Bradley Walker – Treating the Song Right
Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium is often called the Mother Church of Country Music. Tonight’s congregants include J.D. Crowe, Don Rigsby, Hazel Dickens, and Bryan Sutton, all gathering in late September to celebrate the release of Bradley Walker’s debut disc Highway Of Dreams (Rounder Records).
The last rays of summer sun filter through stained glass and I am given a vision. A knowing. Bradley Walker will be the next IBMA Male Vocalist of the Year. It is a prophecy. And like all good prophecies, it was confirmed by a sign.
As I pulled into Walker’s driveway two weeks prior, XM radio was playing Jimmy Martin’s classic “Drink Up And Go Home”. When Walker arrived on the bluegrass scene at the 2000 IBMA Fan Fest — invited onstage as a special guest of IIIrd Tyme Out — he tore into “Drink Up And Go Home” and blew the lid off the Galt House in Louisville, Kentucky.
Those fortunate to have been there will recall his performance clearly. The occasion is etched in my memory. And in his.
“That was huge for me,” Walker affirms. “I’ve got that on recording, and the audience reaction still blows me away when I hear it. It was just awesome. And that is one of the things that has helped me out as far as getting recognition in the bluegrass world before having a recording out. Just making friendships. That was a great night.”
Among those with whom he forged friendships that night was renowned singer, songwriter, musician, and producer Carl Jackson. “Carl and Larry Cordle walked up to a showcase that I was playing with the Trinity Mountain Boys and watched the last half of it, and we were introduced after the show,” Walker recalls. “And Carl, one of the first things, he looked at me and said, ‘Man, there’s a song I’ve got that you need to cut. It’s called ‘Love’s Tombstone’. I just think you would really wear that song out.'” Six years later, “Love’s Tombstone”, a hard country weeper, is on Walker’s impressive debut. Jackson produced the album.
Sitting in his living room in north Alabama, Walker seems awed by the whole experience, and his conversation is peppered with praise for everyone involved. But his highest compliments are reserved for Jackson. “Sometimes I have to pinch myself and say, ‘Look at who you’re working with here. This guy is amazing!’ Someone like him, to have him in your corner, and to have people backstage at the Opry tell you — and that person’s never heard me sing a note — and they look at me and say, ‘Well, you must be a dang good singer if you’re working with Carl Jackson.’ That just lets me know how fortunate I am to have somebody like him want to work with me.”
In spite of his humility, it’s easy to be awed by Bradley Walker, largely because of his rangy, expressive baritone. But it’s also because Walker, 28, has muscular dystrophy and has been confined to a wheelchair his entire life. Except “confined” is precisely the wrong word. This is a young man who played in the marching band in high school. He holds down a full-time day job at Browns Ferry Nuclear Plant. He lives alone in a house built to his specifications, and he chauffeured me around Limestone County in his customized Dodge van. He is fiercely independent, and an immediate inspiration.
“If you like my music and you like what I do,” he says, “then don’t look at the disability — for lack of a better word — as a setback. Just go with it, man. Just give it a chance. That’s the biggest thing to me. I’m just a regular guy who’s been blessed with the gift of music, and that’s my number one love, is to be able to share music with people. To hear folks say that I’m an inspiration to somebody, that’s just an added thing for me. If I can touch people in that way, that’s just another blessing to me.”
Walker’s self-reliant streak shows in the way he conducts his affairs as a recording artist. Though he’s proud to have his album out on Rounder, he’s hesitant to turn too many career decisions over to other people. “I feel like that’s my responsibility, because it’s my career we’re talking about here,” he says. “I’m the one that’s putting out this music, and it’s a representation of me. So I need to be as involved as I possibly can be. If you learn it yourself and you have an idea what’s going on, then you can be more involved and have more say-so in the direction of your career.”
One task Walker shared with Jackson was narrowing the album down to twelve solid tracks. “We probably listened to 250 songs,” Walker says, “good songs that we really liked. Somebody would send me something and I’d go in there on the computer, with technology the way it is, I’d go in there and rip it on the computer and e-mail it to him, say, ‘Hey, what do you think about this one? I really like this.’ We joked around and said the first record was just going to be a box set, you know, because we had so many great songs. And that’s a good problem to have.”
Their whittling resulted in one of the strongest acoustic country debuts in recent memory. Walker feels these songs offer something seldom found in standard commercial radio fare. “Country music these days, a lot of the songs are recorded and they’re released simply because they’ve got a good beat,” he says. “They’re catchy and they stick in your mind, but they may not have much meat to them. I like stuff that has a message and meaning. All of these songs have deep meanings if you just listen to the words. Each one of them tells a story, and that’s something I’m very proud of.”
The songs are indeed powerful, and moving, and sad. Jim McBride & Jerry Salley’s “He Carried Her Memory” could stand alongside the timeless “He Stopped Loving Her Today” or the more recent hit “Whiskey Lullaby” — all three seem to have been written about the same man. Craig Market & Glen Garrett’s “Price Of Admission” addresses a road musician’s decision not to acknowledge an illegitimate child.
But it is Shawn Camp & John Scott Sherrill’s “Lost At Sea” that stands out as the album’s emotional centerpiece. Walker is typically self-effacing when he speaks of Camp’s talents: “He can sell it better than anybody, that’s the thing about Shawn. I’d almost be afraid to play you the demo of that song because I don’t want folks to hear it. Shawn Camp has got so much emotion in his voice, and so much soul. He sells that song, man. And there’s no way you can top what he does on his demo. It’s just unbelievable! All you can do is give it your own spin and your own take on the song and hope he likes it.”
Thanks to the musical tastes of his parents and grandparents — and the presence of a few decent regional radio stations such as WQAH out of Hartsell, Alabama — Walker’s vocal influences included the likes of Haggard, Jones, Gosdin, and Whitley. His traditional country pedigree distinguishes Walker from many of his bluegrass peers, something he hopes will be viewed as a strength.
“For a lot of these bands, the focus is just as much on the playing as it is on singing.” Walker observes of the bluegrass community. “For me, I’m a singer. I’m very fortunate to have friends that are great musicians, that are great at what they do, and that are always there to help me out. But I have to do songs that showcase what I can do, you know, and that’s sing. You just hope and pray that people will accept them. I think you can see the bluegrass roots through the record, but I just want people to see it as good music.”
Those bluegrass roots are indeed apparent in uptempo numbers such as the affirming “Life Or Love”, the working man’s anthem “Payin’ Your Dues”, and the smoking lament of “Shoulda Took That Train”. Also impressive are the supporting pickers and vocalists who helped out on Highway Of Dreams: Vince Gill, Rhonda Vincent, Sonya Isaacs, and Cia Cherryholmes all contributed. Alecia Nugent harmonizes with Walker, as he did on her recent release A Little Girl…A Big Four Lane. Aubrey Haynie and Jim Van Cleve split the fiddling duties. There’s dobro on every track courtesy of Rob Ickes and Randy Kohrs. Songs that call for banjo feature Ron Block or Ron Stewart. Andy Falco and Clay Hess play acoustic guitar, and Adam Steffey plays mandolin throughout.
The fact is, Walker could easily do a straight bluegrass record — and he could do it well — but it wouldn’t be a true picture of who he is as an artist. In time, he may appeal to a broad cross-section of bluegrass and country music fans much like Alison Krauss & Union Station.
Walker seems to favor that comparison. “Alison does her songs — like anything off the Lonely Runs Both Ways record — and people love those songs. And then she turns around and cuts into some traditional, straight-ahead grass song — playing it for these people who don’t have any clue who Jimmy Martin is, or Del McCoury,” he observes. “And these people say, ‘Wow! What was that?’ Then they’re going to do like what I did. They’re going to dig, and they’re going to find out what that was. And they’re going to like it.”
They’re going to like Highway Of Dreams, too. Because it is good music. Because the presentation is flawless. Because the delivery is soulful. Because Walker is an artist of unparalleled integrity. Because his primary concern is for the song itself.
“If you treat the song right, I think, and do it justice and make it come off the way it’s meant to, that’s the ultimate goal,” he concludes. “To make the songwriter proud, because that’s their baby.”