By Melissa Ruggieri, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
May 5, 2020
Two years ago, Butch Walker recorded “American Love Story.”
The concept record/rock opera swaddles penetrating lyrics about inherited racism, homophobia and gaping social chasms with pillowy melodies and lush production reminiscent of a 1970s-era Time Life collection.
And it’s a musical masterpiece made for these times.
But even though the album was inspired by the 2016 presidential election, Walker procrastinated releasing it.
“The more things (in the country) got tense, I thought, ‘I need to put this thing out,’ It’s more the reason to do it,” Walker, 50, said. “I’m bummed at myself for waiting, but everyone has been so sensitive and divisive that anything based on anything socially conscious would ruffle feathers. And that’s a damn shame.”
“American Love Story” arrives May 8, and it’s another impressive zig in Walker’s 30-year zagging career as a musician (SouthGang, Marvelous 3, solo work), producer (Green Day, Pink, Taylor Swift, Katy Perry, Adam Lambert and dozens more) and songwriter.
Though he splits his time between California — where he is calling from during these self-isolating times — and a farm outside of Nashville, Walker is a Cartersville native. His sincerity is apparent when he touts his roots and his desire for his 12-year-old son, James, to understand what it was like to grow up a Southerner.
“That’s important to me,” Walker said, then added with a laugh, “He’s not going to be just a California kid if I have anything to do with it!”
The roots of “American Love Story” are cemented in the South. Inspired by Randy Newman’s 1974 “Good Old Boys” – also a loose concept album spotlighting the viewpoints of people living in the Deep South – Walker spins his songs about a young man named Bo, who was raised to be bigoted and homophobic, fearful of anyone different than him. By the end of the 13-song cycle, Bo has a more unclouded understanding of the world.
“Are we having a conversation?” are the first words spoken on the album as an introduction to “The Singer,” which devolves into a cacophony of voices talking over each other before dovetailing into the musically dreamy, lyrically incisive “Gridlock.”
“I love beautiful melodies telling me terrible things,” Walker said. “It would have been too easy to make a dark, brooding acoustic record. I wanted to mimic the music I was listening to on the radio growing up. I wanted it to be ramping up in the story along with what my soundtrack was.”
Likewise, “Out in the Open” is sonically mesmerizing, but its words reveal the heart-tugging story of Bo’s life being saved by a gay classmate who was previously the target of his bullying (“It’s like a Peter Gabriel song telling you some dark [stuff],” Walker said).
For “6ft Middle-Age American Man,” Walker adopts a swaggering rock bounce for his protagonist. “My Jesus wore a frown and a red ball cap, raising my children not to question that,” he sings, the musical stand-in to illustrate generational racism.
“Growing up, being in that world and seeing it every day with people having these fears and insecurities, it’s real,” Walker said. “I don’t want anyone to ever think this is an attack on anybody. This is strictly wanting to get it out in the open.”
Walker acknowledged that growing up in the South, certain stances and jokes were normalized. “And I’m not OK with that,” he said. “There was also the fact that you didn’t have a lot of intersecting cultures. People were scared of the unknown and freaked out. When I started touring all over the place, it just opened my eyes to a lot of things.”
Credit: Phil Chester and Sara Byrne
Credit: Phil Chester and Sara Byrne
Despite his relentless production schedule (he’s currently working with Jewel, The Wallflowers and Matt Nathanson, as well as readying another Green Day project), Walker tries to regularly pause his behind-the-scenes work so he can hit the road to play his own music.
In 2018, he performed at Music Midtown – his first time in 20 years, though he plays smaller venues in Atlanta almost annually – and uncorked an electrifying set that showcased his guitar and frontman skills.
“He’s a really talented guy,” said Peter Conlon, president of Live Nation Atlanta, which produces Music Midtown. “He’s always been on the cutting edge of things and seems to be ahead of the trends. And he’s got strong Georgia roots, which was a good fit (for Music Midtown).”
Even musicians who haven’t yet worked with Walker admire his chameleonic career.
“I always loved the reality that he exists because it justifies my reality. If we sat down and started to drink and talk, we’d probably discover that we were told the same things – not necessarily pushing back against ‘The Man,’ but that idea of, ‘Oh, you’ll have to go back in that box now,’” said Kristian Bush of Sugarland. “I like him, and I don’t even know him.”
Walker likely won’t be on the road any time soon – along with the rest of the music community, thanks to the coronavirus – and he’s OK with that, given the difficulties of touring this particular release. Concept albums need to be heard in their entirety for maximum impact and, pre-pandemic, Walker worried about how he would present it to an audience.
“I couldn’t expect people to want to come just to hear that, but yet it’s its own thing,” Walker said. “I don’t know who will hear it (now) or who will like it, but that’s not the point. I do it for myself.”
Melissa Ruggieri has covered music and entertainment for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution since 2010 and created the Atlanta Music Scene blog. She's kept vampire hours for more than two decades and remembers when MTV was awesome.