photo by Dave Hensley
Americana Highways had the opportunity to have a phone conversation with producer Walt Wilkins on his way to play a house concert in Stephenville, Texas. We spoke about his life as a songwriter, producer, modern day poet and troubadour.
Americana Highways: What were some of your early influences?
Walt Wilkins: Well, my father had a great record collection; my dad loved music and he had a lot of records, country stuff.
AH: You have worked with so many artists have there been any favorite or standout moments in your career?
WW: Well, yeah, (laughing) lots at my age, I’ve done this a while. I’ve had a great time and I do feel like I’ve been lucky that I know people all sorts of subgenres and this kind of music, the Texas music kind of genre, this scene down here…Kids down here recording, made some records with them; I say kids, they’re younger than me. A lot of songs in this world down here and a few songs in the bluegrass world that have been kind of notable and that’s cool and I lived in Nashville for 10 years, co-wrote a lot of songs there…so I’ve had a great time. I’ve never had a huge hit as a songwriter, but I’ve had over 100 songs recorded by other people and got to work now over the last 25 or 30 years. I don’t know how many records I’ve made like produced or co-produced but it’s probably around 60 or 70, something like that.
AH: Is there anyone you wish you had been able to work with or that you are looking forward to maybe working with?
WW: Well, I guess, there are some people it would be fun to work with, but I don’t really have a wish list like that. I just kind of, I don’t go look for production work. I feel fortunate it comes to me; people will call about it and I enjoy working with artists and making their vision, and try and kind of work with them, talk with them a lot about what they want to do, what their mission is. How they want this record to affect their lives. And that’s what we talk about, stuff like that before we go in and then really get to work. People I like to work with have great songs. Artist vision and their voice at the center of it, I want people to feel like they know them, have that come through. (laughs) I like to work with people I like, so that personality is a good one.
I’ve only really pursued one artist and that was Sam Baker. I really loved Sam Baker’s songwriting when I heard him and how he presented his songs, so I approached him, but, otherwise, it’s happened very organically and I’m grateful for that.
AH: Do you find that’s easier to do in Texas than it was when you were working in Nashville?
WW: I did quite a few, worked on quite a few records in Nashville as well. There’s great studios everywhere, there’s great players in both places, Austin and Nashville. There’s just great pockets everywhere of great musicians and great songwriters. We’re pretty spread out, which I think is really cool.
AH: Do you see that there has been a growth, where you’re saying there’s pockets of more traditional country music versus the over-produced sound of Nashville?
WW: That’s a great question, but, honestly, I don’t know anymore because I don’t have anything to do with the Nashville hits … what’s on the radio. I don’t listen to it, I don’t see it live … it’s almost like I have nothing to do with it anymore, even though I was in that world for a long time.
But the roots music and the people who are doing what I’ve been doing a long time; just driving and playing your songs to smaller rooms, there’s a lot of us that do it and have a great life because of it.
The “house concert” phenomenon has been great for a whole bunch of people like me. People don’t want to go to the bar and pay five dollars for a beer; these house concerts have just been a godsend to listeners and artists. It’s really, really great.
AH: Has that changed a lot since you first started, is it becoming easier for people?
WW: Yes, I do more of them every year, all over the United States and in Europe, and I think it’s changed everyone’s lives for the better. It’s been a great thing.
AH: Is it easier for people to record at their own home studios and no longer going to professional studios, do you see that a lot?
WW: I do. I think it’s affected studio life. But I also think there’s already been a bounce back to that because most of what people do in their house studios is just not going to sound…very few people can really make a great record in their home, with live drums. I think there’s just nothing like the studio whether it’s smaller or one of the old-fashioned big studios, but, yes, the home studios certainly are a great place to do overdubs. And I’m not saying…people have made great records there too; I guess there’s no right or wrong…whatever anyone needs to do, artistically or financially.
AH: How important do you think the “troubadour” lifestyle is in making Americana and roots music?
WW: Well, growing up in Texas, Texas is about live music, and that was the main difference to me in Tennessee and Texas. Here it’s about what you can do live and so I think anyone I live or the artists that have changed my life and artists that have that travelled and play and they learn to interact with an audience…I love live music. I know it’s a life that I love.
AH: Are there any new or undiscovered artists that are doing well live?
WW: There are so many and I hate to talk about any as to not to hurt anyone’s feelings. I work with a lot of young artists and know so many, I just know there are hundreds of people out here, writing great songs, working in hybrid-genres of music…and poetry is not dead, there are great poets out there, and it’s a fun time to be alive.
AH: You mentioned poetry. As a writer, and you write so personally, you really are a modern poet. Are there some songs you don’t want to share or that you would rather keep for yourself?
WW: All I’ve wanted since I was a kid was to have other people record my songs, that was my dream, when I was young, I mean really young. I would hope any song I write, somebody would record. Like a real personal song to me is called “Poetry” and Pat Green did a cool version of it and I was grateful, and I would love it if other people recorded that song. Hopefully, the personal songs, no matter how personal a song, hopefully, a song has some universal meaning for at least some others.
AH: When you are producing (composing/writing) are there times where you have to change what you’re doing?
WW: With production, I like to talk to the artist a lot. I like to meet with them, have a couple of meals; I like to see them live, like them to meet my family. I really do want to have an organic approach to who they are and get a sense of their being. Sometimes in the studio you follow muses…something comes up and you definitely follow that. You’re following the artist’s vision and you’re trying to help guide them, and if you see something that works that you didn’t see coming, you make changes. It’s great, and that’s one of the really fun parts of all of this. Music, as you know, is very fluid, and it’s mysterious, it’s going to lead you, you don’t try to corrall it.
AH: And on that note, do you have a schedule, do you make yourself write or do your songs come to you?
WW: Well, I’m not a highly scheduled writer anymore, in Nashville, I was. For 10 years, I wrote 3 or 4 days a week, cowriting, they want you to do it everyday. I could never do it that much. Now, I just get inspired, and I start writing a line or two and then, I have a couple of co-writerse down here now that I save ideas to finish songs with, or I camp out with it, just stay with it until I have that song done by myself.
AH: Do you find that the lyrics or the melody or the music comes to you first?
WW: It’s almost like the first two lines, it’s always been that way for me. The first two lines come together, and not necessarily the first two lines of the song, but the first two that I get. The song just kinda builds from there. But I get the melody and, generally, the melody and the lyrics come together for me.
AH: What’s it like working so closely with your wife, Tina, and melding your personal and professional life together?
WW: It’s mostly really fun. It’s fun to play with her. She’s a good traveller, doesn’t get too hung up about anything and that’s what it takes to travel and we’ve played all over.
AH: What do you see on the horizon for you in the upcoming decade?
WW: I haven’t made a record of original music in 3 years, I’d like to finish some songs and kind of conceptualize a record of my own. I’m talking about producing, working in the studio with this year with one of my favorite songwriters, a guy named Davis Raines, who’s originally from Alabama but lives in Nashville. He’s a friend but I think he’s one of the truly great songwriters alive in this era, so I’d like to get something together with him and we’ll see what else comes up. I’ll play, I know this, I play about 200 nights every year here, I know I got gigs booked in the Netherlands and the UK in the fall and I go to the Netherlands every year, I love it there. This year will be my 10th year to play and I really enjoy it there.
WW: I produced 8 records in 13 months, in the calendar year 2018. Started in December of 2017 and ended in January of 2019. Some of these records have just…most of them have are making great lives, they have great lives going. They were so much fun to make and such high quality artists I worked with. Every record was different, and every project was different, we just had a great time, my partner Ron Flynt and I did all of those records together, all at his studio and they all sound completely different. I think what we tried to do is to try to see what the artists do and what they’re into and what they want to say. But that year was amazing. I was with my mom a lot as she was aging, going into hospice and passed away, actually during the last record. And those records were just…they lifted me up, they sustained me and the songs, all those guys are just great songwriters and some of those songs are just amazing.
AH: That is something that I found amazing with your records, even songs that you have written and are playing on different records, it sounds different according to who you’re working with.
WW: Yeah, I hope so. That’s the idea. I never want to have a “sound.” Some producers have a sound, and I never want it to be like that.
AH: And to my final question, where modern music has tried to make everyone sound the same, and you said you don’t really listen to modern radio anymore, but how have you been able to stay true to who you are, and to your sound?
WW: Aw, thanks. I don’t know. I think about it, I consider it important. I’m just so grateful that I get to do this and I get to work with other people on their records and I’m grateful I get to travel and play my songs. And that’s what I love, I love Nashville country music from the 50s, 60s, and 70s, and I was there when I thought it made a big turn where everybody ended up sounding the same; the same songwriters, the same players, and it kind of broke my heart because I love country music and I noticed it and I didn’t want to spend my life doing that, I didn’t want to be celebrating that when I could be celebrating all of the people that are out here in the world making it their own way and not selling their souls so they could make more money to sound a certain way or look a certain way. I just love people that do what they do and who they are, I love that.