From Quaker to blues maker

Staff writerJune 11, 2010 

  • Who: Seth Walker

    When: 9:30 tonight

    Where: Papa Mojo's Roadhouse, 5410-Y N.C. 55, Durham

    Cost: $15

    Details: papamojosroadhouse.com or 361-2222

Seth Walker is a Texas bluesman who sounds as if he'd be just as comfortable playing a blues bar or a country dance hall - someone who could open for B.B. King one night and Lyle Lovett the next, and win over both crowds. You might think he grew up on soulful country-blues, hanging around clubs as a kid to pick up pointers from the old-timers. Which is not the case, at all.

Walker is 37, and he grew up playing classical cello. On a Quaker commune, no less, right here in North Carolina. He spent his wonder years from the mid-'70s to the late '80s on a farm near Altamahaw-Ossipee, in the vicinity of Burlington.

"My parents and another couple, Jim and Susan Walton, met at a Quaker retreat in the 1970s and decided to build a house together and live communally," Walker says by phone from Nashville. "So they built a log house out in the country. There were nine of us, four adults and five kids, and we all chipped in."

"It was a very open and loving situation," Walker says. "We were one big family, and there was always a lot of love in that house. There was always someone to look out for you, and someone to entertain. ... My parents aren't there anymore, and Jim Walton has passed. But Susan still lives there, and she's kept it the same. I still go back, and it hasn't changed. It's a special place for me."

Walker will get his next chance to visit this week when he plays Papa Mojo's Roadhouse in Durham, not too far down I-40 from the farm. And even though he was playing cello instead of guitar as a kid (at the behest of his classical-musician parents), Walker did take his first steps down the road toward Texas roadhouse blues on the farm, thanks to Jim Walton.

"My first influence as far as contemporary music was this Texas country he loved," Walker says. "Willie Nelson, Gary P. Nunn, Townes Van Zandt, Rodney Crowell, Guy Clark. That's what mostly spun on our player, especially Willie. It's in my DNA. So it's ironic that I wound up in Texas."

Before Walker moved to Austin (his primary residence since 1995), he passed a few years studying graphic design at East Carolina University. He'd given up cello by then, but answered the siren call of electric guitars in his dormitory.

Soon enough, Walker was also listening to Eric Clapton and Stevie Ray Vaughan, and learning guitar. Further education came from an uncle who was a blues deejay in Florida and sent Walker tapes of his shows, where Walker heard T-Bone Walker, Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown and other greats.

"I've had my hands on strings since I was a kid," Walker says. "So it was just a matter of developing my ear. I didn't have cello forced on me, but it was not my choice to play, either. Blues was something I was very passionate about learning."

He learned well enough to release a string of solid albums, including the current "Leap of Faith" (Hyena Records), which goes down classy and smooth. The album was something of a leap of faith - Walker's first with an outside producer, Gary Nicholson. Walker credits Nicholson for the overall level of polish and confidence on the album.

"He's a very accomplished writer and producer and performer, and we had this common thread of Texas blues," Walker says. "I first heard him at a club in Austin singing a song called 'Everything I Know About the Blues I Learned From You.' Something clicked, a lyrical element he had that I wanted to bring more to my music.

"So we set up a writing appointment," he continues. "It was natural enough that we fell right into making a record, too. So yeah, it was a leap - producer, bag of songs, new musicians. It's good to be scared. Makes you stand up straight."

david.menconi@newsobserver.com or blogs.newsobserver.com/beat or 919-829-4759

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