Seth Walker's 2009 album Leap of Faith was one of the year's more interesting Americana albums, because its notion of roots music drew not just from the country-folk tradition but from blues and R&B as well. It boasted the songwriting craftsmanship you expect from the Americana field, plus the syncopated groove you don't. It harkened back to records by everyone from Ray Charles and Willie Nelson to Little Feat and the Blasters, for whom alt-country wasn't so much a fusion of hillbilly and indie-rock but a blend of honky-tonk and soul.
Walker had been a bluesman based in Austin for 15 years when he released Leap of Faith. In that Texas city, the disciples of Stevie Ray Vaughan's blues-guitar slinging rub elbows with the apostles of Townes Van Zandt's lyric scribbling, and Walker became a "student of the song," in his words. He knew that the era between the mid-'40s and mid-'60s had boasted bluesmen such as Percy Mayfield, Willie Dixon and Mose Allison, who penned dark, sophisticated lyrics, but in the '90s and '00s, the blues seemed to be all about hyper-fast, trebly guitar solos and bellowed choruses about drinking and partying.
"I don't know why the words get left behind," Walker says. "Those guys you mention all wrote brilliant lyrics, but these days you don't hear that so much. Today the blues are guitar-driven, but I wanted to do blues that were as lyric-oriented and as well-crafted as the songs I was hearing by Nick Lowe, John Hiatt and Tom Waits. Then one night I saw Gary Nicholson at the Saxon Pub in Austin, and he played this song, 'Everything I Know About the Blues (I Learned from You).' I said to myself, 'That's what I've been looking for,' so I started digging into his material and found he has, like, 4,000 hits or something."
Walker made a songwriting appointment with Nicholson, and almost immediately the two wrote "Rewind," which appears on Leap of Faith. Soon Walker was commuting to Nashville to co-write with Nicholson and to cut the album with Nicholson as producer. The disc's two cover tunes — Mayfield's "Memory Pain" and Lowe's "Lately I've Let Things Slide" — are a good indication of the country-R&B fusion the singer and the producer were after. They got it on the 12-bar rocker "Something Fast," which features a guest vocal from Nicholson's longtime collaborator Delbert McClinton, the epitome of a bluesy honky-tonker. They got it on "Falling Out of Love with You," an organ-drenched slow blues of heartbroken confession. They got it on the title track, a finger-snapping, horn-backed, jump-blues ode to optimism.
"There's definitely a country element in Leap of Faith," Walker acknowledges. "Ray Charles always talks about the story of the song; he wants to get a story across. Country is good at painting a picture of the story, and blues is good at expressing the feeling behind the story. Blending those two — leaving the listener with both a picture and a feeling — is something I'm aspiring to do, the way Ray and Willie have — the way Gary has.
The album was released last March, and Walker was so taken by the leap forward it represented that he packed up and moved to Nashville on Dec. 15. He wanted to be closer to his mom in Asheville, N.C., and nearer to his tour stops in the Northeast. But he also wanted to get out of the comfort zone that Texas represented and to test himself against a new challenge.
"Austin has the country's best live-music scene — a lot more venues and a lot more people who come out and support it," he admits. "It's its own little world with its own life support system, and it allowed me to learn my craft. That laid-back, show-up-at-the-gig-two-minutes-before-the-show approach is part of Austin's charm. But the Nashville work ethic is something that inspires me. The level of musicianship is very high, because if you don't get it together there's a guy next door who's going to take your gig. This is my career, and here I can treat it like that."
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