A Conversation With JD Clayton

Fort Smith, Ark., may not be known as a breeding ground for great singer/songwriters, but it does manage to churn out its fair share of authentic human beings. And JD Clayton is certainly a member of that club. His self-released debut LP, Long Way From Home, has an emotional honesty and narrative lucidity that’s startling.

The son of a realtor turned pastor, Clayton has a grandfather who played banjo in a bluegrass band. The elder Clayton taught his grandson a few chords, and JD finally took to the guitar his dad bought for him when he was eight. An interest in other instruments followed as JD became an integral part of his father’s church band.

By his sophomore year at University of Arkansas-Fort Smith, Clayton was eyeing Nashville, where he had a connection in the form of a childhood friend working in music publishing. Clayton would leave Fort Smith early each Friday morning to make the 500-mile drive to Nashville, record demos, then head back on Monday. 2018’s Smoke Out Of The Fire EP generated enough positive feedback to prompt a more permanent move to Music City, where he took a landscaping gig to get by. In the interim, he worked with Smoke Out Of The Fire producer Thomas Dulin on Long Way From Home, which was mixed by Craig Alvin (Kacey Musgraves, Hanson).

MAGNET caught up with Clayton just days before Long Way From Home’s release last week.

How does being from Fort Smith, Ark., give you a unique perspective as a singer/songwriter?
I think the slow pace and blue-collar aesthetic helped me understand the workingman’s blues, if you will. It taught me hard work and pulled back the curtain on the everyday American man. 

How did playing in church prepare you for a career in secular music?
I was forced to get out of my comfort zone early on, and I grew really comfortable playing, singing and leading folks from the stage. Without those experiences, I don’t think I would’ve learned to “sing out” and make someone feel something through my music

Talk about the time between the EP and Long Way From Home. It sounds like it was a bit of a struggle.
It was a rough period of my life. I’d basically been coasting off the EP hoping things would just take off. Music is expensive to make, and I wasn’t sure how to keep going. I dipped my toe back in the Nashville water in the early spring of 2019 and recorded two singles—I was chasing Nashville hard. I didn’t know which way to go, and I didn’t know my sound. I ended up making two songs that felt very much like a fake version of myself. It took going through COVID and a landscaping job to set me straight and point me in the right direction.

Apparently, you listened to a lot classic rock during that time: the Band, Skynyrd, CCR. How did that steer the direction of the new album?
Those bands were the compass—they pointed the way, and I followed. I looked at the records those bands made and swallowed them whole. I tried to live through them and write like them. They served as a huge inspiration for me and taught me so much along the way.

How did you hook up with producer Thomas Dulin?
We met via Instagram back in early 2018. I was scrolling, and an artist I followed had tagged him in a post. I read his bio and saw “producer.” So I DM’d him and asked if he’d meet with me for coffee to talk about recording my first EP. The rest is history. 

What are your favorite songs on Long Way From Home?
“Beauty Queen” and “Cotton Candy Clouds.” I love “Beauty Queen” because it takes me somewhere. It makes me feel like I’m out in the woods chilling with friends by the fire. I think we captured some earth in that track. With “Cotton Candy Clouds,” I’m just so proud that we were able to record it. It was an extremely difficult song to teach the band—the form was all over the place. It took several tries until we were able to get the bones in place. I basically left the studio one day with just a few ideas, and the producer was giving me a funny look like, “I don’t know about this song … ” I went for a long walk around the park and started humming the song into my voice-memo app until I knew how were gonna record it. The next day, I walked in, and we crushed it. It’s my biggest undertaking to date, and I’m happy with how it turned out.

What track on the album would you play for someone who knows nothing about you?
I’d play “Long Way From Home.” It tells them everything they need to know about me right now. I’ve come a long way from home, and it hasn’t always been easy. But I’ve had the greatest friends and family surrounding me through this journey. I couldn’t have done it without them.

—Hobart Rowland