Bart Walker Band with special guest Reese Wynans
Calgary International Blues Festival (2013)
Guitar and vocal powerhouse Bart Walker calls his debut album Who I Am, and that's absolutely perfect.
From the scalding, stuttering riff that opens "Austin City Limits Sign," the album's first track, to the six-string crescendo of his funky, loping take on John Lee Hooker's "Dimples" that closes the 11-tune set the CD is a portrait of the Nashville-based guitarist as a dreamer, a fan, a survivor, a creative dynamo and, most of all, a one-man argument for the continued vitality and emotional heat of the blues.
"I feel like every part of who I am as a musician and a person is represented in these songs," the six-stringer attests. "A lot of the stories are right out of my life, every solo I take is inspired by what each song means to me, and every flavor of blues I love - rockin', R&B, soul, shuffles, slow blues... it's all there."
The funky title track, in particular, is a series of postcards from his history. "When I sing about growing up a country boy and sneaking drinks from a bottle of Jack Daniel's while my mama was serving sweet tea - that's for real," says Walker. "So is the line about being a 'sinner on Sunday morning but saved every Saturday night.' I spend my life between the church and the stages, and I love them both."
Walker's truth telling is underlined by the buttery, blistering guitar solo - buoyed by bandmate and former Stevie Ray Vaughan & Double Trouble keyboardist Reese Wynans' soaring melody - that carries "Who I Am" to its apex, full of high-wire string bending and the fleet-but-perfectly articulated single notes that are a signature of his playing.
That blend of enunciation and fluidity on guitar are clues to Walker's musical background. At the tender age of four his father introduced him to both the instrument and to bluegrass, a genre where precision and speed are practically requirements.
"My dad says he got me started because he wanted to create another back porch picker he could play with," Walker recounts. But it was quickly obvious that Bart was much more. He figured out how to play every stringed instrument his father brought home: banjo, mandolin, fiddle, bass. When he turned six, Walker started playing in his family's church and singing tenor harmony.
A turning point came at 13 when he got his first electric guitar and performed a complex, Chet Atkins-style solo rendition of "Tennessee Waltz" in the auditorium of his middle school in Springfield, Tennessee.
"When 250 people stood up and started applauding after I finished, I thought, 'This is it for me. I don't want nothin' else.'"
Walker's first group was a high-school Christian rock band that played coffeehouses. At the same time, he won a full scholarship for operatic singing to Vanderbilt University's Blair School of Music. But most important, he heard the songs of Stevie Ray Vaughan on the radio and began his own intensive education in blues, backtracking to the music of Vaughan's influences Albert King and Buddy Guy and on further to the pioneers of Mississippi Delta blues.
Eventually he dropped out of Austin Peay State University's respected school of music in Clarksville, Tennessee, to purse his calling.
"I moved to Memphis for three years, and experienced what its like to live the blues," Walkers says, chuckling. "I lived in an apartment complex that had cockroaches crawling the walls because it cost the $200 a month I could afford. I was living off one peanut butter and jelly sandwich a day and at night sitting in with the best players on Beale Street, like Preston Shannon and Ruby Wilson, who taught me how to support other musicians and when to step out and really make my playing count."
After Walker moved back to Nashville his career rapidly began to gel. He found gigs in the house band at B.B. King's Blues Club downtown and in a church band in nearby Antioch, Tennessee, and began to hone his songwriting.
By 2007 he'd also assembled the Bart Walker Band and started holding down his own regular slot on Sunday nights at B.B. King's. A high-profile break came when an acquaintance turned him on to a gig as lead guitarist for country music star Bo Bice, who rose to fame on TV's American Idol.
"Me and Bo are both country boys who love blues and Lynyrd Skynyrd, Molly Hatchet and the Allman Brothers, so we've really bonded," says Walker. "I've played with him for three years and have loved every minute."
Another important musical bond was formed when Walker's original keyboard player took ill and, on a whim, Walker found Wynans' number in the local Musicians Union directory and called him to sub one night at B.B. King's Club. Although Wynans was initially uncomfortable with the band's repertoire at the time, which was packed with Stevie Ray Vaughan numbers, he was hooked on Walker's dynamic performing style after one set and stayed on to become his musical foil.
"Reese is my sounding board," Walker explains. "Now when I've written a song I bring it to Reese first and he makes great suggestions - 'add another verse,' 'try these chords here.' He's really insightful as well as a great musician."
It's been years since Walker's had to depend on the repertoire of other artists to ignite fireworks on stage. As he's developed a gutty, gritty distinctive guitar tone he's grown, too, as a songwriter - and both qualities are captured superbly on Who I Am.
The simmering blues "Slow Moving Train" is the album's epic fretboard showcase - seven minutes of tightly squeezed, throaty notes, bent chords and stinging punctuation marks that are a perfect match for the gravel dappled timbre of his voice. As the tune evolves it becomes a musical conversation between Walker and Wynans. The latter trades between piano and organ, playing stabbing and arcing runs that hint at the heartbreak in the song's lyrics until Walker unfurls a crying, testifying solo that howls in virtuosic anguish.
Then there's "Slow My Roll," which finds Walker channeling Duane Allman and Derek Trucks on open-tuned slide, ripping out a groove that falls dead center between classic blues and swamp rock. And his "Austin City Limits Sign" is a love note to the romance of Texas blues, writ in a voice full of want and a tone loaded with crunch.
Track for track Who I Am bristles with unbridled intensity and focus, displaying a musical maturity in is songwriting and performances that's rare for a debut recording and testifies to Walker's lifelong dedication to his art.
"I truly and deeply love what I do," he says, "and I hope that in some way I get to help carry the torch of the blues into the future. This music has given me so much, and has so much to give, and I feel like Who I Am is just the beginning of what I have to give back to it."
Ted Drozdowski - Guitar Player Magazine
Bart Walker Band