Erick Baker’s career has been roundabout at best. He didn’t grow up singing, playing music or even taking lessons. In fact, it was only after he graduated from the University of Tennessee, where he earned a degree in public relations, that he decide to take up guitar.
“I tell people that my mom and dad paid for my college education, and when they asked me what I was going to do with my degree, I told them I was going to learn to play guitar,” he said with a laugh. “So I come home and one of the first songs I learned was ‘Straight to Hell’ by Drivin’ N’ Cryin’. My mom was so proud.”
Still, Baker said he never guessed that he’d end up releasing five albums — including his latest, “Morning Light” — or that he would have the chance to play to more than 20,000 people at a single show, as well as share stages with A-list artists like Brandi Carlile, Heart, the Goo Goo Dolls, Grace Potter, Chris Isaak and Edwin McCain. He had even less of an idea that he would perform overseas for members of the armed forces stationed in Asia, Europe and the Middle East.
Indeed, early on, Baker’s career was marked by one lucky break after another, although it also took talent to secure that success. He began by singing in local Knoxville bars and restaurants, but he wasn’t thinking about making music a career when he went back to school and obtained his masters degree so he could teach English.
Nevertheless, he continued to write songs and even formed a band that he dubbed Down From Up.
“We did some original stuff, but it wasn’t like a career path for me,” he said.
One day while he was participating in a songwriters-in-the-round session, an unexpected opportunity came his way. A representative from AC Entertainment heard his songs, liked what he heard and asked him if he’d like to open for John Legend at The Tennessee Theatre.
“That was the ‘ah-ha’ moment for me,” Baker said. “It validated everything I wanted to do. I decided to record some songs, even if they were just for me to have when I’m old and gray, maybe to remind me that I was almost cool. But I got really lucky. A lot of people don’t get that lucky. I had already put in a lot of work when that opportunity came along. I ended up doing really well with it, and it eventually led to other opportunities as well.”
After recording his initial EP, followed by a full-length album, things came together very quickly. He was asked to open for James Blunt in Asheville, North Carolina, and even though he was the opening act, he was given a standing ovation. He also signed his first autograph and sold a lot of his CDs as well.
“I thought, ‘oh man, the sky’s the limit here,’” he recalls. “I’m on my way. It’s been a rollercoaster ever since.”
Indeed it was. Fortune smiled on him, but ultimately, its grin wouldn’t linger forever. There came a point where it looked like all he had attained was dangerously close to falling apart. He was touring so frequently from 2010 through 2013 — performing up to 200 dates a year, in fact — that his wife, Mandy, felt like she had been literally abandoned, left alone to care for their newborn child. He said it never hit home — either literally or figuratively — until he walked through his front door one day and saw his wife’s wedding ring on the kitchen table, along with a note that read, “I will not be sorry for the choice YOU made.”
That’s when Baker made a critical choice that many artists would find difficult to do. He realized that he had missed out on so much of his home life that if he were to continue his career the same way he had, the personal cost would prove far too dear.
“I just wasn’t there,” Baker said of the situation. “We had become passing ships in the night. I didn’t get married to be a stranger. Mandy was working full time and raising our daughter, Annabelle, and it was proving to be too much. My agent and manager said that we had to embark on another touring cycle, and that we needed to push through to the next level because the hard work was just getting started.”
That’s when he put his playing on the back burner and his family at the fore.
“Thankfully, Mandy forced me to make a decision,” he said in retrospect. “Do I make another record at whatever cost there is to my personal life? Or do I put pause on all that, hit the stop button and put everything back together? I wish I could say that it was an easy decision, but it was very hard. It took me awhile to get my feet back under me and find my direction.”
Nowadays, Baker continues to make music, but he keeps his concerts closer to home and when he does tour, it’s with his wife and daughter in tow. He said it’s been a fine line trying to find a balance between family and career, but that nowadays he’s managing to maintain both.
He exudes that optimism and enthusiasm on “Morning Light,” a set of songs that rank among the best music he’s ever made. Even the titles are telling — “Forgiveness,” ”All We Need,” “Morning Light,” “The Love I Never Knew,” “Staring Right Back at Me,” “Remember Tonight,” et al. Likewise, the melodies that accompany them are as sweet and soothing as they are satisfying.
“My wife has always been there to keep me in check,” Baker said. “She definitely doesn’t allow me to be any cooler than I am. I’m so fortunate now. Having bigger record sales or playing bigger shows and more fans and more followers ... all of that is so secondary and so shallow compared to what I have within the walls of this house. I finally realize what’s really important.”