Since its re-opening in 1987, you would probably need an abacus that stretched from here to the moon and back to count the number of visitors that have entered through the doors of Sun Studio in Memphis, Tennessee.
However, when you’re looking to tally up the number of folks that have given their wedding nuptials at the modest building that is now a National Historic Landmark, one hand would be more than sufficient for counting.
And when you’re viewing the roll call of those that were married at Sun Studio and then immediately began laying down tracks at the place that helped give rise to Elvis, B.B., The Wolf and Ike … that distinction pretty much solely belongs to Cleveland-based bluesman Austin ‘Walkin’ Cane’ Charanghat and his wife, Karen.
“Well, we were looking to go to Memphis and get married and my wife is a big ’50s-era fan of Elvis. So we checked into getting married at Graceland, but they wanted a crazy amount of money for about 15 minutes. Then I thought about Sun Studio – which was still a functioning studio – and about how people like The Wolf recorded there, along with Ike Turner and all the rock-n-rollers,” Walkin’ Cane recently said. “So I got in contact with Sun and they said, ‘Sure, you can get married here. That would be great.’ It happened to be Martin Luther King Jr. Day of 2002 and we went and got a judge and got married and Sun Studio didn’t charge us anything for using the studio to get married. So I asked about recording a few songs after the ceremony in there – that way I could give them some money for being kind to me and my wife – and they said, ‘That would be great.’ It was a very spontaneous thing.”
‘Spontaneous thing’ or not, what Walkin’ Cane emerged from Sun Studio with – besides of course, a brand-new bride – was seven or eight songs captured in the afterglow of his wedding ceremony.
“I recorded the songs on a guitar that Marty Stuart gave to Sun Studio and then we came home and my wife and I moved into our place and some friends came by one day and I played them the tunes (cut at Sun) while we were sitting there talking and one of them said, ‘Wow. You caught a pretty-good vibe there. Why don’t you make a record out of it? So with that in mind, I said, ‘Yeah, why not?’”
That ensuing album was named for the location of Sun Studio – 706 Union Avenue.
“We did that record and it was really the start of my whole love of acoustic-style blues in a lot of ways. It (the wedding and recording session) was really a great time. One of my friends from Kansas City showed up and then another friend of mine who happened to be driving to Florida turned up and that was kinda’ cool and then my dad came down, too. My mom was kind of afraid to fly then, because of 9/11, but it was beautiful – just a great moment in time. I was told that my wife and I were the second people to be married there since it re-opened in 1987. So we did something that was different and interesting and I’m always looking for a story.”
Based just on the above proceedings alone, it’s easy to see that Walkin’ Cane is a man who enjoys things a bit off the beaten path. But that hardly tells the whole story of Austin ‘Walkin’ Cane’ Charanghat. He also seems to possess the intestinal fortitude of a field full of stout oxen and has never let anything get in his way of playing the blues. That includes losing his lower-left leg almost 20 years ago to an arterial venous malformation that had plagued him since birth.
“It was just a combination of bad circulation and bad bone and over the course of time, the arteries and veins were almost tangled in knots – they were larger than they were supposed to be. If I was active, the blood would rush to those areas and not drain quick enough and my leg would just inflate and become huge,” he said. “By the time I was 16, I had to walk with a cane and I went to about a million hospitals and saw about as many doctors as that to see what they would say. After years of seeing different doctors as a child, I finally saw this one surgeon and on our first meeting, he said, ‘You should probably just cut it off.’ I went, ‘Whoa.’ I was not expecting that. Well, when I was about 26, I had broken it (his left leg) swimming in a pool. As the doctor was putting a cast on it, I thought, ‘I’m not doing this anymore.’ I had tried therapy and treatments for 10 years just to try and save that leg. It had started to really occupy all my time and my thoughts and I had gotten kind of sickly, because I was so down all the time … mentally, physically, spiritually … I was just out of whack because of my leg. So I said, ‘Let’s take it off.’”
It wasn’t like he had let his malady slow him down – musically speaking – before the amputation of his lower-left leg, but things are certainly moving full-speed ahead for the big guy these days. He’s endorsed by notable companies like National Reso-Phonic, Rocky Mountain Slide Company, Dr. Z Amplifiers and Ernie Ball Strings.
Very impressive and as his Web site so eloquently puts it: ‘Damn Fine Blues.’
“It was about 20-some years ago and I was at a gig, and I think it was our bass player who said, ‘Man, these are some damn fine fries.’ And I said, ‘Wait a minute … that would be good for our thing … damn fine blues.’ And it sorta’ stuck, but it was really kind of a joke,” he said. “But as time has progressed, I’m playing a different style of blues than I used to, a lot more Mississippi-, Clarksdale- and King Biscuit-influenced, as opposed to some of the electric stuff I did. But not matter what I play, it’s going to be bluesy. So ‘Damn Fine Blues’ just kind of covers it …you know, ‘What do you do?’ Well, ‘I do the Damn Fine Blues.’ That kind of covers it.”
That fluidity and willingness to readily change between styles has always seemed to suit Walkin’ Cane and it also keeps him from being pigeon-holed into a particular corner.
“Yeah, I can do North Mississippi Hill County blues or a B.B. King kind of thing, which are two totally different styles, but they both do fall under the bigger umbrella of the blues,” he said.
Walkin’ Cane’s newest album – One Heart Walkin’ (Lazy Eye Records) – may not be filled with visions of sugar plums and mistletoe, but apparently its origins can be traced back to the most wonderful time of the year.
“We have a Christmas band with about nine people in it and we write Christmas songs, because we’re sick of everybody else’s,” he laughed. “It was really kind of a joke that started off as a party and all our musician friends would come out and we’d do a few standards and then we’d write these goofy songs and everybody would sing a line – regardless of whether they could sing or not. We’d record these parties and after about five years, we realized we had about 40 songs. So we ended up writing a Christmas record … then it was time to record a blues record.”
Even though it was fueled by the creativity left swirling around from the Christmas album, One Heart Walkin’ was still left facing a major dilemma before it would see the light of day: finances.
“I really didn’t have any money for it (One Heart Walkin’), but I ended up getting (job recording) a commercial, so that gave me half the money and then I managed to come up with the other half myself,” he said. “But that kind of fits the whole vibe, because it was a very spontaneous record – I think we may have rehearsed once for it. But it’s a pretty straight-forward blues record, so if you’re well-versed in it, it’s not too hard to figure it out.”
The album was recorded at an old Grand Army of the Republic (G.A.R.) hall, situated not too far outside Cleveland.
“The building was built in 1850 and there would be a lot of Civil War veterans that would hang out there. It also used to be an old school house … it’s just a really creaky, old, slightly-tilted, sinking building. There would be a lot of semi-trucks driving by (during recording) and they ended up being on the record, which I really enjoy. You know, the stupid nuances of our records.”
Besides the real-deal blues, the album has a dash of funky New Orleans’ hoodoo running through it, courtesy of Walkin’ Cane’s friends – The Revolution Brass Band.
“The song “Who’s Gonna Love You?” does have a pretty heavy New Orleans’ feel to it and for the song I had in my mind that I was on the street corner in New Orleans playing with a drummer behind me and then this brass band comes walking up on their way to a gig and sees what’s going on and they jump in,” he said. “So we had that vibe in mind when we cut that tune. The producer, Don Dixon, told the horn section that when they finished playing (on the song), he wanted them to keep on playing and just walk out of the building. So we propped the door open and they finished playing and walked right out the door. That made for a natural fade on the tune … but you’d never know it, except for the people that were there. It was kinda’ neat and it ended up with a vibe that I’d never really captured on record before.”
A large part of the palpable feeling of being in the moment that permeates One Heart Walkin’ has to be due to the fact that not only were the tunes authored fairly quickly, but that the album itself was laid down to tape with hyper-speed efficiency.
“The whole thing was recorded in a day-and-a-half …. and then we started working on the next record. But I usually work on about two records at a time,” he said. “We had extra time (during the sessions for One Heart Walkin’) so we used it to start the next one and I figure we’ve got about half of it done now.”
The end result was that One Heart Walkin’ was nominated for Best New Artist Album at the 36th annual Blues Music Awards (BMAs), an accolade that kind of sneaked up on Walkin’ Cane.
“Well, people that I trust were saying nice things about it, so I submitted it to the BMAs, but really didn’t think anything of it. I really didn’t think I had a chance, because I’m an independent guy without a label or a booking agent and play primarily in the Cleveland area, although I do travel all over,” he said. “Well, I got an e-mail from the Blues Foundation that started off, ‘Dear BMA nominee.’ I happened to wake up at about 7 a.m. that morning and just glanced at my e-mails and then rolled over and went back to bed. Then around noon, I saw that e-mail again and almost deleted it, thinking it was like spam or something. But then I remembered I had submitted the album, so I checked out the message in the e-mail and sure enough, there it was – I had been nominated. It was probably one of the greatest honors I’ve ever had. It was a huge shock, but very nice … I just hope that something good comes of it.”
Although it might seem to some that Walkin’ Cane could be labeled as a ‘Johnny-come-lately’ or ‘new kid on the block,’ the fact is, he’s been playing the blues for 31 years now. His sound, style and even outlook on playing the blues has obviously undergone several changes over the course of those three decades as well – including a transformation from full-blown electric band mode into more of a solo acoustic act.
“Earlier in my career, I tended to write mainly toward Chicago-styled blues, like the old-school Muddy and Howlin’ Wolf. Then in 2007 and ’08 when the economy dipped, we were getting (from club owners) a lot of, ‘We can’t afford you guys,’ or ‘Can you play two hours instead of four?’ But to be honest, my heart was already starting to drift toward just doing acoustic music,” he said. “So I decided to give it a shot – just so I could survive. Plus, I really love playing solo blues. And it seems like around most cities, there’s really not a whole lot of guys doing the solo acoustic blues that often. So that’s what I started doing.”
As would be par for the course, Walkin’ Cane’s entire style of playing changed after he switched directions.
“It really did, in a lot of ways. You try to be a whole band, but just by yourself. It started evolving and at that time I was really getting into boogie – stuff like John Lee Hooker, along with R.L. Burnside and Junior Kimbrough and T-Model Ford and Robert Belfour. I found that style to be so hypnotizing and I always loved that aspect of music. It’s like as a musician, you’re going off somewhere and nobody knows if you’re gonna’ make it back or not. I love that feeling – sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.”
That acoustic awakening within Walkin’ Cane also ended up having a pretty significant impact on his songwriting, as well.
“I started writing songs that were more like just one chord, really dwelling on how I could make songs with just one chord sound bigger. I wasn’t looking to keep the song the same all the way through, what I wanted was for it to progress and build it all the way through. I’d listen to Mississippi John Hurt and Blind Blake and Charley Patton and of course, Robert Johnson, and take that music as a foundation to build my own stuff on. My music is steeped in the roots and true to the old school, but yet it doesn’t sound like it’s from the ’20s or ’30s – it sounds like something kind of modern. That’s how my sound evolved and I’m still in that mode. I don’t know long I’ll be in that mode … I would assume it will last forever, but you never know.”
One thing’s for sure – it doesn’t matter if he’s playing in an electric setting, or is up on the bandstand with himself and a harp player, or even all alone with just an acoustic guitar – Austin ‘Walkin’ Cane’ Charanghat is going to be playing the blues.
“There are a million people better than me and even a few that are worse than me, but I feel pretty confident in my playing, you know? I really feel confident in myself and I think that’s a big part of the blues, personally. You go out there and you’re playing a three-chord song for two hours. Well, how are you going to make that interesting? That’s the challenge. How are you going to keep people entertained? How are you going to keep yourself entertained?”
Though he might not have realized it as such at the time when he was dragging around crutches for two straight years between the ages of 17 and 19, or when he spent the better part of a decade with a cane as his constant companion, his childhood aliment did turn out to be something of a blessing.
“My leg was really the reason I started playing guitar. It turned out to be a life-changing thing. I really couldn’t move around very well, so I started playing an instrument. I’d just sit around and play guitar for hours on end,” he said. “I mean, I missed a lot of time at school because of my leg, so playing the guitar gave me something to occupy my time with. That was my way of passing the time.”
It was about the time that his high school band of nine or 10 years was breaking up that Walkin’ Cane ended up in the Big Easy for a spell. It was also there at that time when ‘Walkin’ Cane’ went from a mode of transportation help to becoming a permanent nickname for Austin Charanghat. As he was playing on Bourbon Street, a homeless man shouted out, ‘Hey, Walkin’ Cane – got some spare change for a brother?’ Instead of taking umbrage, or lashing out at the putdown hurled his way, Charanghat looked at things from a more mature angle.
“I was like, ‘You know, I am going to be on a cane for the rest of my life.’ This way I could sell records to the day I die … so it stuck. But the only drag now is, since I cut off the leg, I don’t need a cane anymore,” he laughed. “I think a lot of people now wonder why I’m called Walkin’ Cane because I don’t walk with a cane. I don’t even walk with a limp. It screwed up the name, but I don’t care.”
Visit Austin’ website at: www.walkincane.com
Photos by Bob Kieser © 2015 Blues Blast Magazine
Blues Blast Magazine Senior Writer Terry Mullins is a journalist, author and former record store owner whose personal taste in music is the sonic equivalent of Attention Deficit Disorder. Works by the Bee Gees, Captain Beefheart, Black Sabbath, Earth, Wind & Fire and Willie Nelson share equal space with Muddy Waters, The Staples Singers and R.L. Burnside in his compact disc collection. He’s also been known to spend time hanging out on the street corners of Clarksdale, Miss., eating copious amounts of barbecued delicacies while listening to the wonderful sounds of the blues.