Austin’s staggering growth over the past decade has brought about plenty of changes — and that includes to our music community, which has more people with money invested in it than ever before.
That hasn’t necessarily trickled down to paying dividends to the musicians themselves, which leaves Austin as something of a town without a map: Are we a big-money industry town, or are we a place for hardworking guitarists, DJs and all shades in between to hone their craft before taking off for a place where there’s a better chance to make a living as a musician?
When trying to determine the answer to that question, it’s useful to look both to people who’ve made a living as musicians in Austin and to those who’ve taken off to industry towns. Seth Walker, whose new album, Time Can Change, is out June 19, has done both.
CultureMap caught up with Walker to talk about his new life in Nashville, what it’s like to learn that your landlord produced Johnny Cash, and how that city is like a low-level SXSW every night of the year.
How are you dividing your time between Austin and Nashville these days?
I guess it’s kinda like a third, each. A third on the road, a third in Nashville and a third in Austin. It kind of varies. My bed, if you will, is in Nashville. I got a place in Nashville around two years ago. I got an apartment up there in January of 2010.
What brought you out there?
I did a record up there in 2009. Jamie Nicholson produced this album, called Leap of Faith. He produced it and I just started meeting his crew and all the great musicians and writers up there. I was just looking for some new energy, as well, as an artist.
I’m also from that part of the world. I grew up in North Carolina. So, my mother lives in Asheville, which is about 250 miles away from Nashville. So, it’s a little easier to go see her, and it’s a little easier to hub out of there, as far as traveling. My soul and roots, definitely, are so deep in Austin. That’s never going to go away, nor do I want it to.
That’s something you hear a lot. Whether it’s you in Nashville, or Kat Edmonson in New York, or Okkervil River in Brooklyn, or Britt Daniel [of Spoon] in Portland. They leave Austin, but they’re still very much seen, when they come back, as an Austin band. What’s it like, for you, to come back now?
Well, I’ve been [in Austin] for fifteen years. I have a lot of friends and fans that are here, and I feel comfortable here. Everyone is so open and welcoming when I do come back. Once you’re in the family, you never leave the family — that kind of thing. And that feels great. Me leaving and trying to grow — everyone seems to be very accepting of that. And it shows when I come back. I’ve had better crowds since I left than I ever had when I was here more.
"The support of the live music, that’s not the focus in Nashville. When you play in Nashville, a lot of times you play for a lot of musicians." - Seth Walker
Culturally, what’s it like being a musician in Nashville versus being a musician in Austin? We’ve got our reputation for being pretty laid-back. Is Nashville more business-like and industry-focused?
Yeah, it’s a lot more. A lot of music flourishes more here. What I’ve noticed — the fans are different in Austin. The people who are musicians that love music — they make it all go, as far as the live scene goes. It seems like a little bit younger, vibrant energy [in Austin]. You know what I mean?
The support of the live music, that’s not the focus in Nashville. When you play in Nashville, a lot of times you play for a lot of musicians. Mostly musicians or industry folks, a lot of showcases type of things. So the live music flourishes in Austin more. And this is not a slight to Austin, but the sheer volume of professional musicians and engineers and producers and writers is just off the charts in Nashville. They’re everywhere. Everywhere.
It sounds like a low-level, year-round, SXSW in Nashville.
[laughs] I guess, to some extent. At SXSW there’s a lot of industry folk and business being dealt and all that kind of stuff, yes. But it does have its own pulse. In the same breath, [Nashville is] very business-oriented, but it also has a lot of soul.
You have to be careful, because the more volume that you have, the more shallow, dangerous waters you have to watch out for. You gotta find your little soul patches. And they’re there. Dan Penn lives there. You know, the guy who wrote “Dark End of the Street” and “Do Right Woman.” So you just gotta find your little place. It can definitely fill your soul. It’s not as sterile as a lot of people perceive Nashville.
How do you find that side of the city?
It’s just like anything. If you get to know it a little better, you start to find the little joints, the little haunts, once you get to know a city. It’s kind of like an onion, it peels back and there’s all these layers, and you’re like, “Oh, my Lord!” The guy that mixed my album Time Can Change, this guy named Neilson Hubbard, I was introduced to him through this drummer that I worked with up in Nashville. When I got to meet him, I just realized all the soulful people that he was surrounding himself with in East Nashville, a total different scene than the Gary Nicholson/Grover McClinton crew, which is a different generation.
This town’s got many layers. It just takes a little while to find them and find a groove that you roll well in. I’m just now finding that. It takes a couple of years before you can kind of find [that]. When you move to a new city it takes a little while to get your groove. And my landlord engineered Time Can Change! He’s an amazing engineer. He’s been in the business 30-plus years. He’s recorded Johnny Cash and a bunch of different people.
He has a state of the art recording studio in Barry Hill and said, “Hey man, why don’t you come over and cut some tunes over at the studio?” My housemate was doing some recording in there, so I stopped in there to check it out and said let’s try it. It came out so organic. It came out so natural. I said, “Hey man, let’s just keep going with this.”
Did you know that your landlord was a producer with that experience when you moved into your place?
Yeah, but I didn’t know the quality. I had never heard his work until my housemate, Guthrie Trapp, who was another amazing guitar player in Nashville, was doing some sessions over and I just popped into see that place and holy crap! My landlord has this place! That’s what I mean about Nashville. . .You just never know.
It sounds like you can’t go to the supermarket without meeting someone who wrote a famous song or produced a famous record.
I know. The whole songwriting thing is huge. They have this thing called Song Night at the Bluebird. You go in there and hear the hits go by. It’s like, “Wow!” That’s where I met Mike Reid. Mike Reid co-wrote one of the songs on my Time Can Change album, and he wrote that song, “I Can’t Make You Love Me” by Bonnie Raitt. When I met him I really felt — I love soul ballads, and he’s a master at them — and had fun collaborating with him. I learned a lot from him, so yet another layer.
It seems like you’re in a good place for right now.
Yeah, it is. You know, the business is completely crazed and upside down, as far as the model of the music business trying to get on its feet again. You have to kind of improvise these days, because it’s changed before our very eyes.
But, all in all, I’m thankful to be able to do this and to continue to put out albums and sing them every night. I’m thankful for the problems I have. I’m lucky to have them.