Thomas: Image: Sara Gatlin

The backbeat doesn’t usually get the spotlight.

It’s a drummer’s job to keep everyone else on task.

But on last year’s sophomore release, the self-titled “Young Valley,” the band’s drummer, Spencer Thomas, stepped from behind the kit and crooned “‘Til I Cross Your Mind.”

“I had to write the song to get it out of me, a past relationship I held on to,” Spencer said. “It was an emotional charge and catchy melody and I’m proud of how it turned out.”

Thomas has even more to be proud of these days: his touring success with the band, his own self-enlightenment and a new solo record, “Hangin’ Tough,” releasing June 14.

With 10 songs, some dealing with relationships, early listens reveal something more.

“I sent the record to a friend to hear,” Spencer said, “and he sent me a text: ‘You wrote a record about depression – and it’s beautiful.’”

His friend was on target: “A lot of the songs,” he said, “are kind of about that.”

Spencer grew up in Madison. His first foray into music was the tuba, playing from sixth grade through college. Drums, guitar, keys and bass followed, putting down a video game habit, reasoning “If I spend that time on music instead, I could get good at this.”

His first band experience was with a group of high school friends, a band called “Them Damn Dirty Apes.”

Around the same time, Spencer met brothers Zach and Dylan Lovett through Actor’s Playhouse in Pearl. When Zach and Spencer learned the other was going to Delta State University, their now decade long friendship began.

“I owe a lot to Zach for getting me into writing songs,” Spencer said. “I didn’t know how to do it and he had been writing since 13. I would show Zach something and he would encourage what I might otherwise think was dumb.”

The pair co-wrote in a folk band called Dandy and the Lions, formed at Delta State in 2011, releasing the record “A Quiet Town” in 2013.

“We played a good number of shows and had to learn to make it a business, how to make it work,” Spencer recalled. “It was the first album that had songs on it that I had written.”

On the back end of that experience, Young Valley, an alt-country band, formed.

Zach had returned to Jackson after his freshman year at Delta State and his brother, Dylan joined the group after returning from college in Texas. Carson Braymer, the band’s original bass player, joined with Spencer on drums. He called it “a train we couldn’t stop it.”

Over the course of that time, with Young Valley touring nationally to much critical success, Spencer had songs on the back burner, songs the band tried that never matched up with his vision.

“I was thinking about people like Tom Petty, Bruce Springsteen and Jackson Browne who are first name-last name songwriters,” Spencer said in honing his sound. “They have taken their songs and shaped them in different ways, but it’s still about their songs.”

For Christmas of 2017, Spencer asked for studio time from his parents. Meanwhile, his own “sock-drawer fund” added to the gift, six days in February 2018 at Dial Back Sound in Water Valley, Mississippi.

The first track on “Hangin’ Tough,” “Dark Tonight,” was written last summer, added after the first nine had been tracked and mixed.

“Because I had to wait and didn’t rush (the album) that song came out (of me) and I said, ‘that’s song 10; has to be.’ It introduces the ideas of the record really well. It ties in the musical ideas and themes to a lot of the songs.”

Young Valley touring and recording players Kell Kellum (guitar) and Ethan Frink (drums) add to the back line and Dial Back co-owner Bronson Tew plays bass.

“It was of no offense to Zach and Dylan,” Spencer said of his choice to record without Young Valley’s frontline, “but I wanted to go all in with my own thing and see what the picture was. I didn’t know.”

Listen for piano ballads, a couple of rockers and some songs that lean to the folk side of the spectrum.

You’ll also hear Spencer’s vulnerability.

“I don’t know where I would be without being able to write songs,” he said, “to be able to give myself an objective point of view. A good handful of the tunes are about (depression) – coping, living with it, understanding it.”

“‘State and Downing’ is about depression before I knew that was something I was working on in myself,” Spencer told. “You wake up and don’t feel like you can go, entirely unmotivated. Everything is a drag, everything is a burden and it’s 99% mental.”

“‘Lift Me Up’” is about dealing with mental struggles and asking someone, ‘Can you handle this, at my lowest point?’”

“‘Fog’” is about changing your perspective, trying to get out of that funk.”

He said, “If I wasn’t at this point where I just had to get it out, then these songs – this album – wouldn’t exist. I want people to know we’re all going through a bit of this.”

Spencer credits a new way of looking at life for his own personal change in well-being.

“I’ve been on such a positive tip,” he said. “I’ve turned a lot of these things around in recent times. Songwriting, yoga and meditation… really taking the time to be kind to strangers, you realize you are not alone: it all pulls you out of whatever your head has got you in.”

Spencer is thankful to his bandmates in Young Valley for understanding his desire to experiment with his own material. He gives a nod to his family who has encouraged him to pursue his goals. And he has dedicated the record to his grandmother who died two years ago, the physical embodiment of who he is striving to be.

“Everything we talk about wanting to be for other people was everything she was. The more I try, the more I think about what is ideal for me, is every bit in her footsteps.”

“Hangin’ Tough” is available June 14 on vinyl, CD and streaming platforms. Preorder the album at spencerthomassongs.com or catch him live:

June 14 – Sneaky Beans, Jackson, MS (with Reed Smith and Cody Rogers)

June 15 – Hey Joes – Cleveland, MS

June 16 – Proud Larry’s – Oxford, MS

June 17 – True Music Room – Nashville, TN

June 18 – The Woodshop – Chattanooga, TN

June 19 – Blue Canoe – Tupelo, MS

June 20 – The Nick – Birmingham, AL

June 21 – Thirsty Hippo – Hattiesburg, MS

June 22 – The Quisby – New Orleans, LA

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