Trail Mix: Homeward Bound

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Throughout his career, bluesy songsmith Seth Walker has lived in some of America’s most musical cities: Austin, Nashville, and, currently, New Orleans. But to make his new album, the September-released Gotta Get Back, he decided to revisit the influence of his youth growing up in the piedmont region of North Carolina.

Walker was raised on a commune just north of Greensboro. His parents were classical violin teachers, who taught him his first instrument, the cello. But with his mom, dad, and sister, he shared a log home with another family, who also introduced him to the great Texas troubadours like Willie Nelson and Guy Clark. Add in the blues guitar Walker started playing as a student at East Carolina University and it’s easy to understand how he developed a broad roots-based sound as he moved around the South.

Family, though, is at the heart of his new album. While writing the songs for Gotta Get Back, his ninth album, Walker played his dad early sketches of the tunes and asked him to arrange string parts. Then after initial recording at Zac Brown’s Southern Ground studio in Nashville, Walker gathered his parents and sister back in North Carolina to add layers to the album at a studio in Chapel Hill. The bond is felt strongest on “Back Again,” a clap-along gospel number so smoothly unified it makes it hard to believe Walker and his family hadn’t played music together in 20 years, when his parents separated.

“Getting my family involved made it complete,” Walker said of the recording. “We just put the past aside and played music. It was heavy, but beautiful.”

That redemptive spirit lingers throughout most of the new album, which was produced by Jano Rix, Wood Brothers’ drummer and keyboardist. Walker looks to the future through an airy folk-rock groove in “Movin’ On” and sings with hearty optimism in “Turn This Thing Around.”

In the title track he sings,” I’ve gotta get back, before I can move ahead.” The album started coming together when Walker was living in Nashville, and he found himself writing songs to potentially impress the Music Row establishment, which ultimately left him feeling creatively compromised. Now recording for the independent label Royal Potato Family, whose roster includes fellow adventurous artists like Garage A Trois, Marco Benevento, and underground jazz legend Steven Bernstein, Walker feels rejuvenated after recently reuniting with family and digging into his musical roots.

“I was feeling the teeth of the music business machine, and it was rubbing me wrong,” he said. “I felt like I was calculating my music a little bit, so I made a conscious effort to get back to the reasons why I started doing this in the first place.”

Walker will mostly be living in his van throughout the rest of the fall, as he zig-zags around the Midwest, Mid-Atlantic, and Southeast. When he’s off the road, he now hangs his fedora in New Orleans. The new album track “Fire in the Belly,” a gritty, Meters-style funk tune that shows another side of an artist who—after some self-reflection—seems to be in the right place.

“People down here eat, sleep, and breathe music,” Walker says of his new home. “It’s a syncopated city. Just being here is definitely influencing my songs.”

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