Based on his new self-titled album, you might expect Austin bluesman Seth Walker to have grown up in deepest Texas — sneaking off as a kid to hit the roadhouses and worship at the throne of Albert Collins, Lightnin’ Hopkins and other masters of electrified Texas blues. In fact, Walker’s background was a world away from that: He grew up playing classical cello in a Quaker commune near the town of Altamahaw-Ossipee, North Carolina.
“It was a groovy time, baby, 1972,” Walker says with a laugh, recalling his childhood. “My parents met another couple at a Quaker retreat, and they decided to build a house together out in the country. So they did, and nine of us lived together for thirteen years, which was amazing. The amount of love in that house was insane.”
Walker’s parents were both classical musicians, so he started playing cello at age 5, learning via the Suzuki method of ear-training. He stuck with cello for twelve years, until he went off to study graphic design at East Carolina University.
Once there, Walker’s curriculum changed drastically when he discovered some guys in his dormitory had an electric guitar. Walker used his book money to buy a guitar of his own, and he was on his way.
“I just picked it up. It was one of those things — it felt so natural,” Walker says. “My fingers had always been on strings since I was 5 years old, so I had an idea of how to get sounds and melody — and the great thing about the Suzuki method was the ear-training part, which taught me to learn songs that way instead of sight-reading. But I just loved the bluesy sounds, the way notes sounded when you bent them on a guitar. You could never bend a cello string.”
After a stretch playing with friends in North Carolina, Walker moved to Jacksonville, Florida, where his uncle (a jazz bassist) had a blues radio show. That was the early 1990s, and a few years later Walker was ready to move somewhere with a busier blues scene. He settled on Austin, and fell right in with the city’s blues crowd.
The late Austin club owner Clifford Antone took Walker under his wing, sometimes sitting in on bass when Walker played Antone’s. By then, Walker found his own style unexpectedly aligning with wider commercial trends.
“Based on listening to tapes my uncle gave me and researching stuff myself, I got into this style of uptown jump-blues that really suited me,” Walker says. “This was about ten years ago, when the swing thing hit, although I wasn’t really doing ‘swing.’ I was swinging the blues, T-Bone Walker rather than that ‘Zoot Suit Riot’ crap. But I started getting a lot of work, and that helped a lot.”
In the process, Walker found his identity — as a singer rather than as a guitarist. In a town full of guitar hotshots, Walker came to stand out because of his voice, a relaxed croon that sounds sort of like John Hiatt with honey sweetness instead of rough edges.
It’s a character-actor voice perfect for bringing songs to life — notably “2′ Left To The Ceiling” from his new disc (released in October on blues indie Hyena Records). A searing portrait of helplessly watching floodwaters rise, “Ceiling” was partly inspired by New Orleans refugees who wound up in Austin after Hurricane Katrina.
“I remember playing this juke joint over in East Austin, T.C.’s Lounge,” Walker says. “All these refugees from New Orleans had come in and they were telling stories. I remember sitting in the gravel parking lot one night, listening to these stories about what a nightmare that had been. Not long after, Mark Hays and I co-wrote that song. He had the hook and we just fleshed it out. It’s probably the most popular song on the album; people really respond to that one.”
Walker is in excellent voice throughout the record, whether gliding (“So Far Gone”), bouncing (“Kick It Around”) or bearing down (“Sun Down”). He sounds like he could do anything from big-band crooning to spry country blues. It’s a range that comes, paradoxically enough, from getting a better sense of focus.
“My two records before this, On The Outside and Restless, were both kind of sprawling creatively,” he says. “I was writing all the material, touching on all kinds of genres — folk, Latin, jazz, rock, blues, gospel, all on one album. I was trying to figure out kind of where I belonged with my voice and what I was trying to say. It’s only been the last two or three years when I’ve shifted more toward vocals and songwriting rather than guitar, and this album is the first one I think is unique enough to be different. But it has kind of a common thread that seems to resonate with people.
“Kind of a blues-soul trip, and people get it,” he concludes. “I’m starting to get it, too. Which is good, because if I don’t believe it then no one else will.”