Some careers follow a beaten path to fame and fortune, but for others the road is rough and rocky, winding its way past brief success and disappointment. This has certainly been the case for Sammy Walker, who made his mark in the mid to late 1970s with a string of albums in the great tradition of Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan and Phil Ochs.
His 1975 debut for Folkways, Song for Patty, was followed by two albums for Warner Brothers, both produced by Nick Venet: Sammy Walker in 1976 and Blue Ridge Mountain Skyline in 1977. Recorded when he was in his early 20s, the songs show a surprisingly mature songwriter. They never indulge in the kind of self-absorbed introspection many of his contemporaries suffered from. Instead, they reveal a strong story-teller whose gritty and intimate voice keeps easy sentiment at bay.
Among other things, there are stories about an elderly lady’s lonely death while the city raves about a football game (“A Cold Pittsburgh Morning”); about Phil Ochs (“Legends”); about a husband and father branded for life (“East Colorado Dam”); and about a Kansas girl’s misguided attempt to make it in the movies: she ends up “in the back of some grey limousine” while the chorus cruelly reminds her that “the folks back in Kansas are all counting on you” (“Hollywood Sue”).
It’s therefore surprising that, after one more album for Folkways (Songs from Woody’s Pen), this promising new voice only re-appeared on scattered small-label releases. The most recent of these, 2008’s Misfit Scarecrow for Ramseur Records, is the most impressive. Maybe the timing was off. Certainly the late 1970s and 1980s weren’t as disposed to sincere and socially committed folk as earlier decades.
Rather than surmising what might be the reasons behind his stop-and-start career, however, we can hear the story straight from the horse’s mouth. Sammy Walker, now 61 and living in Hayesville, North Carolina, graciously agreed to an interview about his life and work …
KASPER NIJSEN: I’ve heard that you were initially discovered by the late, great Phil Ochs. How did you first get into his music?
SAMMY WALKER: Well, I grew up in the state of Georgia and listened to early rock ‘n’ roll in the ’50s. In my teenage years, I got into folk music. I got to like Dylan a lot. And that led me to different artists — Woody Guthrie, Phil Ochs, Tom Paxton, Pete Seeger. I started playing guitar when I was, 14, 15 years old. Then I started writing my own songs and performing around Atlanta a bit, and in different colleges in northern Georgia. I sent some home-made tapes out and they ended up with Bob Fass of WBAI Radio in New York City, and he started playing some of the songs on his radio program. He invited me to New York to be on his program, and that was in 1975. That’s how Phil heard me on the radio. I guess that was May 1975. He got me the contract and produced my first album. At first, Moe Asch of Folkways was skeptical because he wasn’t really producing any new artists at the time. It took Phil’s intervention to get him interested in doing it. Actually, it was Phil who got me a recording contract with Warner Brothers also.
KASPER NIJSEN: So, a year after your first recording sessions you were already signed to one of the big players. Was that a big step up from the Folkways album?
SAMMY WALKER: I guess it was. They searched for a producer and they sent demo tapes around to different producers, and Nick Venet wanted to do it. He put the musicians together, which were really great. Some of the best musicians, I think, at the time, especially on the West Coast. Jim Gordon played drums on all of the songs. Waddy Wachtel played guitar on two songs; then he had to leave to play on Arlo Guthrie’s album. Peter Jameson. Lyle Ritz. And Nick brought in James Burton to play dobro on “Catcher in the Rye.”
KASPER NIJSEN: Based on the novel by Salinger?
SAMMY WALKER: Yes. I read the book when I was 14 and again when I was 21. But I’m not a great reader or a particularly poetic person. (Chuckles.) I’m not like Dylan, who’d pore over poetry when he was young. He would read lots of different writers and he was influenced by all that. But I wasn’t. To me, it was always about the music more than anything else.
KASPER NIJSEN: Can I ask you how then you got to write the opening track of that album and one of my favorites: “Brown Eyed Georgia Darlin.'” Those are pretty poetic lyrics for someone who isn’t into poetry.
SAMMY WALKER: That one is special to me, because I don’t remember writing the song. It’s almost as if someone else wrote that song. I remember the night I wrote it but it’s as if someone else was holding the pen, guiding the words across the page. I don’t even remember thinking about it. But I always thought it was a great song — whoever wrote it!
KASPER NIJSEN: Musically, it’s in an open tuning right? There’s some pretty advanced finger-picking on your early albums. Where did you learn all that?
SAMMY WALKER: Yes, songs like “Brown-Eyed Georgia Darlin,'” “Catcher in the Rye” and songs on the first Folkways album are done in open G tuning with a capo. I picked that up mostly by experimenting on my own. This is the early 1970s; I don’t think a lot of people were doing it yet. Maybe some blues musicians and what not. A song like “Days I Left Behind” is in open E tuning. I wrote that song in 1971.
KASPER NIJSEN: So did Sammy Walker, with all those great musicians, become your big breakthrough?
SAMMY WALKER: No, things never really happened big for me. Some of the reviews were good. Robert Hilburn of The Los Angeles Times considered Sammy Walker one of the best debut albums of 1976. And I was compared to Bob Dylan and John Prine. The first time someone compared me to John Prine, I didn’t even know Prine’s music! But Dylan, yes, very much influenced by Bob Dylan when I was in my teens. I think that became a handicap for me, though. Even though I didn’t really sound like Dylan on my later records, people still remember. When you’re called a “Dylan imitator” or whatever, a lot of people don’t give you a chance.
KASPER NIJSEN: Still, a year after Sammy Walker, you recorded Blue Ridge Mountain Skyline for Warner Brothers, is that right?
SAMMY WALKER: Yes. At first, I didn’t have enough songs to do that album, because I expected the album before to do much better than it did. So for Blue Ridge Mountain Skyline, I had only four or five original songs, and we were on the last day of recording and we still needed two songs to finish the album. So in the hotel, the night before the last day of recording, I stayed up all night and wrote two songs: “Hollywood Sue” and “Legends.” “Legends” is the song about Phil Ochs, who died a year before. I’ve always been proud of that one.
KASPER NIJSEN: And that was the end as far as Warner Brothers was concerned? You left them after the second album?
SAMMY WALKER: Well, they left me! They dropped me from the label because the records didn’t sell enough. Then, in 1979 I did one more album, Songs from Woody’s Pen, for Folkways. I recorded the whole album in one morning, just me, my guitar and my harmonica. But I was never able to make a living playing music, so I had to do other work. I worked in a store, in a convenience store in upstate New York for 17 years. Did music on the side. My friend Adelmo Quadrio arranged a tour for me in the late 1980s in Italy and that’s where the Sammy Walker in Concert CD was recorded, at a concert in Italy. It did pretty good for an independent label. So in 1994, I recorded at a small home recording studio in upstate New York, and mailed the tapes to Brambus Records in Switzerland. That became Old Time Southern Dream.
KASPER NIJSEN: Alright, and then fourteen years later, in 2008, came your final album to date, Misfit Scarecrow. Have you been performing again after that was released?
SAMMY WALKER: Very few concerts, locally in North Carolina. I recorded Misfit Scarecrow for Ramseur Records; Dolph Ramseur was a friend who wanted to break into the music business, and I said to him, why don’t you start your own record label? And he did. He’s the manager now of the Avett Brothers. Have you heard of them? The Avett Brothers and Caroline Chocolate Drops. So that’s how Misfit Scarecrow, my latest album, came to be on that label.
KASPER NIJSEN: How do you see the future for the kind of socially committed, realistic songs people like Woody Guthrie, Phil Ochs and you yourself have written?
SAMMY WALKER: Well, I don’t think that those songs will ever be popular like they were before. Sometimes it seems a lot of people have forgotten to listen to the words to songs. I mean, the general listening public. I don’t know how many people today can still sit and listen to the words and contemplate what they’re hearing. But there’s always the exceptions, of course, who are influenced by that kind of music and do listen to music where the words are a big part of the song.
KASPER NIJSEN: And what do you think of the music industry today, with all the new means of buying and listening to music?
SAMMY WALKER: Well, I think, probably for something like me it is a good thing. Because without the internet and the new technologies, no one would be listening to my songs at all — because most of the albums are long out of print. There’s no money in it for me but I don’t care about that. I care more about the fact that today people do have the opportunity to hear the songs.
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