On his way home from a series of gigs in Colorado this summer, musician Seth Walker made an artistically important stop in Custer, South Dakota. It wasn’t another gig or recording session, but a visit with his 95-year-old great aunt Jan Conn, a famous rock climber and spelunker, as well as a musician and author. “She was the first woman to climb Devil’s Tower in Wyoming,” he says proudly. Jan and her husband Herb Conn also explored and mapped over sixty-five miles of the Jewel Cave system near Custer.
Herb died some years back, but Jan still lives in their house, off the grid outside of town. “She’s always inspired me,” Walker says. “It’s like going to see the Dalai Lama or Yoda or something. She doesn’t see life in just human terms; she sees life through nature. She doesn’t have all of the hang-ups that we have. The ego doesn’t seem to get in her way. It’s primal living in every way. When I was there this last time, and I was leaving, I realized I didn’t want to leave, and said so. And she said, ‘Well, it’s your life.’ It was so matter of fact and put so simply and bluntly, and I remember thinking, well damn, she’s right, it is my life,” he says. “She definitely inspires me to be my true authentic self and to live within my nature. That is something I’m learning every day.”
For Walker, getting to that authentic self has meant shaping and re-shaping his musical style through multiple albums over a more than two-decade career. His tenth and most recent album, Are You Open?, which debuted at number two on the Billboard Blues Album chart in early March is, in Walker’s opinion, his most experimental yet. It’s his first album recorded primarily using home studios (his own and producer Jano Rix’s), and his first effort trying his hand at some engineering. “The goal was to do something different, to go to another part of the cave, so to speak, putting myself in an environment that I’m not used to,” he says. “I’ve always recorded at really nice studios, good sounding studios, but I’ve always been at the mercy of someone just to hit record. But on this project, I would work up there in my little studio for hours and explore and try things and experiment. And that’s something I’ve never been able to do, and it really helped.”
The resulting collection on the Royal Potato Family label touches back to his early blues and jazz roots in songs like “Underdog” and “Magnolia,” but listeners will find a happy mélange of other styles, traditions, and experiments. “Inside,” inspired by a piece of art Walker acquired on a trip to Cuba, begins with an iPhone recording of the song during a sound check, which is then layered with a studio track of the same opening bars; what starts as a rhythmic stutter eventually swings onto a thick hook of funky refrain. At the other end of the spectrum, the spaciously arranged and instrumentally sparce title track shows off Walker the lyricist in harmonies blending with the light touches of lonesome pedal steel. And the song “No More Will I,” co-written with friend Gary Nicholson, takes a political turn, not typical for Walker’s catalog of blues and jazz grooves.
Changing approaches to music and finding other creative outlets have kept him growing as an artist Walker says. Raised in a two-family communal household in rural Altamahaw-Ossippee, North Carolina by music-teacher parents, he started playing classical cello when he was a kid. By high school, his interests shifted to rap music and visual art, and he still paints. In fact, the cover art of Are You Open? is a self-portrait.
In his first year of art school at East Carolina State University, he fell in love with playing guitar and left school to follow wherever that passion led. Music took him first to Jacksonville, Florida to spend time with an uncle who played bass and taught him about classic blues, and where Walker played his first professional gigs with a reggae band. Stints in Austin, Nashville, and New Orleans followed, each stop infusing his music with new ideas and approaches. “I’m more of a sponge,” he says. “I get influenced by all these different cities I’ve lived in, people I’ve met, places I’ve visited, producers I’ve worked with, songwriters I’ve worked with.”
“When I first got into this stuff as a professional, I was doing jump blues. T-Bone Walker, Gatemouth Brown, I just copied those guys,” Walker says. He got more serious about songwriting after a friend, drummer Mark Hays, turned him on to writers like John Hiatt, John Prine, and Guy Clark. “Mark gave me CDs and said, ‘Just pay attention to the way this is put together,’” Walker recalls. “I wasn’t a lyricist at all; I just wanted to swing. And I remember going down that rabbit hole, and I remember first trying to do something different than blues, and it was not good. I was just in deep water and flailing.
“That was around 2002, and I felt really lost, like I didn’t have an identity with this, and I took three months off. and I just started painting. I guess getting back in touch with some of the first creative outlets I’d ever had before music … realigned me. I started to tap into something that was more authentic. I’ve always wanted to just kind of get in the current of music and let it take me.”
That process brought him back to Nashville about a year-and-half ago after six years in New Orleans. “When I first moved here [in 2008] I was a lot younger and a little greener,” Walker says. “It was almost like I was on a mission, I had to prove something. I started writing with all these different people, great people. But at that time Nashville was not nearly as musically and culturally diverse as it is now, at least in my circles. So it just felt stiff. I had a publishing deal, and it was very productive, but I felt like I was steering my creativity instead of getting in the stream of it. I was just kind of getting caught up in my own gears.
“I went to New Orleans to almost unlearn things, because that place is so the opposite of here. And it’s so spiritually charged. It really set me on a good path inside, to take some of that spirit and [combine it with the] work ethic and resources that Nashville has. I think being back here now I can see more sides
Though his touring schedule stays full, Nashvillians will be able to catch Walker at some pop-up shows around town during AMERICANAFEST in September. “I’m getting to do the Jam in the Van,” Walker says with a grin, referring to the mobile studio/performance venue that will be parked outside The Crying Wolf. He’ll also appear on pal Delbert McClinton’s Sandy Beaches Cruise in January.
As for the future, Walker isn’t fretting over what comes next. Following his famous Aunt’s advice, he trusts staying true to the daily discovery of his true, authentic self will make the pathway clear. “I have no idea what it’s going to be,” he says, “but Are You Open? untangled a path for me to get there.”
Capture your copy of Seth Walker’s Are You Open? at royalpotatofamily.com and follow his adventures on Facebook @sethwalkermusic.
Check out the video for “Inside,” a song off Walker’s latest album Are You Open?: