Sammy Walker: Misfit Scarecrow

By: Dennis Cook

Perhaps the greatest difference between live and recorded folk music is the degree of intimacy extended to listeners. Removed from the cicada shudder of a coffeehouse or concert hall, one is welcomed into the setting where these songs are birthed. The singer - moving over clearly stroked strings with uncluttered, whisper close immediacy - ushers us into the heart of their music, all the still hours of chord construction and verse paring done and what remains is what they lay in our hands. There is no hiding the rough skin or nicks, and as such, we join them in their exposed humanity and together we are no longer alone on the porch. After folk's '60s heyday (and more pop inflected '70s flowering), there's been a dirth of dyed-in-the-wool folk albums. Greg Brown and John Gorka have flirted with it but have generally retreated to more full band, rock flavored groupings. Standing naked before strangers isn't for everyone but we're blessed to have a few brave, fleshily flapping souls like Sammy Walker, who returns from the wilderness after 29 years.

I'm gonna tell you a story that's more than half a century old
You may want to ask me why it need to be retold
Hatred and injustice still linger on today
If we choose to forget the past
The devil's let out to play

This son of Norcross, GA began performing in cafes in the early '70s. After some warmly received appearances in revered folk magazine Broadside, Walker met Phil Ochs, who convinced Warner Brothers to sign Walker and even produced his first Folkways album, Song For Patty. Misfit Scarecrow (Ramseur Records) is Walker's first new album since 1994 and his first U.S. release in almost 30 years, but every note here speaks to a singer-songwriter that's been anything but idle. He may not have been sharing his creations through traditional channels but these marvelously carved, beautifully spare recordings possess the density and majesty of old growth redwoods, roots tunneling deep even as we marvel at the parts we can readily see.

Railroad tunes, civil rights rallying cries and paeans to farmers fill this stunning song cycle that honors tradition – John Hartford & Woody Guthrie's ghosts hover near – but is never hampered by it. Able to weave in hip-hop shows and other modern touchstones, Walker makes folk relevant with plainspoken, masterful elegance. There's a stately character to the worn out soles walkin' long miles here, like a man in a sharply cut black suit situated firmly in his body and mind, slow to share what he is but when he does every word cuts deep. Walker's voice settles in like well-aged scotch, the full flavor emerging slow, a patient heat enveloping you from within. It's a sound full of ragged, heart tugging character, and like most of Misfit Scarecrow, it circumvents our defenses to introduce us to Crazy Billy, Homer Byron McGuthrie and a small town of compatriots that live and breath, suffer and smile just like you and me. Nothing here is cardboard, nothing manufactured, and the music is a lean mix of strings with only mandolinist Tony Williamson (who plays with the glistening feel of David Grisman on American Beauty throughout) joining Walker, who plays guitar, banjo, harmonica, piano, tiple and "Lyon and Healy monster bass."

The saddest goddamn song, "Marvin and Paula," is built around the refrain of "Young love is fine/ Young love be mine," each time delivered without cynicism despite the bruised faces, broken bodies and empty hours in the verses that surround it, indicative of a range able to touch on Emmett Till but still offer the utterly sincere benediction, "Always keep a little bit of your childhood smile around for a long, long while." Welcome back, Mr. Walker. We missed ya and didn't even know it.

JamBase | In A Field With A Stick In Our Back
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