Featured interview – Toby Walker

There has to be a million things that are easier to do than to try and hold the attention of a classroom full of 13- and 14-year-olds for even a few fleeting moments.

Things like wrestling a grizzly bear, discovering life on Mars or learning how to make it rain on command seems more attainable than seizing the attention of a teenager, especially when the subject concerned is the blues.

While that is a daunting task, because after all, Britney Spears has little to do with the real, deal blues, it turns out that it can be accomplished, as New Jersey bluesman Toby Walker once found out.

“I do the Blues in the Schools program and one time me and this teacher went out to lunch at a doughnut shop and there was a woman behind the counter there that was probably 21 or 22. And the second we walked in there, she looked at and recognized the teacher and then looked at me and went, ‘Oohh …Toby.’ And I didn’t know her,” Walker said. “But then she said, ‘I know you, you came to our class and played the blues.’ That had been seven or eight years before … and she remembered that. And on another occasion, I had a teacher tell me one time, if you ask them (the students) what they remember about the eighth grade, this is it. ‘I said, you’re kidding me?’ And he said, ‘No, the kids all remember the presentation with the cigar box guitar or the National Steel guitar that you brought in.’”

With the way that Walker commands a guitar, it should really come as no surprise that he’s capable of penetrating the conciseness of the young and the old. The winner of the 2002 International Blues Challenge’s Solo division, Walker has earned his place among the elite acoustic guitar players around the globe. Whether its lightning-fast runs up and down the neck or licks that are so low and slow you’d swear they were busting out of your gut, Walker can do it all on a six-string. Matter of fact, he’s so versatile that it would something of an insult to peg the man as strictly a blues guitarist, because he’s so much more than that. To be certain, the spirit of bluesmen like Barbecue Bob and Scrapper Blackwell inhabit his soul, but they fight for equal space with the eclectiveness of Leo Kottke, the jazzy sensibilities of Charlie Christian and the rootsy styling of Doc Watson, deep inside the Long Island, New York born Walker. That virtuoso ability has even caught the attention of blues-lover on the other side of the pond, as well.

“I’ve been fortunate enough to have toured England several times and this spring I’ll be headed back over to France and Germany to perform and give a few guitar workshops,” Walker said. “I’ll tell you, the folks across the pond absolutely love their blues.”

It seems like acoustic-leaning blues artists have always faced something of an uphill battle in order to get the same attention and adulation that their electric-playing brethren get. It’s almost as if the two camps have a dividing line placed right between them. That’s not to say that acoustic players can’t wail away on an axe that’s plugged into a Marshall stack, or that a Strat cat can’t heat up a Martin 12-string when the mood strikes.

“When I was growing up, I heard a lot of electric music like a lot of other people … The Beatles and The Stones, but there was something about an acoustic guitar that I could do on my own. I seemed to identify more with finding my own voice on an acoustic guitar, as opposed to an electric. With an acoustic, I didn’t need other people in order to support that,” said Walker. “I did play an electric – and continue to do so for fun – but it (electric guitar) is an instrument that I think lends itself to other players, to a band. Where with the acoustic guitar, I felt like I could bring out my own individual voice. And that’s probably why I’ve gravitated towards playing the acoustic guitar. It just sounds full all by itself.”

Well-versed in a myriad of acoustic styles – delta, Piedmont, Chicago and the good ole’ country blues – Walker can at one instant soothe with a delicate finger-picked pattern and the next moment rip things up with some howling slide work, rivaling the fireworks that his electric counterparts generate.

“I can sit and get hives from listening to electric guitar players like Albert King and even on to the more obscure like Charlie Grimes, the guy that backed up John Lee Hooker. He’s one of my favorite electric guitar players, ever. But I can get just as turned on by listening to a wonderful lick being played by Blind Blake, or Mississippi Fred McDowell or Joe Callicott. They all just make the hair on my neck rise.”

Walker had the unique opportunity to have ‘the hair on his neck rise’ up close and personal on several occasions on one of his many trips down south to locales like Holly Springs, Leland and Bentonia, Mississippi. It was there that he not only apprenticed at the feet of some of the masters of the true delta blues, legends like R.L. Burnside and ‘Son’ Thomas, along with Jack Owens and Bud Spires, it was also there that those gentlemen – several decades older – and Walker, formed a lasting bond as friends.

“Musically, I learned to be yourself; take what you could and turn it into you. Everybody has added so much to this music (over the years) to give it their own voice, which is what I think is important to the blues,” he said. “I know that James ‘Son’ Thomas and Jack (Owens) and Eugene (Powell), they all interpreted things their own way. As a matter of fact, I asked Jack one time if he learned from Skip James – because they knew each other – and he got real pissed. He said, ‘I taught Skippy everything he knew.’ But I realize what was speaking was his individuality. But it (hanging around those musicians) taught me to be myself and to take pride in what I had to give … because there’s no way that I could come close to experiencing the kind of hardships that they had to experience.”

While he no doubt could have gained some knowledge and a little insight into the way true-blue cats like that lived and played the blues from a distance away, in order to get as close to the source of the spirit of the music as he wanted, there was no substitute for going down south and letting it wash over him in the flesh.

“That was very important for me, as opposed to just hearing it on a record or reading about it in a book. To go and to really become friends – not just visit there one time and take a few pictures and then split without giving anything back – I mean, that’s what is important about that,” he said. “The first time I met Jack, I showed up with a box full of groceries, like bologna and cheese and cold cuts and stuff, and Bud was there, and they just laughed. They said, ‘Well, we’ve got a lot of eating to do.’ But Jack didn’t have a refrigerator that was plugged in … that was his life. I paid everyone money for their time and as I got to know them, I would bring them stuff they liked. So it was always a matter of somehow trying to pay back whatever I was getting from them, which was a lot.”

Far removed from its hallowed breeding grounds of the deep south, growing up in New York might not seem to be the ideal spot to get turned on to the blues –especially acoustic blues – but, where there’s a will there’s a way.

“When I was in high school, I was one of the only kids that I knew that got into the acoustic side of the blues. All my friends were listening to guys like Eric Clapton and the more rock-type of electric blues,” he said. “But I was fortunate to have a neighbor who was about 22 that turned me on to the electric Chicago blues. So I got into that and when I first heard Clapton, I said, ‘That’s like Buddy Guy on steroids’ and my friends were like, ‘Who’s Buddy Guy?’ And that was friends my own age. So I ended up turning on a lot of my classmates in 11th grade to people like Magic Sam, Buddy Guy and Hubert Sumlin. And also at the same time, I was getting into Robert Johnson, Son House, Blind Lemon Jefferson and I was turning them on to that stuff, as well. But I kind of felt isolated … there were older people – in their 20s – that were into that stuff, but it seemed like I was the only one my age that got into the blues like that. I felt like I had stumbled onto my own little Treasure Island.”

Even though he may not have fully realized it at the time he was attending high school, in addition to turning on his classmates to the wonderful world of the blues, Walker was also honing what turned out to be some considerable and useful skills as an entertainer at the same time.

“I was always the class clown and got into a lot of trouble in school. You know, just goofin’ off as much as I could and figuring out ways to get around things. I mean, there’s nothing more satisfying than figuring out a way to pull off a caper,” he laughed. “It’s just my nature to find my way into something that somewhere down the line will develop into a hilarious story. So I think it’s always been part of my personality since I was a kid to make people laugh or to keep them engrossed in some kind of story.”

Those that have had the good fortune to catch Walker on the bandstand can attest to as much, as they’re likely to end up getting a bit of a history lesson about the blues and a little background information – often gained firsthand by Walker himself – about the artists that created the magical music that springs forth from his guitar. Simply put, Walker’s anecdotes and snippets of stories, both fabricated and true, are as big a part of his show as are his impressive guitar skills.

“As a kid, some of my heroes were Bill Cosby and Arlo Guthrie because of the way they used timing to deliver their stories. If I just showed up on a stage and sat down and played six Charlie Patton songs in a row, chances are unless it’s a hardcore blues audience, I’m going to lose people,” he said. “So I need to bring them over to a Charlie Patton song by first selling them on me, by just making them laugh and come over to my side. Then, by the third or fourth song in the set, I can lay anything out on them and sell it with an interesting story about the flooding down in Mississippi and then play them a Charlie Patton song with them already in my camp. I’ve learned that it’s a skill to be an entertainer, just as it’s a skill to be a player.”

By the end of the 70s, there were a couple of blues bands playing the Long Island circuit and Walker spent time in both of them. He was also the first guitar player called when Louisiana Red rolled into town and needed some backup assistance. As the 80s gave way to the early 90s, the blues had spread even further around his stomping grounds and an article in the New York Times even trumpeted Walker as one of the leaders of the city’s groundswell of blues. “Well, I thought that was silly, but I was glad to see that the blues were starting to get some recognition on Long Island and that there were more blues bands starting to sprout up,” he said. “But with that being said, the acoustic side of things didn’t take off nearly as much as the band-related blues did at that time.”

Walker’s nimble abilities on the guitar have caught the attention of a who’s-who of incredible musicians over the years, including a guitarist who was at ground-zero of psychedelic rock during the Summer of Love – former Jefferson Airplane and current Hot Tuna mastermind Jorma Kaukonen. A chance meeting in the lobby of a Manhattan theater before a tribute concert to the Rev. Gary Davis turned into something much more when Walker and Kaukonen first crossed paths.

“Oh, man, he was another of my idols growing up. In the lobby, this woman comes walking up and goes, ‘You’re Toby, aren’t you?’ I didn’t recognize her, but right behind her was this big guy and it was Jorma. He goes, ‘Hey, Mr. Walker, how are ya? We’re going to have you at the ranch next year.’ And that was it,” Walker said.

The ‘ranch’ that Kaukonen referred to was his retreat in Ohio called Fur Peace Ranch. More than just a rustic getaway, Fur Peace Ranch has turned into a must-visit destination for acoustic guitar lovers and is loaded with a staff full of master teachers each year, one of which Walker became.

“I wound up at the ranch the following year and was slotted to teach on one of the long weekends there and that was when I got the chance to really met him (Kaukonen) and sit down with him,” Walker said. “At first I was doing everything I could to not come off like a drooling idiot. But he’s so approachable and is such a warm person, that we just hit it off. He knew my roots as well as I knew his. We’ve had a great relationship and I’m blessed to know him.”

Over the years, teaching guitar has become second nature to Walker – as evidenced by his numerous return visits to Fur Peace Ranch – and he clearly takes as much pride in that ability as he does in his ability to leave an audience speechless after one of his own solo concerts.

“I take satisfaction in both – it’s just in two different energies. You can’t compare the energy you get from an audience eating what you just did up. I get the same kind of energy – but on a more personal level – when someone tells me that something they have seen on one of my Blues Fingerpicking Freedom (Homespun Tapes) DVDs or has gotten from a Skype lesson or a one-on-one session here in the studio from me, has opened up everything like a key to the highway for them,” he said. “So seeing the light go on in someone’s eyes when they understand something I have taught is just as satisfying as playing to a standing ovation, it’s just a different kind of energy.”

Those that don’t live in the immediate vicinity of Walker’s neighborhood, or next to the Fur Peace Ranch, need not fret. Thanks to technology, those interested can access his teaching methods via Walker’s Web site – www.littletobywalker.com.

“In addition to the Homespun DVDs, I’ve put together some of my own homemade instructional videos and offer them as lesson downloads on the Web site. I’ve had a lot of interest in that and a lot of people have been signing on to this Member’s Only section on the Web site,” he said. “I hear from people all over the world who are learning to play blues guitar from these videos on my site. So I’m always making new ones. Happy Traum, the founder of Homespun, has been producing instructional materials since the 60s. It was his book, Fingerpicking Styles for Guitar, that got me started with fingerpicking when I was 16-years-old. You can imagine how much of an honor it is for me to now have Happy producing my instructional DVDs for Homespun. ”

“I’ve always taught guitar – making my living doesn’t come from just performances,” he said. “It also comes from teaching and selling CDs and merchandise and then going into the schools. But you know, it’s better than working at K-Mart.”

Even if sometimes those you’re working for in the realm of the blues may not get it.

“Back in the late 70s, I was playing at a ‘wine-and-cheese’ place and I remember the owner coming up to me after I got done with the first set and saying, ‘When are you going to start playing songs people know?’ But my saying has always been, I’ve got the Bottom 40 all to myself,” laughed Walker.”

Photos by Bob Kieser © 2014 Blues Blast Magazine

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