You have to hand it to former Augustana folk-rocker Dan Layus. When he delves in to a new stylistic venture, he truly commits, and nothing whatsoever can dissuade him.
Not that the singer planned to go the country route with Dangerous Things, his twangy new solo bow. But three years ago, after scoring willowy chart hits like “Boston” and “Sweet and Low,” then losing his contract with Epic Records, Augustana membership had whittled down to just Layus himself, and he was already exploring new creative frontiers, alone in his Los Angeles home studio. Eventually, he made a radical decision—to reach his full artistic potential, he ditched his band moniker, which he’d employed since its breakthrough 2005 debut All the Stars and Boulevards; packed up his wife and three kids and moved to rural Franklin, Tennessee; started composing professionally three days a week, 9-5, for Nashville publishing house Warner-Chappell Music, where he befriended, then began writing with, young Music Row talents like Maren Morris; and found himself enjoying the genre so much, he eventually penned an album’s worth of country originals that he released under his own name. To complete this “Hee-Haw”-retro transformation, his family even bought two Beauregard-the-Wonder-Dog-ish bloodhounds, naming them Ferlin and Patsy, for late C&W legends Ferlin Husky and Patsy Cline. “I don’t know—I’m channeling a past life perhaps,” he says, sighing. “And hey—why not?”
Dangerous Things dusts Layus’ warm, neighborly vocals across forlorn pedal steel in the skeletal relationship reminiscence “Driveway,” while “Destroyer” revolves around a Byrdsian guitar jangle, a foot-stomping rhythm and clever turns of phrase such as “If I had a taste of heaven, why do I feel like hell?” The title track uses pedal steel for the loping twang of a hook, with Layus drawling almost backwoods-rustic on the sing-song chorus, and “Four Rings” is set to simple, swaying piano chords and a gospel choir that gently accents his lonely plaint. It’s country, but with a subtle urban twist—ironic, city-slick, and decidedly heartfelt and believable as such. The quantum leap works.
The relocation turned into something of a research mission for Layus, who didn’t want to be seen as a dabbling blue-state dilettante. “And originally, I’d developed a taste for what we might call alternative country, and the more recent torch carriers of that sound, like Ryan Adams records from the early 2000s, plus Wilco and Uncle Tupelo and all that stuff,” he explains. “So then I dug back further into Gram Parsons, Emmylou Harris and Steve Earle, and even guys who were on the outside of rock and country, like Dwight Yoakam and Gary Stewart. And it was in that land that had a very specific audience to it, well, that’s me, that’s where I fit. So it all started with that, while we were still in Los Angeles.”
Was a move across country actually crucial to the reinvention process? Layus believes that it was. His kids were still young enough that only his oldest daughter—who is currently in middle school—would be affected by the change of scenery. And his wife, who had often accompanied him on the road with Augustana over the years, was open to the experience and any potential red-state culture shock. “My wife and I knew what we were getting into when we moved away from the Coast, but it’s still hard to get used to sometimes,” he says. “And we’re having conversations with our children about it, about what’s going on [politically], because we’re certainly in the thick of it—it’s a very odd thing. But I felt like, ‘Okay, if I’m going to make this move, I’m going to go back to where it all began, and I need to spend more time with the more traditional artists that began all of it.’ So I made a conscious effort to do just that.”
No carpetnagger, the guitarist/keyboardist jumped from alt-country to more historical artists, starting with Cline, Hank Williams and Johnny Cash, renegades he already had an affinity for, but whose deeper catalogs he had yet to hear. His studies—some of which took place on long drives with the family—moved on to Don Gibson, George Jones and a new favorite, Tammy Wynette, whose vintage classics “D.I.V.O.R.C.E” and “Let’s Play House” positively floored him and raised the bar still higher on his own compositions. But Layus hit a snag. Like many an ardent Nashville songwriter, he started tumbling down that dizzy rabbit hole of striving to place cuts on other, more established stars’ albums. It was attractive, a heady rush when someone validated your material by agreeing to record it. “And you can get lost in that world and never come out,” he says, admitting that he and Morris collaborated on an as-yet-optioned anthem that he thinks is one of the best things he’s ever come up with.
“But Maren was one of the people that I really connected with at the publishing house,” Layus adds. She had boldly moved from her native Texas at roughly the same time he and his missus had left California, and they found common ground as tentative Nashville newbies. “We were mainly working for outside cuts, but a lot of things starting turning back inward, like, ‘If nobody’s going to cut this song, I’m going to keep this one for myself.’ It motivated me to retreat back into my own space, creatively, and remember how to write songs, without other people.” For over a year, he says, he’s written completely solo, sans collaborators, and he likes it that way. He was getting too comfortable looking to others for help. “So now I just get lost on piano at my house, and stare out the window,” he says. “And that was when I started to slow down and stop looking for cuts, as profitable as those can possibly be. Just strumming guitar or idly playing piano, my mind was gradually able to string together melodic and lyrical ideas that it wasn’t able to before. And that was a really good moment.”
Augustana in its heyday would probably never have fit in on the Grand Ole Opry stage. But Layus got that coveted invite recently, to premiere Dangerous Things for his new constituency. And he’s really starting to appreciate bucolic Franklin.
“It’s more of a rural suburban sprawl mixed with a lot of wealthy farmland,” he says. “And definitely a different lifestyle than in Nashville, even slower than that and a little bit removed from the rest of the world. But it’s nice sometimes to get lost in a bit of a creative bubble in your house, feeling like you’re a million miles from anywhere—it’s cozy, and it can be a lot of fun.”
Is there anything the transplant misses from his Cali days? Well, yes, he replies, licking his chops—that fabled West Coast eatery In N Out Burger, a restaurant that’s got him jonesing. “I definitely miss that,” he admits, proudly. “But we went back to L.A. this summer for a few days, and that was at the top of the list. We most assuredly had to take the kids to In N Out Burger!”