BIDDEFORD, Maine — All things considered, it’s been a decent year for Jim Baumer. The artist wrote a few dozen songs, put out his first EP and networked his way to 45 gigs at pubs and other stages across New England.
But it wasn’t that long ago that Baumer, a writer, didn’t play music at all. Although he’d always wanted to, it wasn’t until his son’s death that he began to devote time to it.
Mark Baumer was a writer and climate activist who died in January 2017 at age 33. He was struck by a car and killed in Florida while walking across the U.S. to raise awareness about climate change, and to raise funds for a friend’s environmental organization. He was reportedly wearing a high-visibility vest at the time he was struck and walking against traffic in accordance with safety guidelines. His death was a national story.
For his parents, Jim and Mary Baumer, Mark’s death was an unfathomable loss. The couple, both 59 and celebrating their 40th anniversary this year, spent the first year bound to their immediate pain. They went to grief counseling, attended to a criminal case against the driver who struck their son, started a nonprofit foundation in his name and participated in several interviews and a documentary film about his life.
As the months wore on, they had different methods of coping. Mary Baumer, a successful saleswoman, continued running and leaned on her experience with loss. She has been a distance runner for decades, an activity that gave her a broad circle of friends. As a teen, she lost an older brother, which helped make her “a very strong person.”
But Jim Baumer spiraled into a deep depression after his son’s death. A freelance writer, the days working alone from home were agonizing, giving Jim Baumer no peace from his grief. What had once been a healthy contrarian streak in his personality had lapsed into a kind of nihilism. He’d get in trouble at work and pick fights with friends, antagonizing them with political positions he didn’t actually support.
By August 2018, after a year and a half, he hit rock bottom. He contemplated ways to take his life.
“I was trying to figure out a way to kill myself that was a good way, but there is no good way,” he said.
Instead, he grabbed a Yamaha acoustic guitar he bought in the 1990s. He started to play. He’d play for 15 minutes at a time, taking breaks from his writing deadlines. Soon, Jim Baumer would play for hours at a time. After a year or so, he was writing and recording songs.
“It saved his life,” Mary Baumer said.
Born in 1962, the elder Baumer grew up in Lisbon Falls, the son of a union paper mill worker and a stay-at-home mom. He always dreamed of playing music, but never really did. His musical aspirations collided with baseball, where he excelled as an ace pitcher. One of the best in the state, he attended the University of Maine on a baseball scholarship.
Teammates nicknamed him “Cosmic” because he would give astrological pronouncements before games, inspired by the Cosmic Muffin sketch on the radio station WBLM.
After he blew his arm out in college, he dropped baseball and drove with Mary to Indiana, where he did a short stint at an Indiana bible school before becoming disillusioned and quitting religion. Their son was born soon after, and the family moved back to Maine.
Jim Baumer found that parenthood didn’t leave much time for music either, but he came to share a bond of musical appreciation with his son, a precocious kid who liked sports, literature and punk rock music.
“Jim was the little league father, the hockey father,” Mary Baumer said. “He drove Mark to the 4:30 hockey practice instead of doing his music. He was the baseball coach. The guitar stayed in the basement.”
These days, Jim Baumer is playing a Gibson Night Hawk with a hollow-body — just like Neil Young — and a small amp, writing and recording songs in the basement, juggling a part-time work schedule.
The kind of songs Jim Baumer writes are weirder than your typical barroom fare. He plays a slack, lo-fi indie-rock, steeped in years of interest in the work of idiosyncratic singer-songwriters like Dave Doughman of Swearing at Motorists, Marc Bolan of T. Rex, Will Toledo of Car Seat Headrest and Robert Pollard of Guided by Voices. At gigs, he’ll mix those up with covers, sometimes cheeky ones, of Radiohead, R.E.M. and Madonna.
Live music audiences are tough to come by in the pandemic, but Jim Baumer has done his best to find them. With a few hours’ worth of material, he’s spent the last year emailing booking agents at townie bars, open mics and farmers markets. He played 45 gigs since venues reopened, and tapped into a network of other area songwriters for tips.
Writing and playing music can be therapeutic. Many of Jim Baumer’s songs hover around his son’s death without being on the nose. Others, like the final track of the EP he released last winter, are a clear ode to his son. But news of his loss, documented on his website alongside his music, often preceded him. As he networked, Jim Baumer found solace with other musicians who suffered similar losses or who also found hope after contemplating suicide.
He still thinks of himself as a writer, but of a different style.
“I used to think that if I could craft the perfect 2,500-word essay, I could change the world. Now I much prefer writing three-and-a-half minute songs,” Jim Baumer said. “The thing about writing is that you write an article and it’s done. You write a song and you can play it a thousand times.”
It’s the writerly part of Jim Baumer’s work that his wife appreciates — she’s not always a fan of the music.
“Is he the best guitar player ever? No,” Mary Baumer said. “But he’s a really good and heartfelt writer and he’s taken it to the next level.”
Mary Baumer said she’s often comforted by the knowledge that Mark would have wanted his parents to move on with their lives. For Jim Baumer, making music is a journey he’s finally ready for.
“If Mark could see me now, he’d be so … happy for me,” he said. “He’d be like, Yeah, this is what you meant to do with your life. It’s OK that you figured that out in your late fifties, because now you can do it for 20 years.”