As a producer, Butch Walker has worked with everyone from Fall Out Boy and Pink to Taylor Swift and Keith Urban. But Walker, who as a solo artist regularly delivers one of the most thrilling live concert experiences, says there is very little difference in his approach to producing pop music and modern country. Instead, it's all about capturing real emotion and showcasing the lyric.
"In modern country, there are less rules now, but I can't help but be a little bit of a romantic at heart, because my favorite country music is the stuff my mom and dad listened to when I was growing up. My dad was a huge fan of Waylon Jennings and the biggest Willie Nelson fan," says Walker. "I love the lyrics, you know? Some of those subjects you're not going to get in modern pop songs. And to be honest, there is just not a lot of pop music that I want to listen to — it doesn't fortify me at all. Maybe because it's just gotten so dumb and club-oriented. It's made for people that are gakked out of their minds at a club, with one word said over and over again, and then throw your hands in the air. Even the modern country stuff that does that makes me want to throw up in my mouth a little bit."
Rest assured then the artists Walker has worked with in Nashville, where he lives part-time, are worlds apart from the lowest-common denominator country that gives the Georgia native a serious case of acid reflux.
"I don't ever want to be involved in making those kinds of country records," he tells Rolling Stone Country. "All the cliché shit…like pickup trucks and Igloo coolers full of beer and all that. That shit just makes me sick. I don't want to hear it anymore. I feel like it's almost insulting to the audience they are pandering to. They think that's all country boys and country girls do? Just sit around and fucking drink beer and watch football games and tailgates? God, man, you're not giving America enough credit."
But the more mature styles and subject matter of Urban, Swift and Jennifer Nettles — Walker co-wrote the title track and debut single off Nettles' That Girl solo album — are right in Walker's wheelhouse.
"As long as it's genuine and the lyrics feel like they're tugging at me the right way," he says, "I'm all about working on that."
Those prerequisites have also informed Walker's output as a solo artist, from the stark vulnerability of 2008's Sycamore Meadows, recorded after a fire devastated Walker's California home, to the self-aware rock bravado of 2011's The Spade. For his seventh album, Afraid of Ghosts, Walker looks even further inward. Inspired by the death of his father — whom he affectionately refers to as "Big Butch" — Afraid of Ghosts, due February 3rd, is a not-quite-through grieving son's homage to his hero.
"I think it's the kind of record he would have wanted me to make. It's a reflection on those records that he loved so much growing up and I fucking hated at the time because I was a little stupid kid listening to metal," Walker says. "But those records are like my saviors now."
While not an overt answer to Waylon and Willie, Afraid of Ghosts —especially tracks like "Still Drunk" and "The Dark" — does include elements of country music. And not just in its storytelling. The album's production is decidedly stripped-down with each instrument easily distinguished. Although Walker has produced all of his past albums, often alone, he passed the baton to friend and fellow artist Ryan Adams for Ghosts.
"To be completely honest, I didn't even think about the fact that it probably sounds a little bit classic country when you hear it because of the fact that there's accordion and steel guitar on it," says Walker. "The reason for its bareness is probably more that I was scared to death to oversell the songs because the lyrics were very personal. They always are, but this one even more so, because after my father died a year ago I've had a lot to write about and a lot to say."
According to Walker, he and Adams — for whom Walker has been opening on his current tour — didn't set out to make a regionally specific album. And while the project was recorded at Adams' Pax-Am studio in Los Angeles, the LP does nod to Nashville.
"It's gotten me closer to home," Walker says of spending more time in Tennessee. "After my father died I wanted to be closer to my family down in Georgia and still have the ability to work on records and be where a lot of my friends were. In L.A., it's so easy to lose yourself there because it's a city built on industry, not on music. I needed to get back to where I loved music and was inspired every day by people playing instruments. It just felt good to go back and hang out with a lot of my friends who are making what I like to think of as real records."
He cites an upcoming album by Nashville singer-songwriter Marc Scibilia that he just finished producing— "that record is scary good," he says — and recalls a recent session with Harry Connick Jr. at Walker's studio. "We started working on some stuff possibly for his new record. He is the most legitimate musician that I've ever worked with in my life," praises Walker, who says the door is always open to collaborate again with Keith Urban.
"We have talked about it and assuming he doesn't change his mind, he is really excited to get in and do some more stuff together," Walker says. "I love working with him. He just comes in and rips on the guitar and sings great every take and has a great attitude. That's inspiring to me."
As are the little signs that his father is still around — signs that only increased when Walker landed in Nashville. He remembers walking into his favorite East Nashville coffeeshop and stopping in his tracks when he heard Willie Nelson playing on the store's turntable.
"My dad would listen to Stardust on repeat. I came back to Nashville and was trying to ease myself out of Los Angeles full-time. I walked into my friend's coffee shop and 'Blue Skies' was on. I looked over and saw the Stardust record on display right over the turntable, just staring at me," Walker says. "I knew I was in the right place."