JD Clayton brings his breezy country sound to Belly Up Aspen | AspenTimes.com

JD Clayton brings his breezy country sound to Belly Up Aspen

JD Clayton will play The Belly Up Aspen for the first time when he opens for Pat Green on Tuesday.
Sean OHalloran/Photo Credit

Singer-songwriter JD Clayton may have been born and raised in Fort Smith, Arkansas, but Colorado has a special place in his heart.

“I’ve spent a lot of time in Colorado,” he said. “My family has been going to Crested Butte for over 45 years, so I grew up skiing there. I haven’t spent much time in Aspen but am looking forward to being there and opening for Pat Green at the Belly Up next week.”

He was introduced to music at a young age through his grandfather, who was a banjo player in a bluegrass band that toured prisons across the region where they would provide BBQ dinners and entertainment to the inmates.

Some of his earliest musical memories were the Friday nights he spent at his grandparents’ house that included basic guitar lessons, courtesy of his grandfather.

“We’d eat dinner, and then we’d sit around, and he would try to teach me a few things on guitar, so I could play along with him while he played banjo; we played classic bluegrass numbers,” Clayton said.

His father, a Realtor turned pastor who also played some acoustic guitar, gifted him his first guitar at 8 and introduced him to singer-songwriters of the early 2000s like Jack Johnson, whom Clayton sites as a major influence.

“Dream person to be on tour with would be Jack Johnson,” he said. “I pulled a lot of influence from him because of my dad. I was drawn to Jack Johnson’s laid-back, acoustic style. But my parents also listened to James Taylor and John Denver and a little bit of the Beatles and Creedence Clearwater Revival, too.”

Clayton began his musical career playing in his father’s church and started his first band during his senior year of high school. By his sophomore year at University of Arkansas-Fort Smith, he was playing gigs around town and driving seven hours each way to spend his weekends recording demos in Nashville, Tennessee.

“It wasn’t until I started driving to Nashville on the weekends in between classes to record music that I learned about the recording process and production, and so that was kind of a big educational period,” he said. “And then I just kind of bit the bullet, and my senior year of college, I drove up to Nashville and recorded a five song EP, and that was the first time that I had real music that was mine that I had written.”

JD Clayton is on the road supporting his debut album “Long Way from Home.”

After graduation, he and his wife relocated to Nashville, so he could pursue music full time — only to find themselves locked down and with limited job prospects weeks later due to the pandemic. He described it as “a dark time.”

To support himself, he took a job working for a landscape company, “digging up and planting trees,” while “feeling depressed and alone.”

But that difficult time gave him the inspiration for the songs that make up his debut album, “Long Way from Home.”

“The songs really just started to flow,” he said. “A lot of the album is due to the pandemic and the struggles around that, but it’s also just about leaving home and trying to go make it in Nashville. There are some songs about financial struggles. There are love songs. There are songs about personal relationship struggles. And of course, the title track, “Long Way from Home,” which is simply about missing home and realizing that.”

Clayton and his wife recently welcomed their first child and moved back to Fort Smith, which he describes as a hard-working, blue-collar town that was great place to grow up.

“I am enjoying being back and being close to family, and I’m enjoying being able to go down to the hardware store and know the guy by name that’s helping me and those things that you get with a small town,” he said. “Arkansas as a state is truly a gem, and it’s really the best kept secret.”

Upon hearing “Long Way from Home,” it might surprise listeners that Clayton did not grow up influenced by country music. Of course, he had friends in his rural Arkansas town who enjoyed the genre; but he admitted his dad “hated country music,” and that he only grew to appreciate it and its historical significance in American music during his time in Nashville.

Now he and his father are “huge Chris Stapleton fans.”

His sound is a sort of a modern twist on classic country music, with straightforward, mature storytelling and a cool, approachable acoustic sound. You might have to remind yourself that he is only 27 years old. It’s an album that makes sense to listen to while looking out at the Rocky Mountains on a snowy winter evening.

“I guess all those years I spent in Colorado have also affected my sound,” he said with a chuckle.

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