Today we say hello to Wily Bo Walker, known for multi-genre songwriting, storytelling, performance, and production. He is also regarded as one of the top blues vocalists in Europe and is one of very few independent artists from the U.K. who have been inducted into the U.S. Blues Hall of Fame. With a career spanning more than 40 years, Wily Bo works across many styles and genres; Rock, Blues, Gospel, Soul, Classic R&B, Jazz, AAA and Americana and has played ‘live’ worldwide with many award-winning musicians, featuring on hundreds of recordings
We began by talking to Wily Bo Walker about his role as a musical storyteller who has seen around four decades of change in the music business. One of those changes is the way that we listen to music today, with the number of albums being less than it used to be and the downloaded single increasingly being the medium for younger people to enjoy music.
Wily Bo- I’m old school, and when I construct an album, I am very careful about the album run and the playlist from the first track to the end. I am very much a vinyl guy. I am old school in that there may be ten tracks in the world of vinyl, and track five would probably be the end of side one, halfway through. Then you stand up and turn the album over. I gear my playlist around that pattern, and that listening experience. There are still bands that carry on that concept. I am a great fan of Greg Dulli; he was the vocalist for the Afghan Whigs, now an indie band, in the 90s, but their albums are really great as a whole package. Everything now surrounds the music on “Spotify,” which is why so many artists just release singles. It makes a lot of sense from that perspective. As far as that is concerned, I am not in that business. There is the world that I have created, the world of VoodooVille, and my albums are related to that and the concepts around it. I relate music to film noir, and its stories. Within that, the music has to stand up. There was an album I released a few years back, a double album, “The Roads We Ride,” and it had a concept. The album came together almost out of nowhere, and the characters we have been writing about a lot are autobiographical. But three characters came through the whole thing, and it was almost a concept album. I enjoy the whole album thing, I sit down and consider the album cover, construct the notes, and I always enjoy that with an album. It is an experience you don’t get with “Spotify.”
Wily Bo Walker, picture by JC Brown
Our reviewer commented on the wonderful album cover for “Moon Over Indigo.” It’s clear that the album package for anything by Wily Bo is a creative experience.
Wily Bo- I think it is the whole package, absolutely. I have a few artists that I commissioned to do covers for me. The recent albums have been designed by Zhana D’Arte, who connects the song storylines with imagination; she knows what I want: the film noir style, and in such a way that takes little clues from the lyrics. The cover will reflect something from the album, so it does reflect those classic albums of old. Frank Zappa with the “Over-Nite Sensation” album (1973)—now what a cover that was! There was so much going on in that cover that you could go back to it so many times and always find something different. So, yes, I see a whole piece and a package.
Next, we wanted to ask about the Rattlin Bone Theatre Show. We did read that it was originally pencilled in for theatre a year or so ago, but maybe the pandemic postponed it.
Wily Bo- It did get postponed. We had the theatre booked, and it was a lot to get everybody involved. We had the lockdown in 2020, so we had everything in 2019, and we were getting ready to put it on, and there was a small London theatre. I played the songs live with a fourteen-piece band about ten years ago; it has this New Orleans kind of vibe, and the songs went down really well. It’s something I’m still working on, and it will get finished at some point. It is there in the pot, and you will see in the not too distant future a few singles coming from that project. I am starting to release material from it, and I have another artist commissioned to do the artwork. It is all ongoing. It is like an alter-ego for me for that project; it has that Louis Armstrong vibe, and I think it shows the fun those guys had with the performance.
Something we note on the UK blues scene is how they seem to have so much diversity in the music, and that away from the more purist eye of the States, bands like Five Points Gang here in the UK have developed a more rock and blues sound. Wily Bo is also a very diverse artist.
Wily Bo- My audience tends to be more US-based. But the blues in Britain—you know, early Fleetwood Mac— and so on, the British blues scene from the start had a really different vibe to it from the US; we always had that rockier edge. We have the purists in the UK, of course, just as much as in the States. Anyone can get shot down for not playing something as the purists would want it played. But in the US, there is a wealth of depth; whether it is Chicago blues, delta blues, or whatever it is, there are specific places, and you wouldn’t go into those clubs playing some British variant of rock.
Of course, as our friend Shirley King (BB King’s daughter) noted in our feature with her, the great bluesmen were first and foremost entertainers, looking to connect with the audience. Their influence runs right through modern rock music.
Wily Bo- And so many of those early blues performers were singing really raunchy songs; it certainly wasn’t radio fodder. But it was entertainment, and we look back with a lens that tells us how something should have been, or was, and I don’t know who gets the power to determine! But as an artist, I just follow the muse and do what I do. I get placed as a vocalist with the blues, and I have spent a lot of time with the blues, but I am interested in other genres.For example, Jason Isbell has an album coming out, and I am so excited by that. An artist has the right to follow where their muse takes them. If you are playing the blues clubs in some parts of the country, then there is a blues police that can come out and say, “That’s not quite right,” but it is what it is.
We noted that after nearly four decades in the business, Wily Bo remains an independent artist.
Wily Bo- Yes, fiercely independent. I love freedom. I have been offered contracts over the years, but have always declined. There was the problem that it would have tied me down to one specific thing, but having enjoyed the freedom, I like to do what I do. As I get older and have produced other bands, I enjoy that aspect. There is no money in music any more, so it has to be about pride and creativity. To me, that is far more important. Maybe at one time, long ago, it would have been nice to have had more money thrown at me, but I enjoy what I’m doing, and I’m doing fine.
Wily Bo Walker, picture by Christina Jansen
He certainly is! Wily Bo is in the American Blues Hall of Fame for one thing, and has so much respect from fellow artists.
Wily Bo- I’ve worked with so many fantastic artists over the years, so many I have worked with over the decades, that I feel privileged. Not only blues musicians, but jazz musicians, and so forth. For me, that is a brilliant path to have gone down. When I set out, it was all about meeting these guys and working with people who could teach me.
The new album is out soon, the new singles (“Live With Me” and “Montgomery”) were reviewed in the magazine, linked here and we thought to finish the interview by asking what we can expect from the new material and how it fits into the chronology. You can download the latest of these “Montgomery” here.
Wily Bo- It is another aspect of “VoodooVille;” it has ten tracks and ten different stories, all based around this blues motel. One of the first tracks I ever recorded was “Motel Blues” by Loudon Wainwright III, and it has been with me for decades. Also, having stayed in a few sleazy motels myself over the years on the road, I wanted to tell a few stories from this motel. I have taken ten different characters, some of them thinly veiled, that tell the stories of people in this motel. I note the Cecil Hotel in Los Angeles, which became a notorious rendezvous spot for adulterous couples, a drug activity hotspot, and a common ground for prostitutes. These places have a history and an interest for me. It crosses into the film noir and cinematic aspects of my work. I work with Ed Brayshaw, and he is totally in tune with what I am up to. He comes up with some amazing music. There is a sister album we are working on too at the moment; it’s more Americana.
So a great year awaits in 2023/24. We should note the home page for Wily Bo Walker is here where you have the merchandise, recording information etc.
By Benny (the Ball) Benson
Mark C Chambers
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