There should be a long German word for the phenomenon by which we endlessly seek new iterations of an irreplaceable cultural force. You'll find few better examples than the music world's desperate quest to anoint a "New Dylan," starting in the sixties, continuing apace through the late seventies, and, to some extent, still happening now.
Singer-songwriter history is littered with artists who were simultaneously honored with and damned by the designation—Loudon Wainwright III, John Prine, Elliott Murphy, Steve Forbert, a young Bruce Springsteen, and so on.
Arguably, aside from Springsteen, none of these fine songsmiths achieved the same cultural impact as the inscrutable man from Minnesota. But they often ended up earning some cult-hero status—except, ironically, the singer most legitimately daubed with the New Dylan brush, Sammy Walker.
The Georgia-born Walker released his first album, the solo acoustic Song for Patty, on Folkways in 1975. From his fingerpicking patterns and rack harmonica to his freewheeling lyrics and keening tenor, he arrived like an answered prayer for those who'd spent the last decade mourning the loss of mid-sixties Dylan. Walker was a Peach State folksinger whose twang was more natural than that of Dylan, who had worked hard to come off like a character from a Woody Guthrie song. He came by his sound honestly.
Walker could deftly combine the poetic and the political, as on the Patty Hearst-inspired title track of his debut. The gentle "Catcher in the Rye," on the other hand, gracefully captured the yearning young adults feel when gazing at the long, Sisyphean slope ahead.
That feeling epitomizes Walker's career, really. Though he flirted with fame in multiple forms as the New Dylan, it always eluded him, eventually forcing him to quit music altogether. But with the help of Ramseur Records, the same label that launched the career of The Avett Brothers, Walker, who has now called North Carolina home for two decades, has been given a second chance to share his old songs. Released earlier this year, Brown Eyed Georgia Darlin', a new collection of very old demos, suggests that we all missed out when the spotlight swept past Walker.
In the early seventies, Walker had been working as a janitor when he sent a homemade demo tape to New York folk magazine Broadside. It was then passed on to legendary underground DJ Bob Fass. His show had famously featured Dylan as a drop-in guest early on. He invited Walker to play.
"I bought me a one-way ticket to New York," remembers Walker from his home in Hayesville, a tiny mountain town at the western edge of North Carolina. "I never came back."
The folksinger Phil Ochs heard Walker on Fass's show and suggested they meet. Walker played Ochs several songs, and Ochs, in turn, approached Folkways boss Moe Asch, who also felt the excitement. From there, Walker's career seemed to advance at an astonishing pace.
"It was really Phil that helped me get my first Folkways record," he remembers. "I arrived in May of 1975, and in June we started making the record. For once in my life, I was in the right place at the right time."
- Photo by Daniel Coston
- Sammy Walker cutting 2008's Misfit Scarecrow
Critics have since speculated that Ochs, who also helped Walker land a subsequent deal with Warner Brothers, may have had a secondary motive. Some have suggested that Ochs never got over his ugly falling-out with Dylan, so he latched onto the up-and-comer who struck him as the most likely candidate to kick Dylan out of the box.
"It's possible, I suppose," says the unassuming Walker. "Why he chose me, I don't know. I know there was conflict, just from things I've read and heard."
Still, in the months before his 1976 suicide, Ochs pushed Walker as hard and far as possible, even taking the young songwriter to Warner Brothers head Mo Ostin.
"Phil had called up Warner, and he was singing some of my lyrics over the phone to Mo Ostin," recalls Walker. The deal was soon done. "But after Phil died, Warner didn't do much to promote my records."
On the way to almost becoming a folk phenomenon, Walker nearly became a movie star, too. Another Walker admirer, Lee Hays of The Weavers, connected him with heavyweight music manager and aspiring film producer Harold Leventhal, who needed someone to play Woody Guthrie in a film adaptation of Bound for Glory.
"Harold was looking for kind of an unknown. I went down and met Harold and sang a couple of Woody Guthrie songs, and he got excited and wanted me to go out to Hollywood for a screen test," he says. "But the director, Hal Ashby, said he didn't want to work with an unknown, so I never went."
David Carradine ultimately landed the role, but the incident hadn't been a total loss. Leventhal became Walker's manager and negotiated the Warner contract. The demos that scored Walker that big deal—and many of which he rerecorded for his self-titled Warner debut in 1976—are the basis of Brown Eyed Georgia Darlin', a stunning glimpse into a lost moment forty years ago.
"They were songs that were sent out to Warner before the deal was sealed, to let them know what was coming, to decide if they wanted to finalize the deal," he says. "It's the unplugged version of that album."
Produced by Nik Venet, who signed and worked extensively with the Beach Boys, the 1976 record featured first-call players like guitarist James Burton and drummer Jim Gordon. But the solo acoustic demo takes have both an urgency and an intimacy all their own.
The level of lyrical detail on the title track, for instance, suggests that Walker could have taken an alternate path as a prose writer. "The hoofbeat of a stallion stirs the dusty ground into a powdered rain/that lifts and curls until it's done and settles down into his flowing mane," he sings, packing more potent imagery into a single line than most writers manage in an entire song. And Walker's compassionate portrait of an elderly woman's last days on "Cold Pittsburgh Morning" feels like a Eugene O'Neill play waiting to happen. It's incredible to think that Walker was a mere twenty-three years old when these demos were cut.
"Those demos really capture an optimistic spirit of the way I was feeling and what I was writing. The spirit is there," he says. "I was really confident and optimistic at that point in my life. I thought things were really looking good, and I was ready to take it to the world. But things didn't work out quite that way."
After releasing Walker's second major-label record, 1977's Blue Ridge Mountain Skyline, Warner Brothers dropped him, apparently having done little to promote his music. He was no longer a priority.
"I didn't have anybody to help put a tour together for me," he remembers. "Warner Brothers didn't do anything. My manager didn't do anything. I was still a naïve kid, and I didn't know how it worked. I was counting on those people to put things together for me, and nobody did."
In retrospect, was it Warner's lack of support that kept Walker from breaking through, the overabundant Dylan comparisons, or a mix?
"It's something that's probably handicapped me pretty bad, even though, really, I didn't sound that much like Dylan but for a couple of years. He was a big influence on me when I was a teenager," Walker says. "After I got nailed so bad about sounding too much like a young Dylan, I consciously tried to sound completely different. I got rid of the harmonica. I tried to change my voice. If I'd have sounded different on those songs, I think maybe people would have paid more attention to the songs themselves."
Discouraged by the false starts, Walker mostly disappeared from music, releasing one more album on Folkways before taking two decade-plus breaks. He issued Old Time Southern Dream in 1995 through a small Swiss imprint. He relocated to North Carolina in 1996, settling in Hayesville, where his grandparents and mom had long lived. And then, in 2008, Concord's Ramseur Records released Misfit Scarecrow. Label owner Dolph Ramseur is a longtime friend of Walker's, and he asked if there were any unreleased relics of Walker's New Dylan days. That led to Brown Eyed Georgia Darlin'.
"The demos had just been sitting around for all those years," he says. "I sent him a cassette."
Walker is mostly retired from music now, as he has been for decades. But he seems hopeful, if uncertain, that Brown Eyed Georgia Darlin' could reintroduce his records—or, in many cases, introduce him altogether.
"Maybe a few new people who've never heard of me will hear it, and maybe it'll make them look into the old records," he says. "It'll be worthwhile if that happens."
This article appeared in print with the headline "New Morning"