Photographed by Bethany Reid
Tiptoeing the line between Americana and ‘Old’ Country, Bailey Bigger’s songwriting, told through her haunting southern voice, invokes the surreal imagery of Delta landscapes — straight-foward, honest and timeless. Love songs span across her discography, each growing with a new understanding of the concept and retelling her own and growing experiences.
Taking inspiration from songwriters like John Denver and Hank Williams, Bigger has big shoes to fill while paying tribute to the greats of her genre. However, the 20-year-old has managed to create a very honest-feeling sound, shying away from the over-produced sounds of her would-be contemporaries. Read more about Bigger and her story below.
For as long as I can remember I’ve been around music. I grew up singing in Church, but I always wanted to play an instrument. At about nine-years-old, I convinced my parents to let me start taking lessons. My brother, who's two years older than me, had been taking piano lessons for a while so my parents enrolled me in the same. I hated it, so I kept begging to play the guitar instead. They gave in, and it just felt so natural. I took off. After the first week of lessons I wrote my first song, “Field,” and played it at my recital. Then I wrote a song called "My Life is Perfect." It's just a sweet little 9-year-old song.
We lived in Marion, Arkansas, about 20 minutes outside of Memphis, but we came to Memphis constantly because my grandparents lived here. So I spent a lot of time in the city. Anyway, when I was about 12 I wrote a song about Marion called “Best Small Town.” I think that was probably the beginning of realizing that playing music is what I really wanted to do. The music video is still up. I'm definitely embarrassed about it now, but I think the reason I haven't taken it down is I’m just a sucker for memories, I guess. Also a lot of people from Marion still like to go and look at it. I'm just like, ‘Whatever they know I was 12.’ From there I got a gig at the Shake Shack. That kind of started the whole journey.
Then my parents started taking me to Nashville to do competitions and go to music camps. I won some of those, and that got me recording time at places. So then they started taking me to studios.
One time they drove me all the way to the Bluebird Cafe for a show in Nashville and then came right back. They both have their own work to do, but they put me and my dreams ahead of themselves in every aspect. And I thank them for that. My parents aren’t musicians, but my dad has the gift of listening to lyrics and understanding. I’ve always thought he seems like one of those people that always wanted to be a poet but couldn’t. But, he had the passion for it. He always supported and motivated me to write, write, write. He still gives me daily inspiration with songs he'll send me. Recently, it crossed my mind and I asked my mom, ‘Why?’ She said, ‘Well, you know, we would have cut this off a long time ago if we didn't think you actually had a shot.’ They both put mine and my brother’s dreams before their own.
With that being said, I’ve had some rough patches along the way. I've had producers say, ‘Well, I don't think it's there yet,’ or ‘Well, I think you should practice writing and playing guitar more.’ I remember when I was 13, I was a part of the National Songwriters Association, and I went up to Nashville for a one on one meeting with a song critic who was going to critique my song “Winter Wheat.” I played it for him in the room live. And he sat me down and was like, ‘Nobody wants to listen to something like that, and you're not going to ever get radio time. It's just really long. There's too much instrumental. You don't have a chorus. You need to get to the first verses in 30 seconds, people are going to switch the station.’ He basically told me I can’t write how I write and that I need to write stuff that people will actually want to listen to.
It was super discouraging, especially for a 13-year-old. I thought to myself, ‘Do people really not want to listen to this? What do you mean?’ But I think that it kind of started this fire in me. Like, ‘OK. Watch me.’
When I was 15, I got my first show in Memphis at Otherlands. I got the gig by opening for a fellow church member. I think that was probably the first time I really played a show that people listened to me. I started to get really good feedback from my original music and gain confidence. My mindset shifted from, ‘Do I want to do this?’ to ‘Can I do this.’
I find a lot of my inspiration for songwriting from older country artists. John Denver was kind of my big intro to music. I remember being six-years-old or something, and my dad was listening to John Denver, and I’d make him play "Rocky Mountain High" over and over and over again.
There's an old term that people use for country music, "The three chords and the truth." I actually have a ‘three’ tattooed on my arm for it. Old country and folk music is all about storytelling. The music itself is not hard to figure out. It's very simple. It's typically just three chords. That's the greatest part about it, though. It makes you focus in on what they're saying because the music's not all over the place. And I love all kinds of music, but I think that's why, as a songwriter, I lean towards those genres. I just really love to tell stories and I think the genre has always prioritized and focused on that. It's very honest music. I feel that this genre and literature kind of go hand-in-hand.
As far as my songwriting is concerned, I've written a lot of love songs. Mainly because that's a lot of what I've experienced in my life thus far. But lately I've written more about growth in general. I feel like I observe myself observing everyday life. I'm always aware that I'm taking in the things around me and then I go home and I write it all down in a journal, though really it's more of a collection of thoughts. Almost like poetry rather than a detailed account of what I did today. I’ve been journaling like that for as long as I can remember. I mean, I was maybe five-years-old writing probably seven poems a day. I still have them all at my parents house in little boxes.
I zone in on lyrics. I think that’s why I listen to the music that I listen to and have been influenced by that. I love the music in songs too, but I definitely prioritize lyrics. I get that from my dad. He’s always said, ‘Listen to this line. See how they tie it in here. Listen to this.’ He gets moved by lyrics so easily. That's one thing that's a tear jerker for him. Whereas my mom loves ‘80s pop and stuff. She loved the instrumental part of songs. She loves the movement and the dancing feeling you get. But she's like, ‘Wait, what did they say?’
There's an old song I’ve always loved called "Down in the Willow Garden.” It's an old murder ballad from the 1800s. The whole song is about this nameless person telling this story about how they murdered their lover down in the willow gardens and feeling guilty about it. It's very haunting but a beautiful melody. I just love how these songs are carried on. Nobody knows who wrote it, but her name still lives on through it. ‘My father he had told me his money would set me free if I would poison that dear little girl whose name was Rose Connelly.’ It gives me chills thinking about these people long before us who are gone, but their songs are still here. We don’t know them, but we know their story.
I think at the core of a strong songwriter is being able to tell your story, but make it universal so that people feel it with you. They can see themselves in your story. I read this thing one time that still sticks with me. It said, ‘The way to tell a great story is to make really small moments huge and really huge moments small.’ The details are what makes a story.
Every time I sit down with the goal of writing a song, it never works. So something has to happen to me that inspires me. Sometimes inspiration comes from a passing conversation, somebody will say a single line and I'll write it down because I'm like, ‘Oh, that's the perfect imagery for a song.’
Last year I was kind of in a big slump. I had moved into the city to be closer to school and I went almost an entire year without writing a song, and I was really struggling with that because that's always been my identity. I was just in a bad place and uninspired. I started to rethink everything, and I was like, ‘Oh my god. Can I still do this if I'm not producing content? Am I done? Is my songwriting over forever? Do I have to find another job?’ It's definitely come back. And I think there will always be ups and downs like that. In the past year, I’ve moved out to this 500 acre farm that belongs to some family friends in Arkansas, and it’s definitely helped me rekindle my songwriting. My brother lives with me right now in this little two-bedroom house. It's me, my brother, my dog and two chickens. It's a nice little life. Quarantine has been nice out here.
I've always been a country girl. The year I lived in the city was a year too long. It really had me down. I think, honestly, I wasn't finding inspiration because a lot of my inspiration comes from my surroundings and nature. I’m meant for a simple lifestyle. I think I just felt lost. But when I moved out here, I've got a big screened-in porch with a big field in front of it, and I write while watching the sun set every night.
People always ask me why I don’t move to Nashville. I don't hate Nashville, in fact I like Nashville fine. I might end up living there eventually. You never know. But as for my thoughts on why Memphis instead of Nashville—I think Memphis has soul. Memphis has character. Memphis has a story. Nashville kind of lacks those things and feels so oversaturated. I don't think I would stand out as much in Nashville. I still think I would stand out in a way, but it's a lot harder to get going over there. I relate to Memphis. It's kind of the underdog, you know? I'm always rooting for the underdog. I want to be on that side. The people that really love Memphis are the ones who live here. You got to live here to really appreciate it and know what it's all about. I truly think Memphis is one of the most soulful cities in the world. There's not another place I would want to represent with my music. I think there's a lot of music history here that gets overlooked.
I feel like if I went to Nashville, I would be trying to be someone I'm not. With that being said, there comes a point, I think, in a career where opportunities are only there at that point. When I get it'll be something I'll probably have to consider if I continue on this path. But as for where I'm from, where I'm always going to represent, it'll always be Memphis.
Currently, I just finished my sophomore year at the University of Memphis, and the music program there has definitely helped me in a lot of ways. We have a university record label, which put out my newest record “Between the Pages.” I think the biggest thing the program has done for me is help me make connections and expand my network. I would have never met the people that played on that record without the program. It really opened up my sound and made it something I never would have thought that I could have done myself.
Learn more about Bailey Bigger by following her instagram @baileybigger
BEHIND THE SONG
Every now and then you finish a song and get this feeling of completion. You say to yourself, ‘It's done. It's perfect. I said what I wanted to.’ I think if you get that satisfaction in the song you’ve done your job as a writer, at least in my eyes. I wrote “Lyrics” for someone I was with for about three years. He ended up moving away, but we were trying to make it work. I wanted to write a song that was as sincere as possible because it was the most sincere love I had ever felt. I'd written so many love songs before him about other people, and that was the whole idea behind the song. “I’m still gonna play the songs about them, but I no longer mean those words today. The only face I see is yours even from seven hundred miles away.” I wanted the song to be very aware of itself. Like “Your Song” by Elton John. It's like this is your song, it’s my gift and I’m giving it you. Being a songwriter and dating people can be a strange experience. They know you have songs about other people, and I feel like if I dated someone who had written songs about other girls I might feel a little insecure.
I wanted that to all go away with him and just be like, here's your song. I meant it more than I ever had before. And you deserve this one more than anyone. And I think to this day it's probably still the best love song I've written. I have never written a love song that had felt so complete. It was the last song I ever wrote to him. We eventually broke up and I haven’t seen him in years, but I still like the memory of it. It's something that will always be there. I love that the song exists to represent that.
There were some before you
You know I’d take ‘em all back if I could
If you asked me to be the only one
You know I would
You know I would
I’m still gonna play the songs about them
But I no longer mean those words today
The only face I see is yours even from
Seven hundred miles away
But if anyone deserves a song it’s you
And the future’s not so far
We can make it there too
I’ll write you a thousand songs to make you fall in love with me
But no lyrics could ever describe what I see
If ever there are days that you feel lonesome
Just know my love is there through it all
When you tell me of your flaws, just know I see none
You caught me before I could even fall
But if anyone deserves a song, it’s you
And the future’s not so far
I hope we make it there too
I’ll write you a million songs to make you fall in love with me
But no lyrics could ever describe what I see
The nights get colder the longer you’re away
And I miss you
There’s not much more to say
I’ll wait for you through sun and moon
And trust we’ll meet again soon
But if anyone deserves this song, it’s you
And the future’s ‘round the corner
I’ll see you there soon
I’ll write you a billion songs to make you stay in love with me
But no lyrics could ever describe what I see
But no lyrics could ever tell you what I see
My love for you will always be