Revered roots music troubadour Seth Walker recently took up residency in New Orleans. Upon relocating to the Big Easy, the North Carolina-native completed his rounds of the Holy Trinity of southern U.S. music cities. His journey began in Austin where he fast became a staple of the Texas blues scene. He’d later shuffle off to Nashville where he’d absorb the cosmopolitan twang of its storytelling tradition. Clearly, however, it is the influence of his current NOLA home with its funky melting-pot swagger that inspired the gospel-soaked fervor and gritty guitar burn at the core of his latest album, Sky Still Blue, due June 10 from The Royal Potato Family.
Abetted by producer Oliver Wood (The Wood Brothers), Walker revels in the devil-on-my-trail grit and longing blue notes that make this latest collection of 11 songs resonate so convincingly. Yet, as Walker's fans have come to expect, there's always a sweet melody, a turn of phrase wrapped in a wink-and-a-smile or an undeniable hook close at hand.
"All the moves I've made have been so that I can be around new influences centered around music," Walker says. "I've always loved New Orleans, and it definitely brought back a bit of the rough edge that got a little spit-shined on the albums that I did in Nashville. This one's got some gristle on it, some push and pull, some funky stuff, and some of that Caribbean influence that New Orleans has."
The seed for Sky Still Blue was planted with five songs co-written with Oliver Wood while Walker was on tour with the Wood Brothers. The rough-hewn lover's lament "Easy Come, Easy Go;" the intimate, inspirational ballad "Grab Ahold;" the shuffling seize-the-day anthem "Tomorrow;" the organ-soaked blues moan "High Wire;" and the hopeful, intimate closing track "Way Too Far." In their diversity and directness, these tunes served as a template for the album as a whole, fleshed out by the pair's continued collaboration in the studio.
"Oliver and I both come from a similar place stylistically, which obviously helps when you're trying to communicate," Walker says. "I love the fact that his songwriting is not so calculated, and it really worked with where I wanted to go. As a producer he was the perfect combination of having his ears and his heart on the songs while letting things go organically. He didn't produce with an iron fist; he was just one of us."
Sky Still Blue was recorded at Zac Brown's Southern Ground Studios, the Wood Brothers' home base in Nashville, and fellow Brothers Chris Wood (also of Medeski Martin & Wood) and Jano Rix made crucial contributions, joining Walker's longtime band-mates, bassist Steve Mackey and drummer Derrek Phillips. "It was essentially the six of us musically roping this thing," Walker says. "We all worked great together, and the next thing you knew, we had a record."
While that camaraderie is evident in the songs' taut grooves and relaxed atmosphere, Walker's dexterous guitar work seizes the attention with its soulful lines and serrated edge. His commanding fretwork captures the album's mood of forlorn optimism, encapsulated in its deceptively upbeat title. Sky Still Blue is drawn from the melancholy lyrics of "High Wire": "If it pours down on you and the sky is still blue / It might be me crying from my high wire." As Walker admits, "It is optimistic phrase - but it's kind of a lonesome image."
Walker didn't have much opportunity to be lonesome as a child growing up on a two-family commune in rural North Carolina. His parents were both classical musicians, and his first axe was the cello, not the guitar. The tastes of the commune's other residents ran more to Texas country music, so his youth was filled with the sounds of Mozart and Beethoven coexisting with Jerry Jeff Walker and Willie Nelson.
Walker discovered the guitar in college and never looked back. "I was just eaten up with it, man," he says, his enthusiasm still evident. "I was just crazy for it. I immediately gravitated to the blues, but as I played I started to lean towards the uptown side, the jazzier side, and I think that probably has something to do with my classical training."
His uncle Landon Walker was a jazz bassist and blues DJ on Jacksonville, Florida radio station WJCT, and would mail tapes to his nephew on a regular basis. "It covered the whole gamut of blues," Walker recalls, "from the Piedmont stuff - Reverend Gary Davis, Blind Willie McTell and Blind Blake - to the Chicago stuff - Muddy Waters and Robert Nighthawk - and a lot of Texas stuff - Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown, T-Bone Walker, Lightnin' Hopkins. But the guys in my dorm room were listening to Stevie Ray Vaughan, Jimi Hendrix and Eric Clapton, so that blues-rock sound definitely got my attention. It seemed a lot more interesting than going to school, so there went my education."
Walker set out for Jacksonville with dreams of stardom ("I ended up playing in a Grateful Dead cover band," he says ruefully), but before long realized that he needed to relocate to a more music-rich hub. He landed in Austin in 1995 and has remained in legendarily musical metropolises ever since.
The albums he's made since then have consistently vaulted him into the Top 20 of the Americana charts and gleaned praise from NPR, American Songwriter, No Depression and Blues Revue, among others. He's toured the world as a headliner as well as opening for The Mavericks, The Wood Brothers, Raul Malo, Paul Thorn and Ruthie Foster, among others. It's all of these experiences and more that leave their well-traveled traces throughout these 11 songs at hand. Steeped in a rich musical heritage, Sky Still Blue is a masterful work conveyed by means of Walker's expressive, soul-burnished voice, agile guitar artistry and impeccable southern songwriting, all of which have garnered him a reputation as one of the most acclaimed modern roots artists in the country over the last decade.