Sammy Walker is decidedly content for a man who, forty years ago, nearly had it all.
Walker had two records out on a major label and his work drew comparisons with the likes of Bob Dylan and Woody Guthrie. And then, things changed. His label and the whimsy of the fickle listening public shifted their attentions away from folk music and towards disco and pop in the mid-seventies and, suddenly, Sammy Walker’s music wasn’t drawing much attention anymore and he found himself without a record deal.
Fast forward some twenty years. Walker moved to North Carolina to care for his wife’s mother in 1996, his music career seemingly a thing of the past. Walker soon crossed paths with Dolph Ramseur, who would later found Ramseur Records and play an instrumental role in sending The Avett Brothers to greatness. Ramseur was a fan of his music and asked Walker to play his thirtieth birthday party. Thus began a nearly two decade friendship and another record from Walker, 2008’s Misfit Scarecrow.
This month, Ramseur Records released Brown Eyed Georgia Darlin’, a collection of songs and demos Walker recorded forty years ago.
This record, which should have sparked a keen interest in Walker’s music, shall now – four decades later – lead new listeners back to one of Americana’s unsung folk heroes.
I chatted this week with Sammy Walker about his music, the past, and what the release of this record could mean for him.
BRO – Can you describe how you felt when you held your first very own guitar and began your musical journey?
SW – We had guitars around the house since I was a little kid. I had a small one when I was four or five years old, but I had never really learned to play. I got my first real guitar at Christmas when I was thirteen. My mom and dad sent me for guitar lessons at a little music store, but that only lasted about a year, because I broke my hand playing baseball. But I had always loved music. From the time I was really little, I would spend hours and hours listening to records. Early rock and roll, country, and pop music. When I finally learned to a few chords a could play a little bit, it was really exciting to me. I just kept at it all through my life.
BRO – How important has Dolph Ramseur been to you and your music in recent years?
SW – I made my first record in 1975 and by 1979 had made three more. I didn’t have record another until 1990. That was a long hiatus and I wasn’t doing much musically. But Dolph had gotten his hands on my records. The first time he heard me, he was in a record store in Winston-Salem. He knew the guy who ran the store, and the guy told him that he had a record Dolph needed to hear. It was the first record I had cut for Warner Brothers. The guy played some and Dolph really fell for it. It was the kind of music he liked it and the guy gave him the record. He didn’t even make him pay for it. I’m not sure he got my number, but he called me in 1999 and told me he had my records and asked me if I would be interested in playing at his 30th birthday party. I did, and we have been friends for seventeen years. Dolph credits me with giving him a push into the music business. He was interested in starting his own company and I told him he should do it. And he did. For me, this is my second record that he has put out. He is doing it for me, not for commercial success, and I am lucky to have gotten to know him.
BRO – You ever spend time thinking on what might have been?
SW – I used to. I recorded my first record for Warner Brothers forty years ago, in May of 1976. When things didn’t develop and take off the way I thought they were going to, it was kind of depressing for a long time. That album, I think, just didn’t get the attention it should have. It got good reviews, and I recorded with some of the best musicians in the world, like James Burton, who played guitar with Elvis Presley. I think it should have gotten a heck of lot more attention than it did. My second record with Warner Brothers was also really good. One guy wrote that there was a perfect storm of things that went wrong for me. But I don’t dwell on it anymore. I am grateful for having the opportunity to do it and I am happy my old music is getting attention now.
BRO – Now that Brown Eyed Georgia Darlin’ has been released, is there a sense that the circle is now complete, or do you see this as a new beginning?
SW – Time will tell if it garners new attention or not. I recorded these songs forty years ago, and almost all of them ended up on my first record for Warner Brothers. But then the music scene changed. I have been away from it all for so long, but maybe now there will be some interest from a younger generation of fans that will like it. I hope it is a new beginning.
Sadly, Sammy Walker isn’t performing live anymore. Don’t let that stop you from delving into his catalog, though. Check out Spotify for his entire collection of records, and then make your way to your favorite local record shop. If you’re lucky, you might come across Blue Ridge Mountain Skyline or his eponymous debut on vinyl. Either record would be a musical journey well worth the time, and, like Dolph Ramseur, you might catch the store owner feeling particularly generous.
And be sure to check out “Brown Eyed Georgia Darlin'” on this month’s Trail Mix.