Bear Rinehart’s songwriting has deepened in extraordinary ways. Stretching across Into the Mystery, NEEDTOBREATHE’s new studio record, the stories side-wind as a roaring river does through lush greenery nestled in a ravine, cutting ever-further into the earth’s surface. From the rustic confession “What I’m Here For” and the peace-seeking “Chances” to the blustery closer “West Texas Wind,” among their finest vocal centerpieces to date, the album is their most intimate. Their stories are wrapped and bound with heartache and worry tighter than ever.
“I wasn’t trying to come up with reasons for the whole world, but it did feel nice to write songs in a time where it did feel like the whole world was kind of questioning things. I don’t know if I’ve ever felt more unified as a human,” Rinehart tells American Songwriter over a recent phone call. “We’re all going through different parts of it, and we’re trying to figure out ourselves. It was a little bit of a house of mirrors, I think, for most people. It took away a lot of the activity, a lot of the distractions, and all of a sudden you’re left with you and your life─like how do you feel about it?”
Co-producer Konrad Snyder, Rinehart, and the band─Seth Bolt (bass, percussion), Josh Lovelace (piano, organ, acoustic guitars, synths, harmonica, mandola), Randall Harris (drums, percussion, banjo, acoustic guitars), and Tyler Burkum (acoustic and electric guitars)─rattle the listener down to their core.
While Rinehart was mostly “writing for myself,” soul-gazing themes of regret, pain, loneliness, and pleading for purpose capture collective unease and anxiety. It was a challenge, though, reaching this threshold where the songs morphed from wildly necessary self-examinations into broader outlines of this time in history. Creatively, Rinehart hit a roadblock with Zoom writing sessions, so he knew if he was ever going to get the demos out, he needed to make them himself. “A lot of it was really experimental,” he says. “I got to really enjoy myself, get lost in the music, and be a little bit of an eight-year-old. It wasn’t till way later when I started playing the songs guys in the band and thought it might be a record.”
I was really trying to mean something to someone, slips from his lungs in the primer “What I’m Here For.” Lying between reassessing his past and processing his present, it’s a line that goes much deeper than meets the eye. “All musicians come to a point, you know, where they realize that, or hopefully they do, that the audience is not their identity,” he explains. “That’s something that’s always been a struggle in a lot of ways because you put so much of yourself into it. And you really like that affirmation like every human does. I think the process has really been about understanding why I do music beyond a job or beyond how successful it’s going to be.
“In the last few years, I’ve fallen back in love with music, for music’s sake. And this period was a real example of that,” he continues. “I had all this time at my house. I didn’t have to be on the road, and we just made a record. I think that was my reaction─I really do love this, regardless of what the cons are and what the results are.”
Later, with the Natalie Hemby co-write “Don’t Throw All the Good Things Away,” Rinehart dusts away the cobwebs, sweeping generational trauma out into the sunlight. No more heartache and hand-me-down pain, he unravels painful threads. I know I’m a part of this war and this play / I’m tired now and I just gotta say / Don’t spit on the grave while your family weeps / Don’t throw all the good things away.
“It’s been a huge process for me, as somebody that struggles with anxiety a good amount. I’ve really been exploring that over the last few years, whether it be through counseling or whatever,” he details. “I think a big part of that is you just don’t realize how much baggage you’re bringing into every situation. Certainly, I walk into the room a lot of times and don’t feel like I belong there. I’m angry with these instinctual things that I do that I almost have no control over─or have no awareness of. It’s really been a process of exploring that.”
Much of the record surrounds the listener, and as you witness with “Don’t Throw All the Good Things Away,” it is the ragged, flaking veneer that emits a bit of warmth to entice you further into the room. “All the songs on the record sound like the house. I think we kept saying that not knowing exactly what that meant, except unless you were there,” he says. Out of house in Columbia, Tennessee, the band holed up for three weeks, ironing out the album’s creases and uncovering a sort of richness they would not have otherwise found.
“There was a sweetness to it being in a house,” he adds, “and we did a service to the record by not stacking too many tracks and not making this big wall of sound. I feel like you can hear the creaks and cracks.”
“Innocence” lies on another extreme, flipping between the intimate, stripped intro and outro and the rip-roaring percussion lying in the center─a moment of necessary raucous energy in which Rinehart reclaims a youthful glow. “I’m a pretty serious person. I mean, I played college football,” he laughs, “and that attitude just came across in the music sometimes. That’s something that doesn’t serve me well, necessarily. It’s been good on the business side sometimes. But in terms of getting in the room and letting the song take shape, I would say for me, it’s been about really not trying to make music as a means to an end─but being really in the moment, and letting that stuff happen to me.”
“That’s true with life. I would find myself in a situation, and I would be thinking about the next place I’m going rather than laughing at the thing that’s happening. I think kids are great teachers for that. I’ve got little ones now, and that’s new for me writing records,” he continues. “I love their wonderment. I just love that they can walk into a room, butt naked, with no insecurities with both hands out, celebrating. That’s something I’m really envious of. It’s been a huge lesson for me or at least a reminder that I can be that way.”
Greatly inspired by his grandmother, a modest woman who played piano in church and taught Sunday school, Rinehart revisits his childhood as a life-healing source to reprioritize and re-energize his life. “Being in her generation, she was just never judgmental and always full of wisdom. If I made a mistake, my first thought was to call her, which I think is really special. She lives in a small house, where she’s lived her entire life. She has sort of spawned all these people from it, and all of her kids were missionaries or in the ministry somehow. And then now, you know, her grandkids are in this band. It’s kind of crazy to me to see how much of an impact she’s had on the world from her little corner of it. I feel like the most innocent moments I ever had growing up were at her house ─ conversations we would have or plays we would put on or singing and playing.”
“Sittin’ in the Backseat” continues such abandon, as Rinehart peers out the back window of his family’s old red Chevette, the breeze gently rustling his hair. “This is not a song I would have ever written for any previous record,” he says. “I just had this memory and this beat, and it all made me feel this way.”
Then, “I Wanna Remember,” a collaboration with Carrie Underwood, builds on Rinehart’s wistfulness, a runaway train melting into the song’s heaven-bound ascension. “I honestly didn’t think of having a guest on that song until we left the house, and I heard it back,” he recalls. But he immediately knew he had to get a woman for his duet partner. He’d recently laid down vocals for “Nothing But the Blood,” a hymn recorded for Underwood’s My Savior record.
“It was pretty immediate, and I’m thankful for that. It just seems like a special time. I don’t know if it would have come about if I hadn’t had the chance to work on her stuff,” he adds.
At the time, Rinehart expressed trepidation about singing harmony for Underwood’s album, as he had “never trained myself to do it. I don’t do it that well. It was definitely a scary thing with her. Probably the scariest thing is when we did a live capture at the Ryman. I told my wife, ‘If I can come out on the Ryman stage and sing harmony with Carrie Underwood, I can probably do most things in music.’ So, it gave me a lot of confidence, honestly. I think it’ll keep me from being quite as nervous in the future.”
What’s as evident with Into the Mystery is the heart and passion coursing throughout 12 songs. Rinehart’s willingness to peel back the layers and simply be vulnerable is mesmerizing. “Vulnerability is the thing that works for our band. Growing up southern, in a really small town, we had such a limited experience in life. I always felt like emotions are what connected us to the rest of the world. When we first started touring and were on the west coast, people had nothing in common with us, except for the fact that we’re going through the same feelings and navigating life as a human. I think that probably is what inspired a lot of this record.
“I give a lot of credit to the band for being open to that. It certainly wasn’t one of those records where we were gonna have 10 single hits on it,” he says, “and we weren’t necessarily swinging for the fences. It was really more about the truest story we can tell right now.”