Tyler Baker used to mow cemeteries 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 stream. His father turned Creedence Clearwater Revival and ZZ Top records, while Baker played country anthems on guitar in church. The nearest Walmart was 40 minutes away. Life projects were simple.
“My grandparents just wanted me to get married in church and be in church all the time,” the Goodbye June guitarist tells us, as their excellent third album See where the night goes threatens these plans. “Beyond that, I don’t think they cared. They wanted me to continue mowing cemeteries and go to church!
In West Tennessee, his two cousins — now his bandmates — grew up with even more divine expectations and an environment only slightly less remote. The church was everything. Secular music was prohibited. Rhythm guitarist and bassist Brandon Qualkenbush’s father was a traveling preacher who evangelized across the Bible Belt. Meanwhile Landon Milbourn, the frontman of Goodbye June (imagine a Bon Scott/Leon Russell hybrid), has been coerced into singing by his choirmaster father.
“I hated singing,” Milbourn recalled. “I hated being in front of people singing; I wanted to be behind something so as not to be seen.
It’s a curious set of ingredients for one of today’s most towering prospects in rock ‘n’ roll: the graveyard reaper, the preacher’s son, and the reluctant leader. A group formed 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. This final part of their story is well documented. But it’s their lives before that really tell you what Goodbye June is, and unlock some of the See where the night goesthe strongest moments.
It’s 7am in Nashville when classic rock catches up with Milbourn and Baker. They are a bit sleepy, but friendly and unfazed by the hour. “The general 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 is no sleep, people are screaming and grabbing you all the time.” he said laughing.
A lot has happened since the trio of cousins moved to Nashville to pursue music in earnest. They released records and garnered fans through huge shows with ZZ Top and Greta Van Fleet, tours with cool Southern rock contemporaries such as Whiskey Myers and their own flagship shows. The band became their full-time job, starting “about 2013”. All they handled somewhat on the new album.
An amalgamation of catchy, swampy classic rock, punchy-the-air vocals and outlaw twists, it’s deeply evocative of the world they grew up in, while leaning into the kind of timeless, intriguing themes that make it resonate more globally. Think AC/DC moonshine with Creedence Clearwater Revival. It was sparked by nude jam sessions in Baker’s garage when the world shut down in March 2020.
“It made me feel like I was sixteen again,” the guitarist says with a smile. “There was an energy there and it gave us a purpose. We were supposed to tour throughout 2020, and when it ended we were flapping around a bit. This record was unifying, and we said to ourselves: ‘Hey, we’re going to make this rock record’. It was what I needed to stay sane.
“I think we took a lot of inspiration from our younger selves in some ways, but [we were] we also look forward to the future,” says Milbourn. “A lot of our favorite records are the ones you can put on at a summer party and just let them play. That’s what we’re trying to achieve. We wanted to give him some youthful vitality.
Although it channels some of the angst of the past two years, See where the night goes is indeed a record that you would play at a party. Strictly, it’s a product of the pandemic, although some songs were bagged from previous years. Ballad à la Joe Cocker What i needfor example (‘It’s so hard to love each other when you don’t think you should‘), taps into the kind of human anxiety 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. First single Step aside sets the tone with stories of an itinerant preacher’s son, watching his father’preach and teach the true gospel‘, and finally find ‘peace in this guitar‘ while his friends go off to college and find ‘jobs and children and wives‘.
“The first verse is very true to my lifestyle and Brandon’s lifestyle, being just kids of ministry people,” Milbourn explains. “The lyrics to this song are very close to home, just watch your friends do all the normal stuff. Not that there was anything wrong with that, but I wanted more. I didn’t want to just sit back and take what was in front of me.
Step asideThe ballsy bluegrass riff was devised by Baker while visiting his parents in the country. “I always end up writing or going out on the porch, taking a walk in the woods, or sitting by their little pond by the house,” he says. “That riff came out at that time in the wild, far away from it all, because we have terrible cell phone service there; if someone texts me, it usually takes twenty-four hours to reach me.
He has a theory about the songs: “It has to sound good acoustically. If it doesn’t sound good acoustically, it’s probably not such a good song.
Elsewhere, their move to Nashville is listed in Breathe and Attacka sly, slow 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 if we wanted to make music like a real thing, we had to go to Nashville, New York or LA,” says Milbourn. “Somewhere that had outlets, that actually had a music scene. We arrived in Nashville, we had a culture shock on how good everyone is here. We started going to gigs and we were like, ‘Wow, we really need to focus and step up our game’. It was a shock, but a positive and motivating shock for sure.”
Yet growing up in rural churches prepared them for life on the road – as well as life on the stage. Milbourn and Qualkenbush’s grandfather, Wilbur, the subject of the welfare boogie three chordswas an evangelical preacher who sang through fiery services and on stages across the South.
“It started for us and our family,” says Milbourn. “He was passionate about singing and he was making records in the late fifties and sixties. For his children, it was ingrained in them that this is what you do: you have music and you have a church.
For Milbourn, it was domestic affairs 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 between them. Henderson in West Tennessee (population about 6,000) was as close as it got to an “established” home.
“It was a bit of a shitty, shitty town,” he recalled, “but you made the most of it. And it turned out to be a fun time.”
The music may have been free from sin, but Goodbye June’s church experiences – large-scale Pentecostal services – had much in common with rock concerts; Divine worship came with generous sides of volume, sweat and dance.
“Some people would spin around on the floor and cartwheel if it got crazy enough,” Milbourn recalled. “There were many cries, as we call them in the gospel, where all is [Landon demonstrates] clapping, and people speaking in tongues, getting their blessing.
“You would leave the church in a sweat,” adds Baker. “You’d be in a black suit, button down shirt and tie in ninety-five degree weather, in the dead heat of summer, but it was still fun.”
Over time, the three cousins found a way to include rock ‘n’ roll in their lives. Baker had his father’s files. Qualkenbush listened to Nirvana on the radio under his bed. Milbourn drank tips from friends at the parochial school he attended, even going so far as to sneak songs into the classroom.
“We were allowed to have a Discman in our office when we didn’t have a real class,” he says, “but it had to be gospel or church music. Teachers would come 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, and then after track three or four, Metallica would come in. A little trick of the trade I learned when I was nine or ten,” he says with a smile. Over time, their seemingly disparate worlds of religion and rock began to blend together.
Milbourn remembers sneaking into the local church after school, where his father was (and still is) the choir director, and using his acoustics to blast songs by Metallica, Creed and Nirvana.
“It seems that in order to create art, someone has to go through a struggle or have some imbalance in their mind,” Baker concludes. “The scales must be shifted. With the upbringing we had, there was always a guilt. We were always guilty about whether we were living right.
These days they don’t engage on the subject of religion, while the album gets closer Black is about as “political” as it gets. Written just as everything was canceled in 2020, it concludes the record on a biting and sarcastic note (‘Feelgood hit of the summer, I’ll get high ’til it all goes black‘).
Really, however, it is the general impression of See where the night goes which has a kind of magic about it – a happy medium between old gospel fire, military-grade classic rock and rising star hunger. Now, as plans build as we go to press, the call of the road returns. The same call that has echoed through generations of Goodbye June parents.
“The biggest thing this pandemic has taught me is that every time I take that step, I cherish it now,” Baker says. “I’m not saying I didn’t before, but there are times when 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 want to get back in that Sprinter.