When she was only 6 years old, Bailey Bigger wrote her first song. “It was about how my grandmother met God or had a conversation with God,” Bigger recalled.
According to the story, Bigger’s grandfather suffered from heart disease and doctors “couldn’t get him to stop bleeding,” says Bigger.
“We thought we were going to lose him. But my grandmother said she woke up in the middle of the night and found herself floating. She saw light around her and a voice that said, ‘He’ll be fine.’ And it was around this time that my grandfather stopped bleeding,” she adds. “And he is still with us today, healthy and happy. But I immediately wrote a song about it – a little 6-year-old’s interpretation or perspective of that experience.
It was a pretty intense start to a songwriting career that saw Bigger grow from a precocious tot tunesmith into one of Memphis’ most promising young talents.
A fixture in local folk and singer-songwriter circles since her teens, Bigger has released three EPs since 2018 and has drawn favorable comparisons with everyone from Indigenous folk poet Buffy Sainte-Marie to American favorite Gillian Welch.
Last month, the 22-year-old released her feature debut, ‘Coyote Red’, for the Madjack label. It will mark the release of the disc with a free concert on Friday evening at the Hernando’s refuge.
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Find inspiration in John Denver, John Prine and more
Born and raised in Marion, Arkansas, Bigger’s family has deep roots in the region’s largely agriculture-oriented culture.
“It was really a key part of how I was raised. It’s the environment I grew up in,” says Bigger. “My dad was in the farming world. When you’re sitting in the field in the summer with your father all day while he watches the soybeans, you can’t help but bring a guitar and write things about what you’re going through. So naturally I turned to the country and folk – what else could I do?
His parents’ musical tastes — heavy on singer-songwriters of various stripes — would also exert a profound effect on Bigger’s youthful musical direction and that of his older brother and frequent collaborator, Wyly Bigger.
“Even now, John Denver really resonates with what I do. He was the first artist I listened to every song and every album—again, when I was about 6,” says Bigger. “John Prine was there as well as Tom Waits and Bruce Springsteen. These are the artists and songwriters I grew up with because my dad used to play them around the house. I feel like he ingrained the arts in us that way because he loved songwriters and poets.
The blues music originating in the region will also become a source of inspiration. “I mean, BB King was the first gig I went to. The blues was a big thing for us growing up,” Bigger says. “The first stage I played on was Ground Zero. [blues club] in Clarksdale.
By his early teens, Bigger was playing professionally in and around Memphis. She got an early foothold in a cafe/folk haunt Other countriesthanks to the nurturing talent recruiter of the place, late James Manning. Bigger gradually rose through the ranks, playing in bigger venues, on better stages, and taking her place among the songwriters of Bluff City (after settling in Memphis for a time, Bailey moved back to her Arkansas native).
Recording of ‘Coyote Red’ at the Zebra Ranch studio
At the same time, Bigger honed his craft through a trio of roots EPs, including one for the University of Memphis’ Blue Tom label and another for producer Bruce Watson’s Big Legal Mess label. This latest project found Bigger in touch with bassist, songwriter and producer Mark Stuart.
Stuart signed on to help produce Bigger’s feature debut for local label Madjack. Stuart’s first task was to bring it to the Zebra Ranch studio in Coldwater, Mississippi, to consider it as a possible recording location.
The historic home of the late Memphis producer Jim Dickinson — and still owned and operated by his family, which includes sons Luther and Cody Dickinson of the North Mississippi Allstars — the studio’s bucolic setting has hosted projects from all of Hill’s blues greats. Country like T Model Ford with Lucero rocker roots.
“I fell in love with it as soon as we went there,” says Bigger. “Mark knows me so well and he said, ‘Now no pressure, but you’re going to love this place!’ We got off and [Zebra Ranch studio manager] Kevin Houston showed us around. And the second I was there, a wave of emotion washed over me – why do I want to cry? I’m definitely a spiritual person, and this place spoke to me the second I walked in. It wasn’t an option – I had to do it there.
Working at the height of a particularly hot summer in 2021, Bigger reunited at Zebra Ranch with Stuart as well as a team of Memphis’ top players: guitarist Will Sexton, drummer Danny Banks, bluegrass pickers Eric Lewis and Andy Ratliff, cellist Jana Meisner and her brother, pianist Wyly Bigger. Bigger hoped she would not just make her first full-length performer, but a definitive musical statement.
The 10-track ‘Coyote Red’ brings together a batch of new originals, a couple co-wrote with Stuart and Sam Ryden, and also finds Bigger revisiting some of her early compositions, like ‘No Falling Out of Love’ – written when she was 16 years old.
A pair of covers round out the set: a version of Memphis expat Jed Zimmerman’s “Black Eyed Susan” and Jesse Winchester’s classic “Mississippi on my Mind.” “I grew up with this song, my mom loved it and we had it played for her growing up, so it means a lot,” Bigger says of the album’s closing track.
Bigger notes that “Coyote Red” is a showcase, “for what I’ve always done, and what, in a way, I’ve never done before on any of [the previous EPs].”
“I wanted to make a record that was stripped down musically, but had all the kind of stuff I wanted to release since I was 9 years old,” she says. “I wanted my first album to be the purest version of my music. And I think so.
Bailey Bigger’s “Coyote Red” CD Launch Party
8 p.m. Friday, Hernando’s Hideaway, 3210 Old Hernando Road