Nestled between the second and third tracks on Butch Walker’s new album, American Love Story, there’s a talk-radio sketch that sums up the polar-opposite stereotypes of the 2020 United States.
Female caller Annie passionately preaches her belief in “equality” and “helping out others,” while testosterone-charged Bo rattles off the minorities he hates. Both say they love freedom: For Annie, it’s represented by the sound of church bells at a gay couple’s wedding; for Bo, it’s a gun chambering a bullet. “That’s the sound of freedom, baby,” they say over each other.
Walker, 50, says he’s ready to call bullshit on the word and its overuse.
“I feel like there’s this blanket of American culture that is misled by the word ‘freedom’ and what it actually means. A lot of people are using what they consider to be their freedom to hurt others and potentially kill us,” says Walker, a cult-favorite solo artist and big-name producer for bands like Green Day and Fall Out Boy. “It’s a reckless term and it’s not all it’s cracked up to be.”
Walker, who was raised in rural Georgia and currently lives in Los Angeles and Nashville, stresses he’s no fascist or communist. He’s just fed up, burned out, and pissed off by the way our differences can be manipulated to pit us against one another. His new album, an ambitious but succinct rock opera, looks at those differences via the story of the conservative and close-minded Bo, and makes the case that people can in fact evolve.
Walker did. Growing up in Cartersville, Georgia, he heard the inappropriate jokes and bigoted observations. They were commonplace where he lived, just part of a normal life that, in hindsight, seems anything but.
“There were racist jokes and homosexual jokes, and things like that were just the norm, thrown around between friends and family. It’s weird to even think back on that,” he says.
American Love Story, then, is his reckoning with those times.
“It’s about me having to shed that layer of skin that was completely complicit with the way black people were treated, minorities were treated or talked about, gay people were treated or talked about,” he says. “The more you live, the more you learn. Some people just aren’t living enough in their lifetime to learn. I’m hoping that [this album] will make people just think a little bit.”
American Love Story has a number of intentionally stereotypical characters — a hate-spewing father, a bullied gay kid, a vapid girl named Paris — but the protagonist is Bo, who undergoes a seismic transformation after the gay classmate he tormented at school ends up saving his life. In lesser hands, the tale could be disastrous, but Walker tells it with grace, infusing poignancy with humor and setting it all to some impeccable songs. Sonically, it evokes the most accessible of Eighties rock and pop, and the singer-songwriter-producer played every instrument on the album.
Walker released his prior studio LP, Stay Gold, in 2016 and began writing the songs that would become American Love Story soon after the deadly 2017 Charlottesville, Virginia, white-supremacist rally. When the record was finished, he sat on it for two years, uncertain if it should be released. He focused instead on his successful job as a producer, overseeing hit albums by Fall Out Boy, Rob Thomas, Weezer, the Struts, and Green Day’s latest, Father of All Motherfuckers. Walker’s been spending the bulk of his quarantine behind the console too: He’s currently producing albums by Jewel and the Wallflowers, and is gearing up for another Green Day record.
Still, he kept going back to American Love Story, especially when he had the sobering realization that its message was, unfortunately, still relevant. “I believed in it and I loved it, and, sadly, that material just did not date itself. It just stayed the course. I listen to it now and it’s like every song has something that is almost a current event.”
Walker sings each song in the first person, inhabiting characters that may make other artists, not to mention listeners, uncomfortable. There’s the narrator of “6FT Middle-Age American Man,” whose pickup truck is full of bricks meant for the border wall, “to keep out all the spics and the gays.” In “Torn in the USA,” he’s an anonymous white guy wondering, “How am I gonna know who to hate?” when the prejudiced pals he used to commiserate with now all have children who listen to Drake. “Out in the Open” finds Walker as the voice of the beleaguered gay kid, steeling himself against harsh insults and finding strength to take a higher road.
But it’s “Flyover State” that most taps into Walker’s own experiences. Written around the melody of “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” — a song with its own conflicted history — the lyrics are delivered from the perspective of a sheltered, small-town guy who feels belittled by his “annoying cousins from snowflake states” with all their talk of liberal politics and fine wine. Walker maintains that the character isn’t a bad person necessarily.
“‘Flyover state’ is a derogatory term, and I grew up in what would be considered a flyover state. So this is not a song making fun of those,” he says. “The guy who’s narrating is talking about why he’s pissed about people slogging him off, and the fact that he’s been fucked over by what he considers to be a terrible government and a terrible class system. But more importantly, he’s just emotionally bent. And have I been that person? Yes. Do I see people like that every day? Yes. Talk to them? Yes.”
As Walker was readying for the release of American Love Story, he posted a snippet of “Flyover State” online. “One-two-fake-news,” he counts off to start the song.
Immediately, he caught shit.
“I started getting attacked online by people going, ‘Oh, great, just condescending, fucking Hollywood elitist, blah, blah, blah,'” Walker says. “It really triggered a lot of bros and a lot of people that were just thinking that I was attacking and being self-righteous. It’s like, ‘No, there you go, that’s part of the problem. That’s why I wrote this record.’ It’s because people just take it at face value and they hear a couple of words that are trigger words in the lyrics, and they immediately judge.”
By story’s end, Bo marries Paris and they have a son who tells his father he’s gay. But it’s Bo who drops the biggest revelation: that he once ostracized people like his own kid. “I’ll tell you stories of who I was/Hope you won’t hate me like my daddy does.”
“It’s a love story that has a very beautiful, bittersweet ending,” he says, “and a good outcome for humanity in this little weird world of a record.”
American Love Story is an album that has to be listened to in full, and being unable to tour because of the pandemic has unexpectedly solved Walker’s problem of how to weave songs like “6FT Middle-Aged American Man” into his live shows. “This kind of thing really serves its purpose when you play it from beginning to end,” he says. “But I’ve got 30 years’ worth of albums that I play from in my set. It’d be a weird disconnect to be like, ‘OK, I’m gonna stop and play this whole brand-new record from beginning to end.'”
But fans will hear the album live: Walker says he’s going to perform it online. In the meantime, he’s hoping they’ll take away one key message.
“It really matters how we treat others right now,” he says.