Challenges & Blessings: Joelton Mayfield

Joelton Mayfield’s debut EP I Hope You Make It listens as an epiphany evocative of the notion espoused by The Byrds when Gram Parsons sang in “Hickory Wind”, “It’s a hard place to find out that trouble is real.”

The 24-year-old native of  Marble Falls, Texas, grew up immersed in Southern gospel and contemporary Christian music seasoned by a grandmother with a taste for the country music of George Jones and Charlie Pride– but it was the revelation of his parents’ previous-life album collection that set Joelton in motion toward his calling.

“I don’t know that I was necessarily supposed to find those records when I did. But I did,” Mayfield told me during a recent mid-morning phone call.

One record, in particular, Bob Dylan’s soundtrack to Pat Garrett & Billy The Kid left the most severe impression, and before long the teenager was playing covers in local coffee shops before becoming, as he put it, “fascinated with words.”

After high school, Mayfield landed in Nashville to study music business management. The plan was to forge a logical means of making a living in the music business after college, but a microeconomics and statistics course forced Joelton to reevaluate and switch to a major in English where his ability and desire as a writer truly came into focus.

He put together a band of like minds and caught the ear of then-interning sound engineer Alberto Sewald, and together the do-it-your-selfers recorded the deceptively polished EP in their living rooms, releasing the project into the other world of pre-pandemic December 2019.

I Hope You Make It is a 20-something’s lament, ripe with realization and accompanied by the jarring out-from-the-shelter eye-opening that accompanies experience: Trouble is in fact real; your parents are mortal and will not always be there.

I was struck by the opening track “The Reason”, recalling my own first failed attempts in the world and the awakenings (some more excruciating than others) that followed, while “Walk Alone” confronted me with the weightlessness of a certain heartbreak.

“October” captures the purgatory of being emotionally adrift, flirting with depression and self-medication, and on “Up To You”, Mayfield leans into an alt-ish rock optimism that’s the high to the EP’s lows, chalking life’s dice up to another power and only half joking, “Good to know nothing’s up to you.”

The layered “Starfish” is a confession, a harrowed and surreal accounting of his father’s near-death where Joelton delivers one of the most visceral and honest lines I’ve heard when he sings, “I’m glad you survived ’cause if I didn’t hate you, I don’t know what I’d be doing.” It’s the kind of song that had to hurt to write and a much-needed reminder of what the best songs truly cost.

AI- You put out an EP, I Hope You Make It in December of 2019. Of course, the world was so very different! I think it sounds fantastic, but you did record it a bit unconventionally. Tell me about where you made it and with who.

JM- I made all of it with my friend Alberto Sewald. There’s this DIY music venue in Nashville called Dark Matter, and the old location reopened for the second time and I played the reopening. He came to that show and afterwards was like, “Dude, if you ever wanna record, I really believe in those songs that you played.” That was the first time I ever played in Nashville, and so I met with him the next week and we talked about it more and more and more and eventually decided to do it.

I started playin’ a couple full band house shows around that time, but I had no idea what I was doing and he was obviously very talented but was also just getting started at the time. We just made the songs as live as possible but in each other’s living rooms! Most of it was recorded at his house, a little bit of it was recorded at my house, and then we recorded some overdubs for piano and some folk instruments in the studio that he was interning at the time.

Well, I don’t hear any loose strings on it, man. I think the production is spot on. Is that your regular band that’s on there?

A lot of those people still play with me, yeah. Some of them have since moved to other places. I kinda have a rotating cast– first through fourth string (laughs)! There’s not really tiers, everybody’s so good, but it’s just whoever can play with me for whatever dates.

“The Reason” kicks off the EP and it immediately made me think of my own family and the many, many close calls that I’ve had, and the times that my mother had to bail me out of a bad situation. Here I am at 45, I still find myself in rough situations, and I don’t know if that’s where you were comin’ from in that song but that’s how it hit me.

Absolutely. I don’t know if I woulda told you this at the time we were even recording it but I think over the years, it’s become pretty apparent to me that it was a song that just came out that I wrote for my mother. For my family but primarily for my mom. My dad was having a bunch of health problems at the time and there was a point where he was in the hospital and needed to be shocked back to life. He’s totally fine and healthy now, but that was the time period in which a lot o’ those songs were written. It’s just bein’ grateful for the family you have in your life and also having a complicated relationship with them and trying to love them as best you can and knowing that they love you as best as they can.

Is that where the song “Starfish” came from too? Is that about the experience with your father?

Yeah. I’d say it’s nearly top to bottom except for “Walk Alone”. “Walk Alone” was more about a relationship I was getting out of at the time. [The EP is] pretty much about family.

After that came out, just a few months later, the proverbial fit hit the shan and I feel like in many ways, I’ve spoken to an entire generation of artists who have had drastically different careers because of COVID-19. Tell me about your experience as an artist with that coming on. What’s it taken from you? And what’s it given you?

The EP came out in early December. I got to go on a little tour that I booked myself shortly after and then it was Christmas and then it was January and then in February, I got to go on another little tour– like less than a week– and then March of 2020 happened. I felt like I was just gaining momentum in figuring out how to do this whole artist thing in front of people– traveling and meeting people– and then everything shut down! I was actually on tour in March, we were on day three and we were in Austin, and KUTX DJ came on the radio and was like, “SXSW has been canceled! I repeat, SXSW has been canceled!” And that was like twenty minutes before everyone got the news notification. We were sitting in the parking lot of a CVS being like, “Whoa! Okay, I guess we have one more show and then we need to go home!” And then I stayed home for a year!

Were you creative during that time?

I ended up movin’ home to Texas for eight months. I was working at a hardware store in Nashville and not really able to see any of my friends, so basically was just working to give money to my landlord. I couldn’t justify being in Nashville and paying Nashville rent with there being no music happening. Living with my parents had its challenges at 23, but it also had its blessings– like I didn’t have to work for a little while and I got to recover and grow from some mental health challenges. Shortly after that, song after song was just cranking out, so that was good. I think that definitely gave me the space to plan for recording a full-length, which I ended up doing in February of 2021. We’re still tinkering with the final touches on that but we’re seventy to eighty percent done. That’s ten songs, so that’s what’s gonna be done next. There was one person who was there who was vaccinated. It was right before vaccines, so we all had to quarantine for two weeks and get tested a couple o’ times, and then we went to a friend’s family farm in rural Alabama and made that record. So I recorded a bunch o’ songs and I recorded a full-length! None of that’s really out yet– but it’s coming!

Have you had an opportunity to play these new songs out? Or is that what you’re doing right now– getting out there and seein’ how they play in front of people?

I think anyone in music who’s writing original songs will tell you this, but you’re always excited about the one you just wrote, you know? Those are the ones that you wanna play and in my head, those ten songs from the full-length that’s not even out yet, those are old now (laughs) and now I’m working on the next one! I’ve been playing a lot of the songs that aren’t out yet on a couple of the tours that I have gotten to do since everything’s been safer for travel, and I will be playing newer songs at JBA too. But definitely still touring on that EP and still including those in the set.

You put out your EP digitally, of course, but you also did a cassette release! I have to tell you that I am absolutely stupefied by the number of people at every level of the music business who are releasing their work on cassette tape! I never would’ve thought that cassette would make a comeback! But yet, here we are! Why?

(Laughs) Why?!

And I’m a vinyl guy!

I think a lot of it for me and most of my friends is that we’re unsigned and unrepresented, so a lot of it’s just money directly from our savings accounts. It’s a way to make physical copies of your music that’s affordable and it looks cool and you can do fun stuff with the J-card inside. You can still have your liner notes and still have your physical thing. The majority of people are gonna stream your music anyway but if they’re at your show and they wanna buy something, that’s a pretty affordable merch option. A lot o’ the friends I had in the middle of college who had a really expensive tape collection, they weren’t really bulk or bulk-adjacent leaning people in terms of the music they listened to, but I just made so many friends in the DIY music community that it just made sense.

I Hope You Make It is available on cassette and through your favorite digital platforms! See Joelton Mayfield, LIVE @ Grant’s Lounge with very special guest Parker Gispert on Saturday, December 17th!

Thee Aaron Irons is a music commentator & radio personality for 100.9 The Creek where he hosts  Honky Tonk Hell, a Rockabilly/Rhythm & Blues retrospective that airs every Sunday afternoon at 1pm. He lives in Macon, Georgia with his wife and daughter.