Seth Walker celebrates new album on home turf
If you were to name 10 cities in America with massive musical influence and heritage, Austin, New Orleans and Nashville would probably all show up on the last. Those are three of the cities that the singer and songwriter Seth Walker has been living in for much of the last 20 years.
Walker is from North Carolina and grew up not from Greensboro. And he went to college at Eastern Carolina University, or, as he likes to put it, he “enrolled” there. New Orleans, Nashville and Austin all have left their musical fingerprints on Walker’s sound. The bump and slur of the Big Easy, with its mix of swinging and swampy vibes. The guitar-slinging troubadour tradition of Austin. Nashville’s confluence of country melody and storytelling. Maybe their fingerprints were on Walker’s sound before he even left North Carolina.
One piece of Walker’s early musical education came from his parents, who were both accomplished string players in the Western classical tradition. (Walker started out playing cello as a kid.) Another part of his musical identity was transmitted through cassette tapes of a radio show that his uncle, a jazz bassist from Florida, hosted, where he played classics of Piedmont blues, jump blues, country blues, Delta blues, Chicago blues and Texas blues. Walker plays American roots music, songs that are steeped in the logic and structure of the blues and country, but with some swing and jump to them. He can sound like a soulful crooner or like a student of early rock ‘n’ roll. You might hear some of that distinctive John Lee Hooker stomp in Walker’s music.
Walker is set to release a new record, Are You Open?, an album that folds a hint of Caribbean rhythm into the mix. With family and friends still in the region, Walker will play a sort of hometown show at The Crown at the Carolina Theatre on Feb. 16, the day after the record is released. The record was produced by Jano Rix of the Wood Brothers, a group that, like Walker, mixes original songwriting with a deep sense of eclectic soul, country and blues. Walker has worked with Rix before, but this new record is a departure of sorts in that it was recorded mainly at Walker’s home in Nashville.
“This was definitely the most creative endeavor I’ve ever done,” Walker said.
Working from home liberated him from some of the pressures often associated with creating in a setting where every hour costs hundreds of dollars.
“I’ve always been at the mercy of a studio, or even an engineer to hit the red button,” Walker said. “This time there was no tapping of the watch. Sometimes it’s really hard to emote on command. And it just gave me a freedom I’ve never had in the recording process.”
The idea of letting go runs through many of the songs on the new record. One sometimes needs to relinquish a certain degree of control to find freedom or to allow a new direction to take course. The opening track, “Giving It All Away,” serves as a kind of mission statement.
“I was always holding on to my yesterday, but you give me reason to give it all away,” sings Walker over a slinky groove that simmers and struts. A slow-burn funk pervades many of the songs on “Are You Open?”
“All I Need To Know” has the steady percolating syncopation of an early reggae tune. The upright bass playing on the record adds an expressive depth, with big resonant plucked notes ringing through in the spacious mix or graceful slides. The drumming, too, with lots of high-contrast rim shots, and gently marching beats, keep the songs buoyant and lively, even as Walker gets introspective.
“No Bird” sets up a bouncing six-beat rhythm with horns pushing the phrases to their satisfying end point.
Picking back up on the theme of relinquishing, “Something to Hold” has the line “I’m letting go of all those things I called my own,” which Walker sings over a nicely skeletal guitar pattern.
“Underdog” has a hint of Tom Waits-style clatter and lurch.
Walker said that many of the songs on the new record originated with the rhythmic framework as the starting point.
“A lot of this came from the grooves first. I wrote the pockets first,” he said. “A lot of these songs are little more trancy.”
The album closer, “Magnolia,” has spare guitar playing and accordion, layered with warm vocals and the sound of birds singing in the background, creating their own sort of trance, a kind of old Hoagy Carmichael/Johnny Mercer, deep South, sitting-in-the-shade-on-the-verandah vibe. It may conjure simple charms, but it’s a simplicity that takes a lot of patience and work to pull off.
Walker has been drawing on the deep well of American music since he first started releasing records over 10 years ago. He continues to gesture toward tradition in ways that are both confident in his connection and debt to the past, but also assertive in his ability to carve out new music that is creative, sturdy, joyous and honest.
John Adamian lives in Winston-Salem, and his writing has appeared in Wired, The Believer, Relix, Arthur, Modern Farmer, the Hartford Courant and numerous other publications.