“Sometimes you have to remind yourself why you started something in the first place,” muses Seth Walker. On his stellar new album, ‘Gotta Get Back’ due out September 2nd, he does precisely that, excavating the roots of his love affair with music and reuniting with the family that helped spark the fire all those years ago. The record is as remarkable as the story behind it, which stretches from Walker’s childhood living on a commune in North Carolina to stints in Austin, Nashville, New York and New Orleans.
Produced by The Wood Brothers’ drummer and keyboardist Jano Rix, ‘Gotta Get Back’ is the ninth release in Walker’s extensive catalog, which has garnered critical acclaim around the world for nearly two decades. NPR hailed his “hard-driving” songs and “sweet tenor,” while the Washington Post praised his “soulful croon,” and the Wall Street Journal fell for his “tasty mix of blues and R&B.” He cracked the Top 20 on the Americana Chart and toured the world countless times over, from festival stages to dates with The Mavericks, The Wood Brothers, Raul Malo, Paul Thorn and Ruthie Foster, among others.
When it came time to record ‘Gotta Get Back,’ though, Walker was caught up in the elusive dance with the muse, fatigue of the road, and the slippery slope & inevitable collision of art and business. In search of inspiration and rejuvenation, he turned to the people that taught him the joys of making music in the first place: his family.
“My whole family was very musically and artistically inclined, and it goes back generations” explains Walker. “My grandfather was in the Navy band and served in WWII aboard the USS Hornet aircraft carrier in the South Pacific. He later became a band and choir director, and got my father into music, who now teaches cello and Irish fiddle. My mother also came from an amazingly broad minded, forward-thinking family that encouraged the arts and and she became a violinist and talented artist. A sense of expression was coming from all sides”
From an early age, Walker and his sister trained on cello and violin, but they were exposed to a wide variety of musical influences living communally with another family.
“There were nine of us living in this log house together,” says Walker, “and the father of the other family that we lived with loved Texas country music such as Willie Nelson, Jerry Jeff Walker and Guy Clark. The honesty of that music unknowingly left a real mark on me.”
One of Walker’s uncles is an accomplished jazz bassist who hosted a blues radio show in Jacksonville, Florida. Each week he would faithfully send the young budding musician cassette tapes of the broadcasts, exposing him to legends T-Bone Walker, Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown, Son House, and Lightnin’ Hopkins, to mention a few. Another uncle is an incredible luthier with Moriah Guitarworks, and Walker recruited him to build a custom acoustic guitar for the ‘Gotta Get Back’ sessions.
Keeping it all in the family was a priority, so while much of the album was recorded at Zac Brown’s Southern Ground studio in Nashville, Walker gathered his sister along with his parents, who had been divorced for 20 years, back in North Carolina to record the album’s beautiful, sweeping string parts, all of which were arranged by his father.
“I wanted to see if we could throw our worlds together,” says Walker, “so I sent my dad the new music along with some Al Green, Louis Armstrong, old Ray Charles and Nelson Riddle string arrangements to check out. He sent me back parts for these new songs that were so beautiful, and then we were off to the races. The family and I got together along with some friends in Chapel Hill for these sessions and it was an amazing experience that really brought us a lot closer. It was very special to me for them to be able to put everything else aside so we could play music together for the first time in many years. A dream come true. We had the strings set up in a semi-circle and I was right there with them singing and playing guitar. It about brought a tear to this old boy’s eye.”
‘Gotta Get Back’ opens up with the funky “High Time,” a song co-written with longtime collaborator Gary Nicholson and referencing Walker’s newly adopted home of New Orleans. The city proved to be a fount of inspiration for Walker, who penned a number of songs on the album there, including the swampy “Fire In The Belly” and Caribbean-influenced “Dreamer.”
“I lived in Austin for 15 years, and as I got more into songwriting, I was led me to music hub of Nashville. But ultimately, the raw, inspired, blues and jazz of the southland called me to New Orleans,” explains Walker. “The city is just so perfectly crooked. It’s kind of unhinged down there, there’s not much calculation, and that can be a really good thing as an artist to help you get that looseness back. I think I unlearned some things in a good way there.”
Stylistically, the album is as eclectic as anything Walker’s recorded. On “Back Around,” a collaboration with Oliver Wood, he channels his love of classic gospel, while “Movin’ On” blends elements of country, soul, and Paul Simon-esque folk. “Way Past Midnight” utilizes dual drummers to capture the buzz of and excitement of his first trips to New York City. As varied as the music gets, though, it never feels scattered, and Walker is quick to credit those around him in the studio for helping to connect all the dots between the album’s moments of delicate intimacy and fierce funkiness.
“Jano, as producer, has a gift of allowing music to ‘unfold,’ and it’s a beautiful thing,” says Walker. “It’s a mysterious, elusive endeavor. It’s kind of like holding a bird in your hand: not too loose and not too tight. We covered some ground stylistically with this album, and his sense of sound, vibe, and composition was paramount in making it cohesive, as was our engineer, Mike Poole. He’s all about capturing a performance and understanding the balance of musicality, sonic fidelity and unpolished, undeniable grease.”
While travel and movement are recurring themes throughout the record, the heart and soul of the album lay in the idea of home and family, of looking to the past in order to find your way into the future. Facing doubt and uncertain of his next steps, Walker was able to dig deep and find his way by reconnecting with the place in which he grew up with the loved ones who ultimately set him on his life’s path.
“My family always encouraged me, from my childhood, to the early dive bars, to the open mic days (when I’m sure they had their doubts), to where the journey has taken me now,” reflects Walker. “They have been the engine and inspiration that drives me to continue this zany beautiful life of music. I think that the communal feeling of making this record with these people takes me back to my early roots in North Carolina. We all gotta take our turn tending to the garden.”
Or as Walker sings on the title track, “I’ve gotta get back / Before I can move ahead,” and he does both here with startling beauty and striking sophistication.