Sammy Walker on the Career Question That He’s Pondered for Years and Why He Feels Lucky as Heck Today

July 19, 2016

Tell us about your tour vehicle.

The only touring I ever really did was in Europe and I traveled by train or rented car. In France Jacques Vassal drove me to each gig in his car.

How do you eat cheaply and/or healthy while on tour?

I was mostly invited to eat in the homes of people where I was playing. Always good and mostly healthy food offered.

How many strings do you break in a typical year? How much does it cost to replace them?

In over 40 years of performing I never broke a string on my guitar which was pretty amazing considering I used to change tunings up and down for every few songs. Just lucky I guess. I would usually put a new set of strings on after 3 or 4 gigs. Strings are still pretty reasonably priced.

Where do you rehearse?

I always liked to practice and rehearse in my little woodworking shop where I built a couple of nice guitars and a banjo. Good vibes and privacy there.

What was the title and a sample lyric from the first song that you wrote?

The first song I ever wrote was in 1970. It was called “Call Me Your Brother” and I think the first line went something like….” You say you’re looking for my kind of man, to pick up your hat and tend to your land… ” Kind of silly I guess, but it seemed like serious business when I was 17 or 18 years old.

Describe your first gig.

My first gig was at my high school variety talent show when I was 17. I played a Leonard Cohen song and did a duet with another girl of Pete Seeger’s “Where Have All The Flowers Gone”. My first so called “real” gig I guess was a few months later at a little folk club in Athens, Georgia called The Last Resort. The first night I made $18 with a pass the hat arrangement.

What was your last day job? What was your favorite day job?

Now retired, but my last day job was driving a truck for a local newspaper to have the papers printed up. My favorite day job was repairing stereos and turntables when I was about 20 years old for a shop in Doraville, Ga. called Fidelicom.

How has your music-related income changed over the past 5-10 years? What do you expect it to look like 5-10 years from now?

I never made much money at all with my music with gigs, records, or royalties and don’t expect that to change much, but I never started making music to make money in the first place. I just did it because it was what I loved to do.

What one thing do you know now that you had wished you knew when you started your career in music?

I suppose I might have tried to make my voice sound less like a young Bob Dylan when I cut my first couple of records even though it was basically the way my voice really sounded. I got beat up pretty badly by some powerful critics of the time for that. On the other hand, had I sounded differently, would anyone have paid any attention at all? A question I have pondered for years, but either way I am most grateful to have had the opportunity to have my songs heard in any way and I feel lucky as heck to live in a time where the internet has connected anyone and everyone and has given my old songs and records a chance to be heard by people who in the past would never have heard them.

For a guy whose musical moment rose and fell about as fast as a cloudburst, the story of folk singer-songwriter Sammy Walker’s career carries more twists than a tornado. The latest comes in the form of a April 8, 2016 Ramseur Records release titled Brown Eyed Georgia Darlin’.

One could call this vinyl LP and CD combo package a follow-up to his 2008 Ramseur album, Misfit Scarecrow — except that it predates that material by more than three decades. Recorded in the mid-1970s at New York’s famed Record Plant, Brown Eyed Georgia Darlin’ contains the previously unreleased demos that earned Walker a contract with Warner Bros. Records. How he got there — and from there to here — is one of those crazy music-biz tales that makes you wonder whether to laugh or cry.

A Georgia native now living in North Carolina, he recorded two albums in the 1970s for Moe Asch’s Folkways Records (now Smithsonian Folkways), and two more for Warner Bros. Renowned folkie Phil Ochs, who produced Walker’s first, 1975’s Broadside Ballads, Vol. 8: Song for Patty, championed his Dylan-meets-Arlo-and-Woody voice and formidable songsmithing skills to Warner head Mo Ostin even before the album’s release. After hearing these demos — during the Springsteen/Buckley/Wainwright/Prine era when every label was on the hunt for the next “new Dylan” — Ostin snapped him up.

Sadly, label-limbo realities set in before Walker recorded his second Warner release, Blue Ridge Mountain Skyline.  He returned from a European tour in 1987 to find that he had been dropped by the label.  He tried to find another home, but even smaller labels wouldn’t sign someone who didn’t move units on a major label.

In 1996, Walker and his wife moved from the Catskills in New York to North Carolina so that Walker could care for his mother. Three years later, Dolph Ramseur called. “He said he knew my music and he asked me to play at his 30th birthday party. And we became friends.”
Ramseur wasn’t yet involved in the music business, but was interested in breaking in, and asked if Walker had any music nobody had heard. He got the demo tapes.

A year later, Ramseur Records was born — and rapidly built success with the Avett Brothers and other artists. Misfit Scarecrow followed. And now, a year after Walker started collecting Social Security, comes the release that should have launched a bigger career.

Arthritis has ended his playing days, but the music lives — and with Brown Eyed Georgia Darlin’, Sammy Walker is about to be discovered all over again.