TFA: You kind of appeared on the scene fairly recently but you’ve been around for a long time. Tell us a little about your background and what you’ve been up to since we’ve heard from you.
Walker: Well, you’re right. I have been around. In fact, I’ve been around a few times more than I care to remember. I’ve been writing and playing and doing some recording for years. I disappear some, but mostly I’ve been around.
TFA: You’re notoriously elusive …
Walker: Well, yeah. I mean, I like to say fugitive. Not as in a fugitive, but, you know, fleeting, or transient. For years I was playing that donut shop circuit: Donut Boy, Winchell’s, Shipley’s, Spud Nut all those great little spots. They got a lot of live music, but it’s all real early in those places. I’d play like three o’ clock in the morning, you know, seven days a week. Really working, but there’s not a big crowd at that time of day.
TFA: Some of those places don’t typically open up till around five. Did you play with a band then or were you playing solo?
Walker: Oh no, I’m playing alone. Me and this guitar. I haven’t really played with a band for years. When you’re moving like that you’ve got to travel light. I’m basically riding my guitar and my thumb wherever I go.
TFA: Speaking of that guitar, tell us a little bit about that.
Walker: That’s an old Telleno. It’s like a mail order guitar from about the early 70’s I think.
TFA: Well, it’s got more than just a little patina on it.
Walker: Not really a patina. It’s just beat. Willie Nelson has got that legendary guitar, Trigger. Maybe that’s a patina. A real patina. But that’s all class, man. His guitar is an old Martin, a 1969 Martin N-20 I think it is. Elegant. And Willie, he’s made ART with that, for 50 years! Like, respectable. This Telleno doesn’t have any of Trigger’s pedigree. It started out mail order and went down from there. It’s been this-and-thated on. Big time. You know, till it looks like it’s been drug behind the car and not even trying to keep up.
TFA: And you got the guitar from Whatnot originally?
Walker: Yeah. I met him on the road a number of years ago. He’s an old bluesman. A classic bluesman. But at the same time he’s not at all like any bluesman you’ve ever known. He’s kind of a country. But it’s the attitude more than all that, more than anything. And he used to play this guitar. He played it the same way, and it looked just about like it does now too. He like to wore it out, but it sounds good. Sounded good when he played it. I got it dressed like he used to, with five strings. Folks ask me, like, what happened to the other string? And I never could know why anyone would need two E strings anyway. We used to laugh about that. He’s the same way. Five strings. It’s got a different sound and, you know. I use it just about like he did, kind of like a rhythm box shuckin’ and thumpin’ that way. It’s got that little pencil stub for a nut. Nothing sounds like it.
TFA: You do his Four Fifteen Blues. That’s an old Whatnot song with a nice feel. You do it close to his original but you – well, why don’t you play it? Would you play it for us?
Walker: Yeah, yeah. (tuning)
TFA: So, you’ve got some miles…
Walker: Lotta miles. Lotta miles. I’ve got a ride now, I’ve got a Ford.
TFA: You’re driving…
‘Walker: I’ve got a Ford. But they won’t give me a license. They won’t give me a driving license in the State of Texas. They’re afraid I might vote.
TFA: So I wanted to ask you a little bit more about your early years and other influences. You’ve got some interesting stories about your younger days. There’s a story about Corsicana and your name and how you got it.
Walker: Well my mama she didn’t give me that name, Rope Walker. It was a whole other name she gave to me. She didn’t understand it at first when folks started in to calling me “Rope”. I don’t know why they did, I really don’t. But they did and it just stuck. And she got used to it and all. But she still doesn’t call me Rope.
TFA: There’s a story about an actual tight rope walker.
Walker: This is way back like 1890’s or something. [Editor’s note: The story of Corsicana’s rope walker and the mystery surrounding the walker’s identity can be found here. ] Back then there’s this big old deal downtown with these businesses and promotion. And part of the festivities is they bring in this tight rope walker. But he’s not just a regular tight rope walker. He’s only got one leg! So he’s only got the one leg and they string up a line downtown across the main street on Beaton, and not only that but the guy’s going to carry a big old iron stove on his back across this line. It’s just crazy. They’ve got all the people of the town down there and the guy’s walking across and, Bam! Sure enough he falls off and that big old stove just crushes the guy! And so he’s dying right there in the street. The guy’s dying. And it’s his last words, and they’re all gathered around and he says that he wants to be buried with his people. The guy’s Jewish and he says he wants to be buried with his people, the Jews. But he dies before he can tell them his name or where he’s from or who’s his family. He dies. And so they bury this one-legged guy up in the Jewish cemetery there in Corsicana. True story. There’s a big tombstone on his grave, a head stone and all it says is, like, “Rope Walker”.
TFA: That is just one of those weird stories you hear from around Texas, all these small towns. And somehow you just started to be called by that?
Walker: I played guitar when I was real young, or if I didn’t have a guitar I’d play whatever I had, but I loved those country singers. Countuhry. That’s how we said it. Three syllables all drawn out. I loved all of that and I was always acting it out, playing that cont-uh-ry star. I guess Rope Walker sounded like a real star’s name. They were probably just making fun of me all that time but I didn’t mind. I was livin’ it! I was just a kid, but I was livin’ it.
TFA: Have you visited the grave site there?
Walker: Yeah, I’ve seen it. It’s kind of strange, you know, seeing your name right there, right across of that old rock.
TFA: Lefty Frizzell was born in Corsicana and Billy Joe Shaver.
Walker: I was pretty young when Lefty passed on and of course in them days you had no way of knowing those things. I know I didn’t find out he had died for several years. He was always around though because of all the older folks, they all knew his music and they loved those old records. So I heard it. But he was older. Everybody knew it, you grew up with it but it was kind of older. Like Bob Wills. It’s everywhere, but at the time you were waiting to hear something new. Now Billy Joe Shaver, I didn’t listen to him until the eighties. Except for that Waylon record. But he was out of Corsicana early and I wasn’t listening to his kind of deal till later. I like him though. [sings] “I’ve been to Georgia on a fast train honey, I wudn’t born no yesterday…”
TFA: Who were some of the other early influences on you? Who were you listening to when you were starting out?
Walker: Man, everybody. I remember listening to a lot of Ernest Tubb and Hank Snow, just because we had those records, and I always really liked Haggard’s stuff from the 70’s. But back then you listened to what was on that AM radio and it was full of all kinds of stuff and all mixed in together. You could hear Clapton doing a J.J. Cale tune and next you’d get Charley Pride, then the Captain and Tennille, then maybe Stairway to Heaven, Elton John, Olivia Newton John, John Lennon, Johnny Horton, Johnny Winter, Johnny Don’t Be A Hero. Then Freddy Fender. And that’s just the Top Forty local station. In the early 70’s you could tune into those border blaster stations at night and you’d really get to hearing it. That was a big old bowl of spicy mixed up everything chili that’s gonna set your ears on fire! So we all didn’t pick and choose, you know, when we were younger. It was whatever came on, that was what you’d listen to. Some stuff you liked and some stuff you hated but it all got into your head. Just music.
TFA: I think it was Billy Don’t be a Hero.
TFA: I know what you mean though. That was before playlists, even before mix tapes.
Walker: Before all of that. You had to work hard at it if you were at all particular about your music. First you had to scrape up the money for buying that record. Then you had to get up every couple minutes and go set the damn thing up again, drop the needle real careful onto the exact track, let it play, and then get up again. Juke boxes you got to pick, but then you’d have to listen to somebody else’s unfortunate choices as well. The thing about listening to the radio, not having any say on what’s coming up next, is when it finally did hit on that one song, that new one you’d heard and just started loving, when that first few bars came on, Man! Turn it up! Turn it up! I don’t know if there’s anything like that today.
TFA: Live music maybe. Waiting for the band to play your favorite song.
Walker: Maybe. Waitin’. So it wasn’t only country radio when I was coming up. Just mostly. Funny thing is, when I was just about that age where you’re stretching out and looking for something new that’s just yours, I heard a song that brought it all back home for me. Funnier thing is, it was a Stones song. I was driving and onto my radio comes “Far Away Eyes”. Man, I’ll tell you. I don’t know what Jagger was doin’ there and if they were just funnin’ on that sound but I know what it did for me. Ronnie Woods on that slide and, of course Keith just loves that kind of honky blues it put me right back in the country. I been playing at it since. The Stones!
TFA: So, what about now? What are you listening to now? Now that you have a choice? It’s all much more broad in terms of the incredible mix of what’s available with the number of stations, the ease of getting music on the internet, the crazy multiplication of genres and sub genres.
Walker: Country Music Radio hasn’t really changed. I mean the music is different, obviously, but the number of songs and the rotation is narrow just like back then, back whenever. I don’t listen to it. You know they’ve been saying it for years, but what they call Country today…
TFA: They have been saying it for years.
Walker: But it ain’t Country. It really ain’t. You’ll hear all these younger stars say, you know, Merle Haggard this, George Jones that, or Hank Jr. But it doesn’t sound like they’ve ever given that stuff a real listen. Like it’s all name dropping. What they ought to be saying is Jon Bon Jovi and Axl Rose and, like Whitesnake or something. To me it just sounds like regrettable 1980s music. But with tractors and twang.
TFA: Tractors and twang.
Walker: And girls with their feet on the dashboard, right?
Really it’s a matter of scale. Today it’s all scaled big and full and loud. The mix is “all up” and everything sounds like it’s designed to make it to the arena. They might start out some song or other slow with some acoustic guitar or a fiddle but then it’ll always jump to big and all power-pop-balladry and guitar solos from 30 years ago. So its about scale. Country Western music started with a sound that was scaled small, scaled to the front porch or the kitchen. Cowboy music was all campfire and bunkhouse. That hillbilly music was close in. Then it went to bars and honky-tonks and that particular music is also scaled to a certain size. It’s a little a bigger sound and made for folks dancing. They got that sound onto records with electric guitars and drums but it was all made for a room, to fill up a room. Well, now it ain’t a room anymore. What they’re shooting for is an arena or a stadium. The sound is huge like those big old TV’s they got up there to see the performer who’s so small on that flashing stage. The scale is off.
TFA: Play us another song, will you? Scale it small if you like.
Walker: This is called “Something For Nothing”
TFA: You aren’t working in any one style, I mean, your brand covers a lot of cows! But at the same time it’s unmistakable. It’s clear that it’s you.
Walker: Yeah, it does. It’s a whole lotta strays gathered up I suppose. I don’t set out to make them different or make them all the same, they sort of decide that for themselves. Once they settled in with me for a bit I start to mark them as mine. Brand ’em. Their sameness and their difference comes from the same place. It’s all on account of I don’t have a fancy guitar and I don’t play guitar all that fancy either. I’m not a picker. Never have been. I use the guitar as a rhythm instrument.
There’s an old cowboy singer and collector of cowboy songs from way back name of Otto Gray. He said that there’s only three rhythms for any bona fide western song. All three of these rhythms came from the swing of the cowboy’s pony goin’ along. There’s the walk, the trot, and the canter, or gallop if it’s a little faster.
TFA: So, like a slow four? A swinging three, and a faster… what?
Walker: I’m not sure. That canter’s like a quick three and a pause. A rest. [raps his knuckles on the chair in a quick cadence] Like dud-dle unt… dud-dle unt… So, if it’s a long rest it’s a … well, I don’t know. I just know what I took from it was, that there’s just a limited amount of rhythms to western music. I love those rhythms, but I can’ write every damn song using them if I’m not going to fancy them up with some nice guitar work. Instead I look at different rhythms that can end up becoming the basis for a song. I look at blues songs, I look at a Latin rhythm, or some kind of beat from a pop song structure, or a shuffle. Whatever. Sometimes I’ll just make a rhythm of my own. And then I build a melody and a song on the beat.
TFA: Give us an example of a rhythm you use.
Walker: I’ll play you one. I’ll play you a straight waltz time cowboy song. Maybe you’ll see that it’ll be different from them others but the same.
TFA: That’s a fitting song to take us out of here, right. It’s been a real pleasure speaking with you today. And thanks so much for dropping by our studio and visiting and playing us a couple of your songs. Tell us where we can find you next or what you’ll be working on.
Walker: I’ve got some things I’m working on. I’m not real sure how you’ll find me. I guess you’ll know it when you did though. I’ll be looking for y’all. So, good. Thanks.