You don’t have to be a music-biz whiz to figure out why Sammy Walker’s career didn’t take off in the wake of his eponymous 1976 Warner Brothers debut and the 1977 follow-up, Blue Ridge Mountain Skyline. At the time, record companies were ostensibly still seeking the next Bob Dylan, but what they really wanted was simply someone who worked in his genre and possessed an equally exciting original style; they weren’t looking for a clone. And on first listen, a clone is what folk singer/songwriter Walker seemed like. His voice, phrasing, and harmonica were so reminiscent of Bob’s Freewheelin’ period that every listener’s first thought was bound to be, “This guy sounds just like Dylan.” (At times, he also sounded a good deal like the “Sam Stone”-era John Prine.)
That didn’t help Walker stand out, nor did the fact that his musical style was out of favor by the mid seventies, a time when disco and punk/new-wave predominated. Not surprisingly, Warner Brothers failed to adequately promote Walker’s albums and then dropped him from the label. A bit more surprisingly, he left the music business entirely and wound up working—for 17 years—behind the counter of a convenience store in the Catskills.
While Walker may have had the wrong voice at the wrong time, however, he also had a good deal of talent. He possessed an engaging, intimate vocal style and a knack for writing memorable story songs about tough times and downtrodden people. Vocal similarities and a penchant for poetic verse aside, moreover, Walker’s work isn’t really all that much like Dylan’s.
The forthcoming Brown Eyed Georgia Darlin’ (due out April 8) contains previously unreleased original demo recordings of nine of the 11 tunes that wound up on his Warner Brothers debut. (Also here is the slight “Talkin’ Women’s Lib,” which understandably did not make it onto the Warner release. It’s reminiscent of Dylan’s early talking-blues numbers but not as witty.) I somewhat prefer the Warner recordings, which find Walker’s vocals and guitar tastefully and sparingly embellished with other instrumentation, including piano and violin. But the stripped-down demos on Brown Eyed Georgia Darlin’ are almost uniformly excellent. They deserve an audience; and I’m hoping that that audience is large enough to prompt Walker to return to the music business and deliver something new. He should have garnered a substantial fan club in the seventies, but better late than never.
Jeff Burger edited Leonard Cohen on Leonard Cohen: Interviews and Encounters and Springsteen on Springsteen: Interviews, Speeches, and Encounters, both published by Chicago Review Press. His third book for the same publisher will be available in fall 2016. His website, byjeffburger.com, contains more than four decades’ worth of music reviews and commentary.