by Sean Jewell::
I don’t know what I expected from the new Barry Walker Jr. record, looking back, but he surprised the hell out of me, and I’m so thankful his new self-titled record –his first in five years– got made. It’s a collection of recordings made between 2008 and 2015 in travels all over the Northwest and as far as places like Kentucky and Alabama.
The master of all things stringed first caught my ear playing pedal steel in apocalyptic-country outfit Roselit Bone. Walker’s contributions are classic Lloyd “Nasvhille Sound” Green style heart melters that lull you into comfort as Roselit Bone moves into your mind. As a solo artist Walker put together Barry Walker Jr and The Tanks and has stomped out a few records worth of songs reminiscent of Levon Helm and Robbie Robertson’s best work together in The Band. His 2012 album Banjo Knife, strikes like a rattlesnake, an instrumental spectrum of banjo music from traditional mountain music to electrified banjo, to banjo ragas.
On the last Tanks record there is a live cover of “White Freightliner Blues”, perhaps the most in-pocket Townes Van Zandt jam every country-leaning band must know. This is pertinent not because Walker knows and plays it (and play it he does, like his 18-wheeler is runaway down a twisting mountain road), but because his sound -vocally and conceptually is close to Van Zandt’s. Walker’s prophetic, mysterious lyrics often seem like homages to country music’s most looming specter. Unlike Van Zandt, whose work seeped like freshwater springs from the deserts of his life, oozing determinedly into tributaries, then estuaries, and eventually the larger body of country music, Walker seems centered as a person. There’s an enlightened calm about him even from afar. Seated behind a pedal steel pealing licks, or on the acoustic guitar singing softly he has the presence of a guru rather than a wiry country drifter.
Barry Walker Jr opens as if midstream on a Fred Rose classic “Waltz of The Wind” a country-gospel tune made popular by Hank Williams. Walker plays it as Rose did, alone on acoustic guitar. It’s a live field recording that gains emphasis from the stridulation of crickets and a lo-fi hiss. Apropos of nothing the very next track “For Willy”, is over three minutes of musique concrete –what sounds like prepared electric guitar. Notes glimmer, chirp, and wave creating a relaxing, if foreboding, soundscape. Walker moves on to folk-proper on “Take Your Letters Home” played on acoustic, backed by soft keys. Valerie Osterberg contributes on flute to the wistful, hopeful track. A full band joins on “Too Late”. Over a honky-tonk beat led by acoustic guitar and pedal steel Walker sings “if there’s a mind that could change, then it’s mind, and I’ve changed it for you”, on a song you could two-step to. “Jordan Of The Rocks” is another finger picked folk number and here the softness of Walker’s gentle, deep voice shines. He hits high notes without trembling “so he buys him a shotgun for six hundred dollars / he buys him a pack of dogs and their collars / he sings for the steel and the cage and the hollers / the song that he sings in covered in gold…”
By now you’re either entranced, or confused, or disoriented, and –if you love music at at all, in love. Walker has covered about a hundred years of music, so he just keeps drifting. “The Boxer’s Omen” is two minutes of distorted electric riffs and driving drums and cymbal crashes. “Skintology” is a jangly instrumental filled with minor, crystalline riffs, backed by a field recording of a southern night, and pleasant country fiddle.
“Black Shit Blues” is a deceptively titled yacht rocker that fights the tide of awful the world can sometimes be. Easy going Hawaiian steel slathers over reverberating drums. About the song Walker says simply “not head in the sand, but toes in the sand, when you can.”
“Up on Johnson Creek” is a short, meditative resonator slide and steel guitar piece that leads into “Death (Everywhere I Look)” a song inspired by Walker’s time in Seattle post Cafe Racer shooting tragedy. Walker’s haunting voice and acoustic guitar is punctuated by Osterburg’s flute and a full band joining after the first verse. Walker sings “You can set your mind at ease with candles wrapped in scripture freeze and bottles of the finest outdoor oil / so go on darlin grab his hand he’ll take you to the promised land / when you wake up then you’ll see that death has brought you there, to me” as guitars of all kinds dance over field recordings.
The album concludes on “Checking In With Bernard”, a combination of all the strengths presented before: Walker’s mysterious lyrics, “Bernard caught me chewin on cactus, red-handed red face and red eyed / he gave me your number and patted my head, now I’m the one fillin his cup / Bernard you can’t see it comin’ / you work like a dog all day long / you’re settin yourself in a tight situation / your arms and your legs are all wrong”, over a gorgeous country-chord progression, on acoustic guitar, complimented by the light hiss of a field recorder.
What we get from Barry Walker Jr is an extremely rare album that is as country as it is psychedelic, and as experimental as it is folk (what’s in that Northwest water?). At points the line blurs between studio work and handheld recorder sounds. For me the album forms a heretofore non-existent venn diagram of acousmatic and country music, but Walker notes that much of his inspiration for the album comes from late 50s exotica albums by masters like Les Baxter, Arthur Lyman, and Elisabeth Waldo. The lasting works of American roots music are those that stem from a scientific gathering of field recordings, attempts at understanding of culture with physical (often musical) participation, and personal exploration of artistic limits, that blossom or amalgamate into something new. Aside from being an astounding sonic expression, Barry Walker Jr’s self-titled album is also an expression of entropy. The music on this album sounds both like natural decay, and organic growth. Like Walker’s entire catalogue, over time this album’s experimental combinations of found and studio-made sounds, with both traditional and cryptic lyrics, will allow it to constantly change, grow, and realize new states of being.