Butch Walker: Why I'll Never Make a 'Radiohead Album'

After honoring his late father on 2015's somber 'Afraid of Ghosts,' prolific singer-songwriter learns how to rock again on the new 'Stay Gold'

Butch Walker confronts middle-age and learns to rock again on the new album 'Stay Gold.' Credit: Noah Abrams

Butch Walker strides into a rehearsal space near the Nashville airport where he's prepping for his new tour, pops open a mineral water and, upon taking a seat, puts his feet up on the table. He's wearing Chucks with heels so worn down they suggest he may have walked to Nashville from Los Angeles and he has the look of a man who's come through the other side – he bared his soul on last year's Afraid of Ghosts, a hauntingly introspective album that addressed head-on the death of his father, "Big Butch." But while the process was cathartic for the singer, songwriter and in-demand producer, it left him worrying if his only musical output going forward would be of the hushed and somber variety.

"I spilled it all out on that record and it was a heavy subject. Where do you go from there?" asks Walker. "I didn't want to purposely make a sarcastic party record as a knee-jerk reaction. It was more like, I'm a grown-up, I'm the man of the house now. What do I do? What do I say? It triggered a lot of bittersweet nostalgia. So I started writing about all that, and it sounded like the template should be more of a celebration, as far as the music goes."

Stay Gold, out today, is very much an optimistic statement. If Afraid of Ghosts was Walker exorcizing his demons, the 10 songs on Stay Gold reacquaint him with his better angels. Opening with the crunchy Stones swagger of the title track, the album barrels toward rock & roll redemption, mixing in elements of country, Irish folk and Roy Orbison balladry to paint Walker's most cinematic release yet.

In fact, Stay Gold was inspired by a movie: Francis Ford Coppola's 1983 adaptation of The Outsiders, the S.E. Hinton novel about warring factions in 1960s small-town Middle America. Such social-class disparity is a theme familiar to Walker, a Georgia native.

"There was so much of this small-town nostalgia coming back to me of growing up in Cartersville and hanging out with all my dirtbag, greaseball friends. I started thinking I needed to go back and revisit The Outsiders," he says. "That whole trajectory was my upbringing. That was everything in my periphery: yuppies over here, the enchanted ones, and the disenchanted over here. That set the tone, and then I wrote 'Stay Gold' and it was clear to me that this is the record."

The title nods to The Outsiders' most famous quote: "Stay gold, Ponyboy," itself an allusion to Robert Frost's poem about fleeting glory days, "Nothing Gold Can Stay." Walker credits Ryan Adams, who produced Afraid of Ghosts and was a sounding board for Walker during the Stay Gold sessions, with helping flesh out the record's "Greaser" imagery. (Adams contributed guitar and piano parts to the album, which Walker produced.)

"He's a very visual guy and it was cool for us to talk about what we saw the image of this [album] being. To us, the songs are the Eighties imitating the Fifties, which is what some of our favorite artists of that era did, like Springsteen and Petty. Ryan would throw words out like 'Cherry Valance' and drag cars. And I'd say, 'Yeah, yeah, yeah! This song needs to have cars revving up in the beginning and peeling off," says Walker, citing the song "Ludlow Expectations." "It was cool getting to be that bold and that ridiculous with our idea."

But Walker says Adams also provided some brutal honesty.

"It was nice to have an outside opinion and have it be someone as opinionated as him. There's no sugarcoating. I'm too old for that. I don't need somebody patting me on the ass and telling me what a good job I did," says Walker, 46.

The notion of age comes up a lot with Walker, both in conversation and on Stay Gold tracks like "East Coast Girl," which finds the singer addressing his halfway point in life. "Everything is going pretty par for the course / I got back problems, gray hair, craving a Porsche," he sing-speaks at the song's beginning. But Walker never indulged in the sportscar – instead, he went for a gold-capped tooth, driving home the album's aesthetic.

"Do I get a Lamborghini or a gold tooth?" he laughs. "I don't know if there is a category for people that write songs [about midlife crises], but I'll probably be the spokesperson for helping guys get through their mid-life."

Walker is joking, but settling into his 40s has helped him create arguably the most self-assured work of his career. While his 2002 solo debut, Left of Self-Centered, and 2006's The Rise and Fall of Butch Walker and the Let's-Go-Out-Tonites, were thrilling releases, full of bombast and attitude, they were more about the then 30-something playing a part. Beginning with 2008's Sycamore Meadows – recorded following a devastating fire at Walker's California home, and released on the cusp of him turning 40 – all the way up to Stay Gold, he's embraced heart-on-your-denim-sleeve declarations of loss and love. Always, the words spark the process.

"I write lyrics first, which is kind of weird, and the music comes later. A big part of it is, 'What is this going to look and sound like?' Because you can take these lyrics and put them to country songs, to folk songs, to rock songs," he says.

With maturity, Walker's earned the right to explore all of those genres: one of Stay Gold's most boundary-pushing tracks is "Descending," a duet with country singer Ashley Monroe. He refers to it as his "Bob Seger power-ballad duet," but it'd be right at home in the nebulous Americana genre.

Chalk it up to not backing down from any mid-life crisis or just being comfortable in his own skin, but Walker – who's never experienced the sort of mainstream success that the acts he's produced (Fall Out Boy, Taylor Swift, Keith Urban) have – isn't interested in chasing trends. He prefers to find his joy in the music that came before him, that mix of Fifties meets Eighties that informs Stay Gold.

"For this album, I was revisiting records I loved growing up. I'm not the kind of guy that needs to go listen to the new Radiohead record – no disrespect to them – and go, 'I'm going to do that.' That's just desperate and sad at 46," he says. "I don't need to try to make In Rainbows or even Kid A.

"It's about, 'Can I stay inspired?'" he continues, "and if that means inspired by the past, that's fine."