From Grand Strand to Grammy Stage for Sadler Vaden
Fresh off a Grammy Award-winning project as lead guitarist for Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit, Sadler Vaden, a North Myrtle Beach native, had finally written, recorded and produced his biggest solo album to date, Anybody Out There?
One problem: the release date was March 6, 2020, so Vaden’s dreams seemed lost.
Although the timing was far from perfect, the title proved prophetic as the COVID-19 pandemic pulled the plug on his promotional kickoff tour, dashing any momentum his record was gaining around his new hometown of Nashville.
In retrospect, Vaden calls it a blessing in disguise.
“It was definitely a bummer, no other way to put it,” 35-year-old Vaden says. “At first it felt like a total loss, but, looking back it really couldn’t have worked out better. I became a father during that period, so I was off the road for the first time since I was 18 and got to spend time with my family that I never would have been able to do otherwise.”
A lot of things changed for the self-described “’90s rock-and-roller” when his wife, Candice, gave birth to son Townshend (a tribute to The Who’s Pete Townshend). The experience also changed his perspective on his own childhood days growing up in the Windy Hill and Ocean Drive sections of North Myrtle Beach.
Roots in the sand
Vaden was born in Charlotte, N.C., before his family moved to North Myrtle Beach when he was 1, and he was 12 when they relocated to the Charleston area. But he still proudly claims North Myrtle Beach as his hometown, and a decade of his formative years were firmly planted in the Grand Strand sand.
“It was a great place to be a kid,” Vaden recalls. “I remember doing all the normal kid stuff—riding bikes, playing in the woods, shooting hoops, walking on the beach with my family and listening to my dad’s vinyl records. He listened to what we would now call classic rock. It definitely had a big impact on me musically.”
Cutting his teeth on everything from The Eagles and Tom Petty to less-mainstream artists, like Leon Russell and Frank Zappa, Vaden developed an early ear for music that still echoes in his work today. He was also influenced by the more modern sounds from watching MTV with his older sister, Lauren, and the uniqueness of growing up in a tourism town.
“When you’re a kid, you can make friends in an hour, then the next thing you know summer is over and all your buddies have left town,” Vaden says. “That can be confusing to a kid, so it had all the weird uniqueness of living in a transient beach town, but it was also lots of fun. I have great memories from growing up there.”
Coincidentally, those same themes of good times, rock ’n roll, and a longing to connect with others the way people did in the pre-social media age are prevalent in his music.
Rising to the top
Vaden first picked up the guitar while living in North Myrtle Beach, but it wasn’t until later in life that he decided to make a living of it.
A graduate of Summerville High, he formed his first rock band at the age of 18. The power trio Leslie drew a strong regional following and soon was opening for headline acts like Drivin N Cryin, which Vaden joined in 2011.
Two years later, Vaden got the call to tour with rising alt-country star Jason Isbell, a former member of the Drive-By Truckers, and the chemistry was instantaneous.
As lead guitarist for the accompanying 400 Unit, Vaden has been a part of Isbell’s ascent to nine Americana Music Awards and four Grammys.
“At the time I thought, ‘I’ll go on tour and see how it goes.’ I never imagined it would last this long or go this far,” says Vaden, noting that it was Isbell’s wife and 400 Unit fiddle player Amanda Shires who mentioned him for the gig. “After eight years, I’m still our biggest fan.”
Through it all, Vaden has continued working on solo projects, launching his self-titled debut album in 2016 and crafting his guitar-playing and songwriting skills, while touring internationally in support of Isbell’s success. Anybody Out There? was the culmination of it all.
“I’m grateful that I’ve played with some of my favorite artists and I’ve learned a lot from working with them,” Vaden says. “The whole time I was making my own music and putting stuff out when I could, but I put a lot into this one and I feel like it’s the best thing I’ve done yet.”
“Anybody Out There?”
In retrospect, “Anybody Out There?” sounds as if it were made for the pandemic, not before it. The guitar-driven songs tackle themes of forming meaningful relationships in the age of technology, but all the lockdowns and social distancing felt like his music had fallen on deaf ears.
“I wrote the title track with Aubrey Freed, and he was saying how people don’t connect on a human level anymore,” something that was also troubling Vaden, he says. “We didn’t know the pandemic was coming, but even then it was like, ‘Hey, is anybody out there?’”
Collaborating with 400 Unit bandmates Fred Eltringham (drums) and Jimbo Hart (bass), as well as multi-platinum producer Paul Ebersold and Grammy-winning engineer Richard Dodd, Vaden poured his heart, soul and life experience into making an album that captured his distinct sound and voice.
The title track harkens back to his seaside roots: “Standing on the shore hoping that my ship ain’t sailed. If the wolf was at your door, could you even tell?” So does “Modern Times”: “I remember back in ’93, we’d run down the beach and watch MTV. Our imagination was all that we could see.”
The 10 tracks run the gambit of Vaden’s musical background—his dad’s scratchy rock LPs, the catchy MTV pop hooks, influences from the rock and Americana artists he has shared the stage and studio with for 17 years, and introspective lyrics from a life half-lived in perpetual motion.
“People don’t see all the stuff that goes into it,” he says. “The work is getting to and from the shows. The two hours on stage is the payoff.”
Keep on rockin’
While the pandemic took a heavy toll on Vaden’s album launch and tour, the break from the road had its advantages.
In addition to spending quality time with his wife and newborn son at their home, he also found some quiet time to write and reflect on his career, and use the “necessary evil” of social media to promote his music.
“I found solace in the fact that I didn’t have as much to lose as people whose solo albums were putting food on the table,” he notes. “It wasn’t like that for me because I have other means of income with the 400 Unit. That allowed me to work on my music and make sure it found its way into the right hands.”
Vaden also occupied the time by expanding his role in producing music for other artists, including South Carolina favorites The Blue Dogs. Vaden is producing the band’s next album, and even joins in on their new beach music shag number “Carolina Grand” that sounds like it came straight from his childhood days on Ocean Drive.
“It’s part of my natural progression from guitar player to songwriter to producing other people’s music,” says Vaden, who also has produced for acts Morgan Wade and Zach Schmidt. “I just love being a part of the process.”
Vaden is currently on a cross-country tour with Isbell that runs through May and he has already started releasing material that he recorded and produced during the pandemic. While he isn’t certain of the exact path his musical career will follow, Vaden knows he’s on the right course.
His new single “Best Days” says it best: “I watch the sun go down, but in the dark, I choose to trust that our best days are ahead of us.”