HE REMEMBERS the taste of the gun in his mouth. He remembers clearly because this is not the first night he has done this. Every time, it tastes the same. The bitter brutality of the choice that lies before him once again. Agony or relief. Torture or release.

Baker McKinney continues to walk among us. His darkest days are now memories of his greatest victories. He sat on the brink of his own tragedy, having spearheaded a campaign of self-destruction. Yet, to this day he is not a beaten man.

Hard work and clever choices. On paper, it is a humble catchphrase. A bumper-sticker platitude to adorn the walls of an IKEA kitchen. It could never express the lengths to which McKinney has gone to keep his finger from squeezing that trigger. ‘With hard work and clever choices, you can achieve anything’ – as is true with many things, it all depends where you come from.

Born in Mississippi, raised in the Ozarks in Arkansas, before moving to Scotland – the land of his family’s heritage – a few short years ago. A life set against the backdrop of music… country, Scottish folk music, glam rock, heavy metal. Learned his first instrument at 12. Dropped out of school in his late teens. Joined the army and fought in Afghanistan.

Trauma. Savage depression. Substance abuse. Battling to stay alive in the face of a crippling faceless torment. The man survived a warzone only to come home to his own personal hell. An archetype of patriotism’s collateral damage. Thousands of miles from the fight, and the fists remain ever clenched. The Bald Eagle embraces the arrows and shuns the olive branch.

And, yet, he never pulled the trigger.

McKinney is under no illusions about what pulled him back from the precipice. There was always one constant in his life – something that sat with him when he was alone and cutting through the encroaching nightmare static at will.

“Music was the glue,” he tells The Weekender. “Throughout all of this…music has always been the glue. Music saved my life – it was the power of music. It doesn’t have to be a song about what I was going through, just a melody to a tune can speak so deeply at times and put the hair on your arms straight up.

“It makes me think of the New York artist [Jean-Michel] Basquiat. Someone asked him how he paints and he responded, something like: ‘why don’t you ask how Miles Davis plays his horn?’ It’s not something you can explain. You know, I just think that if these things could be explained then it would not have this profound effect.

“A musical note is just a vibration. That’s it. Just a tone. But if you mix all these certain vibrations in just the right way, then it can make someone not kill themselves. That’s it… vibrations in the right way, the right tempo, and it can cause someone to take a gun out of their mouth, dude. That’s power.

“I don’t pretend to understand it,” he adds. “There was just something deeper there. I don’t know what it is. It’s profound. The music was the reason I never pulled that trigger. It gave me something to look forward to. It was always the music. It’s worth dedicating my life to.”


A MAN DETERMINED: Baker McKinney writes viscerally-vulnerable songs as Gravedancer. Picture by Iain Smith/The Weekender

SAVED: Baker McKinney is certain the sheer power of music gave him a reason to go on. Picture by Iain Smith/The Weekender


He’s been a musician for most of his life, but his journey from Pvt. McKinney in Afghanistan to Gravedancer in Scotland was arduous, laden with setbacks and paved with suffering of the highest order.

In the summer of 2007, he turned 18 years old and was agitating for purpose. High school was, by then, already in his rear-view mirror. Others around him had started the next stage of their lives. There had to be something out there with his name on it.

McKinney recalls: “I heard something come on the radio about Iraq. And you know how 18-year-olds are, stupider than all hell, but I heard that and thought that was my way out. It was the easiest recruitment my recruiter ever had.

“Dude, they fast-tracked my ass so fast. I went into basic training in October, 2007, and I was in Afghanistan for March-April 2008. I wanted an ‘adventure’ and, yeah, I got one. It was hard as f*** and scary as hell.

“I was a completely different person,” he adds. “Not a younger version of me, but a totally different person to who I am now. It’s not that I wasn’t compassionate. I was a child. I was invincible – I knew everything there was to know, and I was invincible and bulletproof. Then I got a little older and I wasn’t so much anymore.”

At that time, he had found something worth fighting for. Something to believe in.

In swapping his guitar for a rifle, he had hoped to discover more about himself, to challenge himself and to make a better life for himself. As a teenager sent into a warzone to protect his country, he was as sure of himself as he could have been. A wave of righteousness carried him on his way. He was armoured. Impenetrable. He was a soldier.

The perils of war are not just physical. While the sheer terror of war would have been more than a match for most minds, there was something else creeping under the Kevlar. Over time, McKinney started to see the bigger picture and became embittered with the mission. Increasingly, doubts began to take hold – deep down – and they stirred his patriotic hubris.

To make things worse, he was alone in his odyssey. His brothers in arms remained committed to the cause, arrows over olive branch. Meanwhile, McKinney began to feel that he was sold a story.

He says: “Oh, man, I might p*** some people off with this, but the average dude I served with, most of my friends from my platoon, and most of the guys I meet today, they have this self-preserving arbour in believing that we were the good guys, and we were doing the right thing. You know...Hooah! We got ‘em!

“I had to delve really deep to realise we often were not the good guys. At 19 years old, I had no business carrying a weapon into some strange village and telling the people what to do. I’d fight me.

“But, I think that has helped me as a songwriter because you have to approach that from a point of extreme empathy, if you’re going to write a song that can mean something to people.

“That was a really rocky decade,” McKinney goes on. “I did a lot of soul searching. I’m not bragging by any means, I just did the hard things – I did the hard look in the mirror about things, about what we did over there and… was it right? Was it wrong?

“That was a huge turning point of my life. It is a lot easier to sell yourself a certain rhetoric and then think of examples to provide evidence to support that rhetoric just so you can sleep easier at night.

“I’m sorry veterans, but we all have this echo chamber where we tell ourselves that we were the good guys. I really clung to that armour of self-righteousness. It was a protective thing. You don’t want to confront that; it’s a tough pill to swallow.”


A MAN DETERMINED: Baker McKinney writes viscerally-vulnerable songs as Gravedancer. Picture by Iain Smith/The Weekender

REFLECTION: Baker had to challenge himself on the values he held for so long. Picture by Iain Smith/The Weekender


The transition to civilian life began in 2011 and was rocky from the outset. The next few years were punctuated with misdeeds and struggle. Support was lacking, understanding was troublesome – though his service record did keep him out of hot water from time to time.

In the midst of it all, McKinney made efforts to delve back into his music once again, and was successful. Perhaps he could turn the head of the eagle yet.

He met up with Shawn James, a Chicago native who moved into the Arkansas area. They became friends and colleagues. McKinney would join Shawn James and the Shapeshifters and the band would tour the country. He was keeping busy and doing something he loved, but his problems hadn’t gone away. They had made their mark and would continue to do so.

“I was a child when I left,” McKinney says. “They taught me to fight and sent me off places to do so, and then when you get out all you get is an: ‘Ok, good luck!’

“All my peers had been going to college, were learning how to pay bills and to get apartments. The army just doesn’t teach that sorta thing. It took me a really long time to traverse being a human being again. And everybody forgot that Afghanistan was happening.”

He continues: “I went to therapy, had a few run-ins with the law. Flashbacks. Some violent outbursts. I had a flashback of kicking down some doors when I was in my parents' house. I did get locked up a few times – luckily, there are some folks, especially in the southern states, that are really supportive of the troops and so I, maybe, did not get into as much trouble as I should. Instead of being taken to jail, they would drop me off at the VA until they deemed me safe to return.

“But my life was in shambles for the next ten years. I was on nothing but a self-destructive path.”

The Shapeshifters released a number of EPs and albums over the years along with frequent tours. The issues affecting McKinney’s behaviour resurfaced alongside. Indeed, he notes that there are old videos from the band’s heyday where he has black eyes.

But he continued to spiral. James took him in and gave him a place to stay. At times, it was a place where the spectres of his past would reach out to him again. His fortitude would be tested time and time again like it never had been before.

“I was living in Shawn’s basement in, around 2015,” McKinney recalls. “And there was a point that whenever I closed that door to the basement, whether or not I was having a bad day or not, and once that door was closed, I just wept. Uncontrollable weeping.

“There were so many times, living under Shawn, in that basement, where I would put my pistol in my mouth for a few minutes. I’d watch the sunset and truly debate pulling that trigger. But I didn’t, luckily, I didn’t. I can very distinctly remember the taste of my 45 because I did this quite frequently.

“Man, it was just fighting against that negativity, without really knowing how. But just refusing to give in. I was where I was with no one to talk to. I can talk now because I’ve dealt with it enough in order to talk about it.

"It wasn’t easy, but at the time, I was the only person I knew from Afghanistan doing that. Everyone else I knew was either still clinging to that toxic armour, or had pulled the trigger. Lots of my friends ended it in the years after that.

“After all that self-preserving armour was stripped away, all I was left with is this…pain. And I had to accept it and I had to live with it.”


A MAN DETERMINED: Baker McKinney writes viscerally-vulnerable songs as Gravedancer. Picture by Iain Smith/The Weekender

A FUTURE TO BEHOLD: McKinney is planning to release a full Gravedancer album in the near future. Picture by Iain Smith/The Weekender


He repeats: “Music was the glue.” And there is no equivocation in his voice. “Music saved my life”.

In 2015, McKinney was able to take a step back. He saw the bigger picture for the first time. The bad decisions, the pain. The horrors of war, the demons of the mind. They may still have cause to make his life miserable, but he could see them now for what they were. What’s more is he understood that his battles were far from over.

With care, he was able to deconstruct the lies he told himself as a teenager – the armour he forged for battle, the one he never took off when he returned to civilian life. Years of neglecting it had only emboldened it. The rot had metastasised, but he was beginning to confront it.

At the same time as McKinney was recovering, America began to take on a totally new shape. It was 2016 and the time had come to elect a new president. Political discourse had been swirling in the toilet for some time and the atmosphere of resentment had seeped into every available crack and crevice. Not the most pleasant environment for anyone.

November arrived and, of course, Donald Trump won. It proved to be yet another fateful turn of events for McKinney, who by now was in search of something else. There was nothing else for it: his homeland didn’t feel like home anymore, perhaps the homeland of his ancestors would.

He found a work programme in Argyll & Bute – a month and a half of work for room and board. A sweet deal, all things considered. Though, it would still be something he’d have to earn.

McKinney recalls: “I’ve been told my whole life that my family came to America from Scotland, but I don’t think anyone from my family has been back since they all went over. According to the rough genealogy, we think they left around the time of Highland Clearances.

“As a kid, I actually fell in love with Scottish folk music – bagpipes and fiddles, I just couldn’t get enough of it. I think I was just fascinated by the idea that our family came from someplace else.

“Coming here was always on my bucket list. It was 2016-2017 and I was searching for my next step. I was in a dead-end construction job; they were working me like a dog; I wasn’t getting paid very well for it, and I was just breaking my body.

He adds: “When Trump was elected, I think that might have been the straw that broke the camel’s back. To see the country that I would have given my life for, vote someone like Donald f***ing Trump in as their president. I was like: ‘I can’t, y’all’, and had to get as far away as I could from that place – even if it was just for six weeks.

“I didn’t have savings or anything. In order to get here, I had to move out of my apartment and live in my truck for months. That was me for an Arkansas summer – bathing in rivers and all. Very caveman; very hillbilly.

“So, it wasn’t from a place of privilege; it was a place of desperation. I had to get away. And, yeah, thinking back now, I had to get a new perspective. And I found one.”

He set up around 40 miles inland from Oban and set to work. The life suited him – the surroundings agreed with him, soothed his soul and cleared his mind. A son of Scotland, home at last.

McKinney had pondered the trip for a lifetime, planned it for months. Whether or not it was going to be the life-changing event he needed was still up in the air. Until music guided his hand once more.

“I was working away there and on one weekend off I went into Oban. I wanted to check it out and maybe catch some music… and then I met my future wife at The Wetherspoons! The next weekend off I went back again to meet her and just kept going back.

“I was in Scotland, working for six weeks, and basically started a relationship with her in that time. Then she came to visit me in Arkansas over the winter. Her dad then got cancer and we quickly packed up and came back to Scotland – have been here ever since.

He adds: “One of the things I love most about Scotland is that in every single glen, every turn, there is a hidden gem. On top of every hill, there is a new view – you get a different perspective everywhere you go.”


A MAN DETERMINED: Baker McKinney writes viscerally-vulnerable songs as Gravedancer. Picture by Iain Smith/The Weekender

A MAN DETERMINED: Baker McKinney writes viscerally-vulnerable songs as Gravedancer. Picture by Iain Smith/The Weekender


McKinney is now settled in the rural Perthshire village of Alyth, with his wife and two kids. It is a life he could not have expected a few years ago.

He carries the scars of his past now, but they have started to feel more like armour to him than the toxic rhetoric of his youth had ever been. His experiences have carved the character that serves him today.

And still, the music plays on. He began to write again shortly before he landed in Scotland, but his incredible storytelling prowess ensures he is ready-made for the Scottish music scene. He is often featured on bills across the country, including regular nights in Dundee. He also supported his friend Shawn James when he toured the UK last October.

Songwriting has become a therapy for McKinney. Indeed, that became the basis for Gravedancer itself. How to express that which cannot be expressed in mere words. It’ll be those life-saving vibrations once more.

An eponymous Gravedancer EP was released in 2016 and featured five tracks that showcase the artist's truly-remarkable skill. It was a forward-looking endeavour that helped to suture the damage of the past. Some of the songs were actually written years before. The ever-haunting Eating Like Kings – which was later released by his friend Shawn James was written in a guard tower in Afghanistan.

Last year, Gravedancer released the Every Kind of Dog EP, heralding a development in McKinney’s songwriting. Tracks like Azalea and the tear-jerking The Strongest Stuff maintain the same remnants of the country sensibilities of his debut. But there was more. He was testing himself creatively and mixing it up with the genres, to say the least. But with either EP the same therapy is being conducted.

McKinney says: “I set out very intentionally to write music that would help me say things that I was uncomfortable to say. That was the goal with Gravedancer from the very beginning. Other than Eating Like Kings, the very first Gravedancer song was Stranger to Myself and that touches on one of those suicide attempts. It talks about some close family members doing some time in prison – it was basically a vomiting of all the things I was really struggling with and couldn’t talk to anyone about.

“Gravedancer always had to be viscerally vulnerable. If it wasn’t viscerally vulnerable, then it doesn’t make the cut. More recently, I have branched off a little. The Devil’s Garden, for instance, isn’t the same but at the core, I am still going for the same thing. I am being so uncomfortably vulnerable in my songwriting that others can maybe pick out pieces to help them get to the same point.”

“A huge lesson that I’ve learned in speaking with lots of different people is that trauma is trauma. Comparing someone’s trauma to your own or someone else’s is fruitless. It doesn’t matter what it was – an overbearing, controlling parent; Afghanistan; an abusive partner – no one’s trauma is worth more or less than someone else’s. If it’s on a scale, it all weighs the same.

“And, at least from my perspective, music seems to be the easiest way to start opening up those wounds and getting the dirt out. It’s not going to heal you and it won’t sew it up, but it can some of the poison out that snake bite, so to speak.”

He continues: “On, maybe, four or five occasions over the years...I’ve had messages from people saying that a song that I wrote was the song that made them pull the gun out their mouth.

“I’ll say… I don’t think I’ve saved anyone’s life. But I think I might have made them feel not so alone. And that’s just what happened to me. Random vibrations.

“But those are the messages… anytime I question what I’m doing, those are the messages that make me think: ‘Yeah, ok, this is what I’m meant to be doing’. I can’t sing like Shawn, I can’t play like Chet Atkins, but I can spill my f***ing guts into some lyrics that someone will hear and not feel quite so alone. That, I can do. I can be honest – that’s not always fun. But I can do that.”

McKinney is currently working on a full Gravedancer album, with recording to begin later in 2022. He is scheduled to play Broadcast in Glasgow on June 7 and Sneaky Petes in Edinburgh on June 8.