Subtle Music That Speaks Loudly
‘Subtle Music That Speaks Loudly’
A Q&A with Seth Walker
By Geoff Gehman
Seth Walker didn’t set out to set his compass straight. The singing, composing guitarist didn’t expect that his latest record, “Gotta Get Back,” released last year by The Royal Potato Family, would be all about getting back to elementals–country blues, blue-eyed soul, sepia gospel—and essentials: love, loyalty, faith. Even a soothsayer with a computerized crystal ball couldn’t have predicted that he would be playing with his violinist sister, his violinist mother and his cellist father, more than 20 years after his family split apart, on a track called “Call to Me,” a come-hither, come-thither pledge with a sun-shining, sun-setting groove worthy of Bill Withers.
“Gotta Get Back” is Walker’s ninth album, as well as his first honest-to-goodness family album. His father arranged strings on three tunes performed by the Family Walker. His relations share the disc with his longtime pals, guitarist Oliver Wood and upright bassist Chris Wood. The CD is produced by Jano Rix, who plays various instruments, including drums, in the Wood Brothers. Much of the musical DNA is supplied by Walker’s taut, tart guitar; sliding, gliding, snakeskin-shedding voice, and his earthy, lofty songs, which carry his goal to make “subtle music that speaks loudly.”
Walker grew up on a quasi-Quaker semi-commune in a log cabin on a North Carolina farm. His parents taught their children to play cello and violin before elementary school, using the Suzuki methods of ear training. A blues-digging, radio show-hosting uncle introduced him to Charlie Christian, Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown and other seminal guitarists who helped him refine his picking and plucking. He’s soaked up all sorts of musical customs—swing, stride, second line–while settled in Austin, Nashville and New Orleans, where he lives in an 1890 building with a balcony overlooking Magazine Street, one of the Crescent City’s artsiest arteries.
Walker will sample “Gotta Get Back” during his May 18 band concert at the Mauch Chunk Opera House. Below, in a conversation while motoring to a gig in Pittsburgh (“Driving driving driving–the story of my life”), he discusses his devotion to Ray Charles; Bruce Hampton, the recently departed godfather of jam bands, and his trademark hats, which he wears with a different-era aura.
Q: What was the first song you couldn’t forget, that absolutely laid you flat?
A: It was probably a Willie Nelson tune. I remember when I first heard “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain” vividly. It was the first song I really felt. I didn’t know what was happening but I knew something was happening.
I grew up on a farm in a little town in North Carolina called Altamahaw-Osippee [pop. 357, according to the 2010 Census]. I lived in a communal situation; my parents built a log cabin with friends they met at this Quaker retreat. It wasn’t hardcore Quaker; it was more the ideology, the silence, the meditation that my dad really liked. Jim Walton was kind of my quasi-Quaker dad, if you will, and he loved some Texas country; man. He was the one spinnin’ those Willie Nelson records. I was probably seven or eight when I heard “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain”; that’s when your ears and your heart start to remember and open up.
Q: What types of music and musical rituals did the Walker Family engage in down on the farm in Altamahaw-Osippee?
A: Both my parents were Suzuki teachers. They taught me cello through an ear training kind of thing. Every evening after school my dad would drag me up to have a lesson—sometimes reluctantly, honestly. There wasn’t a whole lot of sittin’ around the porch, playing as a family. We’d go to these [Suzuki] workshops that my parents taught at and we’d get together with other string players and play recitals and things like that. My father would also write these little love songs and folk songs that he’d play on his acoustic guitar. Oh man, he was a little hippie–we’re talking straight out of “A Mighty Wind” [a satirical film about a reunion of a famous folk group]. I remember that vividly. I didn’t play guitar growing up but I do remember watching him play and singing along with him.
Q: How did playing the cello shape your guitar playing? Is there any cello residue on your fingers?
A: Definitely. Moving my fingers on strings since I was four years old certainly didn’t hurt matters or hinder me. I learned the cello by feel, by ear training; I didn’t really learn off the page and that is probably, essentially, why I gravitated toward blues at first. When I started playing the guitar, even though it was different from the cello, a classical instrument, it was all by feel, all by my ear. Those two things helped me the most; that’s the residue right there. I eventually learned that I can actually bend a guitar string, which you can’t do with a cello string. When I discovered that, I went: Oh shit, I can actually bend this string and make it moan.
Q: I recognize all your young-adult musical heroes–Ray Charles, Charlie Christian, T-Bone Walker–with the exception of Snooks Eaglin, the New Orleans guitarist and singer who as a teen called himself “Little Ray Charles.” How did you discover Snooks and why did he get under your skin?
A: Let’s see, how did I discover Snooksy? My uncle, my dad’s brother, was a jazz bass player who lived down in Jacksonville, Fla., and he had an electric blues radio show called “After Hours Café.” He would send me tapes in my early years in college after he learned that it was through Eric Clapton that I discovered who Robert Johnson was; he thought that was the coolest damned thing to know who Robert Johnson was. So he sent cassette tapes from musicians he thought I’d like: Charlie and T-Bone and [Clarence] “Gatemouth” Brown and Muddy Waters and Blind Willie McTell. There was a lot of stuff from North Carolina, where I was from, and Louisiana, the home of Snooks and Professor Longhair and Son House. That got in my ear immediately; when I picked up the guitar I just gravitated to this kind of gospel/country blues thing.
Q: Another one of your early heroes was Bruce Hampton, the godfather of jam bands and Southern avant-garde grooving, who died on May 1 after collapsing during an encore of an all-star tribute concert to him in Atlanta. His Aquarium Rescue Unit was the first band you saw in college; in your Facebook mini-eulogy you wrote that Hampton and his comrades “sent me whizzing through a portal into this beautiful, zany world of music and performing.”
A: Yeah, that was the first band I ever saw live; talk about jumping into the hot skillet. He was playing in Greenville at my college in a little mall area on a flatbed truck in front of nobody, just a few punk college kids. I remember going right up in front of Jimmy Herring, his guitar player, and he and Bruce and the rest of the band took me to Pluto. I mean, I I had never heard anything like that in my life and I went down the worm hole. I began buying their records and following them around, stalkin’ them a little bit.
Kenny, my tour manager, and I were driving down the road yesterday reading accounts and stories of Col. Bruce Hampton and he was a heavy-duty cat, man, a kind of soulful cosmic godfather. Col. Bruce said you have to puke up music sometimes; that was one of his five things that make up music. [Walker repeats them after Kenny says them, one by one] There’s time … tone … space … intention … and vomit. The Colonel said that you have to love music so bad, you have to vomit it up.
Q: One of the tracks on the new record that’s worm-candy to my ears is “Call My Name,” which has a Bill Withers come-hither, come-thither groove and message. “Try a little forgiveness and you might see yourself in a brand new light”: that’s definitely a Withers call to harmony. How did that tune come into being?
A: I wrote it with a friend of mine, Ed Cash. He had written a Christmas tune that he wanted me to sing on, so I went to his house outside of Nashville and sang on the tune. We were not planning on writing that day but he sat down at the Wurlitzer and I had my guitar and that first line just popped out. It’s weird how you write some songs, and some songs write you. That one was so effortless, it’s hard to remember anything other than it just happening organically.
The next thing I knew it totally had this Bill Withers thing—he’s definitely an influence on me–and I remember thinking: This one has got to be in the bag [i.e., recorded for “Gotta Get Back”]. I remember when we first played it [with the band] we used a little drum loop. I remember really liking the drum pattern and my drummer Derek Phillips said: “Oh, that’s like a James Gadson feel”–James Gadson was Bill Withers’ drummer—“let me see if I can summon his spirit.” James Gadson used to take his wallet and put it on the snare drum to kind of choke the snare and that’s what Derek did. Yeah, James Gadson was the dude
[“Call My Name”] is an homage to Bill and my family. The whole record is tied to the family theme. I didn’t realize how many songs had a family theme until I set back and listened to them I honestly didn’t realize I was doing a concept album about finding your compass; it’s not like I was doing a Pink Floyd “The Wall” kind of thing.
Q: How long had it been since the last time the Family Walker played together?
A: Well over 20 years; my parents have been split up actually for much longer. Getting them to play on the record, along with my sister, began when I sent my dad some demos. I remember he said: “I’ve got some ideas for some string section stuff.” At first I didn’t know how it was going to go, playing together after all these years. I remember being in the studio and we were playing our first song together, “Blow Wind Blow,” and I remember thinking: Oh man, there is a lot of energy going on here. Once we did that, and it felt comfortable, that set the tone for the rest of the string stuff.
There’s something special about when you listen to relatives playing together. Not to compare myself with the Everly Brothers or even the Wood Brothers; you just have this blood thing when you’re singing the same way, when you’re breathing the same way. I just remember feeling that energy, that spirit, in the studio, that feeling of “Damn, we’re a family.” I think playing together, as a family, really healed us. I really don’t know why we didn’t do this sooner; I mean, this is my ninth album.
Since then we’ve done probably five or six gigs together as a family. For the CD release in Ashville we had a nice string group: my father, mother and sister along with friends of theirs. We have another gig in Greenville, N.C., on June 1. The only thing is, my parents and my sister can’t get in the van with me. They’re not crazy enough to drive with me; they’re the sane ones.
Q: That leads me to ask: How do you stay sane on the road, which often doesn’t make sense? What lotions and potions and motions do you use to keep your compass straight?
A: In the early part of my career I would be so worried about getting gigs and getting to gigs that I wouldn’t enjoy the experience while it was goin’ down. I have really tried to pay attention to enjoying myself, enjoying the audience, enjoying the whole experience more the last three or four years–to stop playing for me and my ego. I’m trying to just connect with people and the music and the muse. It can get confusing because art and commerce are often diametrically opposed; it’s a slippery slope.
It definitely helps to have a great tour manager and a great sound engineer. You’ve also got to find the right spot to lift those weights, to knock the dust off. And you’ve got to eat well, so I make sure I have a salad every now and then.
Oh man, probably the No 1 thing I can say is: Don’t get too high or too low; you’ve got to stay steady. And you’ve got to mix in some greens out there.
Q: What was your toughest time in the music trade, when you seriously questioned your allegiance to your calling?
A: There was a time in the early 2000s, when I first started performing as a professional. I hit the ground trying to copy [singers] Gino Walker and Louis Jordan. You remember back in the ’90s when swing dance was the craze? Well, I was just playing swinging blues and I got all these swing dancers out to see me. After about four years of that I just got burnt a bit and I wanted to stretch and do more song writing, to get into that kind of world. It was not a very easy transition for me and I remember just getting bummed out. I was definitely questioning my place in the music world; I had some serious growing pains. So I dropped out and I didn’t play gigs for a while. I started painting—I had gone to art school for a while—for a couple months. That kind of helped me find my compass again and I realized: You got to get back in the game, bro.
Q: And what was your most rewarding time in the music trade, when you truly felt, as Mr. Sinatra sings, on top of the heap?
A: I would say the live gig moments are probably the highlight; that’s when I feel that I’m on top of the heap. I will say that doing that record [“Gotta Get Back”] with my family and hearing that final product when it was all put together was very rewarding, too.
Q: So, Seth, what tops your Bucket List? Is hitting a golf ball longer and sweeter still one of your holy-grail goals?
A: Oh yeah, a pure golf shot—shit, when it flies right down the middle, when it comes off the club so sweet, with a little drawl. Can a Bucket List have all kinds of things in another lifetime? If that’s the case, I’d like to have a jam session with Ray Charles in another lifetime. We’d play “Drown in My Own Tears” or “What Would I Do without You?”—that’s a great song. I played a festival with Ray in Austin one time; my name was really small [on the poster] but it was there and that was enough.
Q: And what tops your Fuck It List? Musicians have given me items ranging from an end to all spirit-crushing religions to death to every snake.
A: I hate to lift off somebody else, but that spirit-crushing religion would definitely be near the top of my Bucket List. And oh my gosh, lord have mercy, that’s funny about snakes because I am absolutely petrified of snakes.
Q: Where do you get your hats and why are they part of your onstage makeup?
A: I get them from this place in New York City called JJ Hat Center on Fifth Avenue. I have a buddy who works there and they have the crème de la crème. I wore hats back in the day when I actually had hair. I love the look and the old-school feel. It’s definitely become my little thing.
Quick story: I had a gig in Houston, Tex., and I forgot my hat; there are probably two gigs in my whole career when I played without a hat. Anyway, this girl came up to me and said: “Where’s your hat?”
“I forgot it.”
[Slight whine] “But I brought all my girlfriends to see you and you don’t have your hat on!”
And I thought: Shit, the hat’s one of the reasons people come to see me, I reckon.
Seth Walker: The Scoop
He co-wrote “Back in Your Arms Again,” recorded by the Mavericks.
He wrote “Back in Your Arms Again” with Mavericks lead singer Raul Malo and the prolific writer Gary Nicholson, who produced Walker’s 2009 record “Leap of Faith.” Nicholson’s credits include “One More Last Chance,” a No. 1 country hit for Vince Gill; two records by John Prine and five records by Ringo Starr, and two albums by Delbert McClinton that won contemporary-blues Grammys.
His covers include Percy Mayfield’s “Memory Pain” and Tom Waits’ “Picture in a Frame.”
In a YouTube video he plays a solo version of “Call My Name” in a restaurant, or paladar, in Cuba.
One of his most popular tunes is “Lay Down (River of Faith),” which he recorded a second time to get closer to the pure, sanctified feeling of his live renditions. “You know, a lot of songs come and go and get left by the wayside but that one sticks around; it’s probably the song I sing that’s had the longest staying power. It would always be the one I would sing near the end of the night, to kind of cleanse the palette. It’s changed through the years; it changes every night because I can’t sing any of my songs every night the same. It’s just a one-chord thing that flows, that floats with the times. I guess it helps people lay down their burdens and lift their hopes.”
Geoff Gehman is a former arts writer for The Morning Call in Allentown. He shares Seth Walker’s major jones for Bill Withers. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.