The old soul of Ryley Walker

The 25-year-old guitar virtuoso dusts off the classic influences of John Fahey and Van Morrison to create something new.

American musician Ryley Walker (photo credit: DUSDIN CONDREN)
American musician Ryley Walker
(photo credit: DUSDIN CONDREN)
A change in venue from the lush foliage of Burlington, Vermont and Portland, Maine to the stark desert brown of the Negev in three days can be quite jarring, but traveling troubador Ryley Walker is used to cross-cultural journeys. He’s been mashing musical styles ever since he picked up the guitar as a teen in Illinois on his way to being heralded as the one of the most striking acoustic pickers of recent years.
With a style that sounds like he grew up on the British isles instead of the Great Lakes, the 25-year-old virtuoso has been favorably labeled as a throwback to the pure sounds of 1960s singer/songwriter pioneers Bert Jansch, Nick Drake, acoustic guitar giant John Fahey and perhaps his closest antecedent, Astral Weeks-era Van Morrison.
“I didn’t grow up in a musical family, so I had to find out about all these people on my own,” said Walker last week in a phone call while driving with his band “through the middle of America on my way to Columbus, Missouri” before heading to New England later in the week before flying to Israel.
Like his young Illinois contemporaries, he played in a series of punk and “noise” bands while learning his craft but constantly searched for other sounds by thumbing through the used record store bins wherever he was.
“Discovering John Fahey was like a big door that opened in my life,” he said. “This music by him and others like him was so completely new and far out, and nobody else I knew was listening to anything like that.”
Calling what he heard “underground music for true record-heads,” not mainstream pop at all, Walker began delving more into the forgotten vinyl history of folk finger-pickers and soulful balladeers from across the Atlantic.
“I began to learn more and more about these obscure artists, which for my age and where I grew up, was huge for me,” said Walker.
After a half-hearted attempt at attending college, Walker dropped out and pursued his muse, with two 2013 offerings – The West Wind EP and All Kinds of You LP – exploring his Anglophilic obsession to its fullest and bringing him accolades from hip arbitrators like Consequence of Sound, Pop Matters and Uncut.
Walker’s latest effort, Primrose Green, at once pastoral and quaint, expansive and exploratory, features cello, double bass and Walker’s evocative guitar in exquisite interplay. Live, that interplay leads to some serious jamming where improvisation takes over.
“Jamming is an important aspect of our live shows which include open-ended and experimental music,” said Walker, adding that for his three upcoming shows in Israel this week, the band is adding an Israeli bass player to replace theirs who couldn’t make the trip.
“We’re always sort of a revolving door kind of band – if you can jam and hang out, then you can play,” he said. “That way, we keep things fresh on our minds and on our toes – there’s a riskiness in the live show where we wing it and go by feeling. Everyone in the band is a prodigy with strong classical or jazz background, which enables us to let go and let the feeling take over.”
Walker’s schedule in Israel includes shows on October 16 at the IndiNegev Festival, October 17 at the Tmuna Theater in Tel Aviv and the following night in a special solo acoustic show at the Ozen Bar, also in Tel Aviv.
“It’s two different things, playing with a band and playing solo. It’s like painting with different materials,” said Walker. “I’m playing the same songs, but obviously you can’t jam for 30 minutes while playing solo – with the band sometimes the songs can go on for 20 minutes.”
Even with spending so much time onstage, Walker said that he’s looking forward to his first trip to the Middle East, despite the current wave of terrorism.
“I’m curious about the music and the whole place in general – it’s all new to me,” he said. “A lot of friends who have gone told me what a great place Israel is – full of beauty of obviously, history. I’m excited to be coming to that part of the world, and I expect to eat some super-good hummus.