The blues journey knows no town too small
(nor ambitions too big)
Seth Walker was trained from an early age in classical music, studying violin and cello (his parents taught the Suzuki method). But he ended up being steeped in the blues.
A sense of place had something to do with that. The songwriter and guitarist was raised in tiny Altamahaw-Ossipee, NC. Altamahaw numbered around 350 people until the early 2000s, when it was combined with Ossipee to yield a population of just under 1,000.
“My father had been teaching music in Burlington,” Walker recalls. “My parents befriended another couple who were looking at buying land way out there. After seeing 20 acres of beauty, they decided to build one home and live communally under one roof … it was 1974, after all.”
Growing up there, Walker absorbed the best qualities of small-town living. “I’ve always loved simple music, and songs that had depth,” he says.
Once he was in college, Walker discovered the modern electric blues of Stevie Ray Vaughan, Eric Clapton, and Jimi Hendrix. The music of those artists led him back to earlier blues legends.
“It really struck a nerve,” he says. “I bought a cheap Stratocaster, and I just sat in my dorm room bending strings. I remember how good it felt that [the music] wasn’t on a page; I don’t even know what it was, but I knew that it was speaking to me.”
Things proceeded quickly from there; by 1998 he had recorded and released his debut album, When it Rains it Pours. Walker concedes that his sound doesn’t always fit neatly into the various stylistic boxes that comprise the blues. “Whether it’s called the blues or not, it comes from there,” he says. Noting that other styles like jazz are rooted in the blues, as well, he suggests that his own inspiration “may be as simple as emotion.” Blues is more a feeling than a genre, after all.
But Walker didn’t, or couldn’t, abandon his classical background. Instead he used it as a foundation to make more well-rounded original music. “As I started to get into [guitar], I realized that my fingers had been on strings for so long,” he says. “And as I started to dive into blues, I leaned more toward the jazzy side: people like T-Bone Walker, Clarence ‘Gatemouth’ Brown, Louis Jordan, and Charlie Christian.”
The relative sophistication of their music — compared to straight-ahead 12-bar blues — appealed to Walker. He found that he was drawn toward repertoires that displayed “a little more harmonic depth,” noting that “classical music is centered around harmony. So that definitely came in handy.” The rhythmic complexity of classical music influenced his songwriting, as well.
All those qualities are reflected in his latest album, Are You Open?, his tenth full-length release that shows him crafting songs that fold in elements of R&B, soul, and rock. In a new approach, though, he employed rhythm tracks as his starting point, rather than beginning by composing a lyric, a guitar lick, or a melody.
“It was unknown territory for me,” he admits. “Most of the tunes started off with one-chord or trance grooves.” He says using this fresh method in the composition process yielded unexpected results. “I’ve found myself surprised more on this album than any other I have ever done.”
Are You Open? is a departure from Walker’s previous work in yet another way. It finds him venturing into the kind of lyrical territory he’s largely avoided in the past. Billboard Magazine characterized “No More Will I” as a political song, though Walker says he doesn’t think of it as such. But the title sentiment, “No more will I turn a blind eye,” references current and past human-rights violations. Repeated over and over, it dominates the song like a manifesto.
“It was pretty personal for me,” he says. “Because I’d never really written any kind of topical piece. I wanted to [address] all that’s surrounding us and affecting our society in such a sad and harmful way, but I wanted to talk about [it] without a jagged edge.” Walker’s goal with “No More Will I” — and with much of his lyric writing — is to focus on what we all have in common.
“We’re a lot more alike than we are different,” he says. “It sounds cliché, but I do believe it’s true: The only answer is love.”
Seth Walker plays the Purple Onion (16 Main St., Saluda) on Sunday, March 1. 7:30pm. $18 general, $15 advance. For more information, call 828-749-1179 or see purpleonionsaluda.com. www.sethwalker.com.