, so I was way into the idea of working with Corey when he asked,” Quesada says. “What I dug about them is that they’re loosely playing off the country music formula and have moments of ‘straight ahead country,’ but they have a really unique sound that nods to many different things.”
The results are clear to hear on “Hey Come Back.” The title track swings well into soul territory, at one point echoing Smokey Robinson’s “Tracks of My Tears” with its rhythmic lyricism. Whirring accordions kick “Leaving’s the Last Thing” into a conjunto-spiced dance-floor spin. The soft organ tones that highlight “Ruby Close It Down” suggest a piano-bar/honky-tonk hybrid.
Mostly, though, Quesada keeps the focus squarely on the songs. That “sad bastard” thing is still part of Baum’s palette, from the weeper waltz “It Ain’t a Life” to the longing farewell “Oh Ellie” to the love-triangle lament “You Still Care.”
Which begs a question: Must a soon-to-be-married man leave his sad-bastard days behind?
“I worry about that for sure,” Baum answers with a laugh. “A lot of the material on this album is from a couple of years ago, when I went through my last big breakup. But there’s some love songs on there too,” he adds, citing “Woke Up in Love” as one he wrote about his fiancee.
These days, he uses his happiness as motivation. “Sometimes I just don’t feel like playing the (sad) stuff, because if I’m in a good mood, it’s just going to bum me out,” he says. “Some of my big influences are Roger Miller and Jonathan Richman — guys who can sing a happy song and make music that puts you in a good mood. That’s always been my challenge.
“Basically I just want to be able to write whatever I’m feeling at that moment, and make it a compelling song. The sad ones are definitely the ones that we’ll listen to for the rest of our lives. But I’m trying to make some happy ones that are worth listening to.”
AUSTIN360 NOVEMBER ARTIST OF THE MONTH: Croy & the Boys
Members (on the album): Corey “Croy” Baum (rhythm guitar, vocals); Amy Hawthorne (bass); Casey Seymour (drums, vibes); Steve Carlson (lead guitar); Dan Patrevito (keyboards).
Recordings: “Hey Come Back,” released Oct. 28.
Statesman video: See the band perform in our studio at video.statesman.com.