The Georgia native's newest project is a concept record that tackles racism, homophobia, and stepping out of your comfort zone.

By Sarah Rodman
March 31, 2020 at 07:16 PM EDT
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Haley McDonald/Crush Music

Are we having a conversation?

Those are the first words you hear on Butch Walker’s upcoming album American Love Story, due out May 8. They are repeated by various voices with touches of both exasperation and hope, which feels just right for the Georgia native’s expansive concept album. Or, as he says with a laugh, “the known fashionable term: rock opera.”

Walker released the first song from the project  "Pretty Crazy" last week and the ambling Southern soul ballad is one of several streaks of sunshine in the loosely told tale of a young man named "Bo," raised to be bigoted, fearful, and homophobic. He begins to change his ways after his life is saved by the classmate who was the target of Bo's merciless bullying. He is ultimately taught to see the world with clearer eyes and a more open heart through the love of his out gay son, a gifted musician, and his free-spirited wife.

A full-blown storytelling project is the logical next step for the 50-year-old singer-songwriter, who has been steadily working through his nine lives as a musician for over 30 years since lighting out from Cartersville, Ga., for L.A. with his hair metal band Southgang in the late ‘80s. Those tainted angels morphed into the ‘90s power-pop trio Marvelous 3, which ultimately led to his current Grammy-winning career as a songwriter-producer-collaborator with a wildly broad range. (He’s worked on over 100 albums stretching from Green Day to Harry Connick Jr. to Taylor Swift.) In between gun-for-hire gigs, Walker has produced his own string of cult-favorite records.

The multi-instrumentalist began tinkering with the Love Story's concept several years back — after the 2016 presidential election to be precise — when he started to see a rise in visible white supremacy and xenophobia. “A lot of things started just really coming out of the holes in the ground, like inherent racism and being proud of it," he says. "And that was stuff that I saw growing up in a small Southern town, where I was a part of that problem in my ignorant youth.”

Having maintained homes in Los Angeles and Nashville and with frequent travels back to Georgia — straddling several worlds that are represented on American Love Story, from "redneck" to "snowflake" — Walker felt like he had a unique perspective on issues at the heart of our blue/red civil wars. (Or as he puts it on the album: "Divided States of America.")

It is a story of boys and men, fathers and sons, inherited hate, the transformative nature of love, and the courage it takes to step out of the comfort zone. It also encompasses everything from intimate piano ballads to uptempo electronic dance music to muscular guitar rock to the musician's longtime specialty, hooky pop. EW recently chatted with Walker about American Love Story, which is a love letter to family, the idea of healing the fissures within them, and the power of music. In short, we had a conversation.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Was this an all-at-once struck-you-in-the-middle-of-the-night idea? Or was it something you tinkered with over time?

Butch Walker:  After [the] Charlottesville [rally-turned-riot], I just couldn't write about anything else. I thought "Oh, man. Nobody wants a social record out of me." But to be honest, some of my favorite music is the protest records from the '60s and '70s. And in the '90s, people were raging against the machine, so to speak. I think at this point people are just so scared to voice their opinions. And this is something that I don't think people should be scared to talk about. I had a couple of songs and I played them for my manager. And he was like, "Well, I'm sensing a theme here." And I was like, "Yeah, I guess so." I mean, I had not planned on it being one. But I just couldn't write about love. I was so exhausted from that format. I'm not inspired by anything else except this topic. And so when I started having a handful of them, the light bulb went off over my manager's head and he said, "This could be a concept record." And so I started writing more songs and gearing it towards creating these characters out of all the existing songs. And then new ones too. Two years ago I had this thing sitting and done.

Did you shelve it because you were producing other people's records? Or it just didn't feel like the right time?

I was definitely writing and producing other people's stuff and that's something that I try not to ever turn away if it's good work, or I need to put food on my family's table. That's all stuff that pays the bills. But at the same time, [my own] writing and touring is a thing too. And then when I finished it I was like — and pardon me for speaking in third person — "Maybe this is not a BW record. Maybe this is a record that's just anonymously put out there as its own side project."

So what changed your mind?

I was like, "How am I going to tour this?" Because when you write an album that over half the songs are sung through the perspective of a racist, bigoted white man, the last thing I'm going to want to do is just cherry pick a couple of songs, and put them in a set that's full of older songs, because it would get taken out of context so quickly. People would be like, "What the hell did he just say?"

Yes there are  several songs — “6 Ft. Middle-Age American Man” and “Out in the Open” for instance — with lyrics that include slurs that would make it hard for people to sing along and feel comfortable.

Yeah, exactly. It just had to be the right time and the right place. Because I thought, "Well, this is its own animal. It's its own special show where I play the whole thing front to back and tell the story."  And I guess I just never felt that the timing was right for that until now.

Sometimes concept albums can be dark, lugubrious affairs but this sounds very much in the spirit of previous albums. In fact, some of the tunes with the most potentially incendiary lyrics are the catchiest.

Well, that was the idea. I love beautiful melodies telling me terrible things. So I always thought that maybe dressing this record up in sheep's clothing, but it being a wolf lyrically, was the right thing to do. Because I wanted to almost blindside people that maybe only listen to the music and don't really listen to the lyrics. I thought, "Well, this will be an interesting little bait and switch." I kind of sadistically like that.

You clearly wrote this from the point of view of someone that you may have had things in common with as a young person. But I was wondering how much of your own actual story — your father and your son — are plugged into Bo's storyline?

You could literally, if you wanted to, compare three of the characters in the story to my dad, myself, and my son. But by no means do they reflect everything that happened between my father and myself, and then now my son. It's just a story that is everything I saw growing up, but did include some of my family's behavior. And concerns for your future, for your kids. Obviously the situation that happens in the middle of the story, where the guy gets his life saved by the guy he hated and took all of his bigoted aggressions out on, and then that changes the main guy's life. I feel like I was facing that everyday growing up.

Are you concerned at all about people misconstruing your intentions or conflating the "Bo" character with your personal opinions but at the same time thinking that you might be mocking this kind of person? That people will think, "Oh, the snowflake musician is making fun of rednecks, because he doesn't understand."

Yep and believe me, I've had lots of time to think about that. Rob Thomas from Matchbox Twenty is one of the first people I played this for. [Ed. note: Walker produced Thomas's recent solo album Chip Tooth Smile.] And he was very thoughtful and very helpful in addressing those same concerns with me in the first draft of it. By no means is this supposed to be an attack. If anything, it's supposed to incite a conversation on every level. Because people don't converse about anything anymore. They go straight from zero to offended immediately. I can tell you for a fact, I'm one of those people. Because I mean, here I'm a redneck living in California. I'm all confused. And I've got all these people back in the South that say, "Oh, you're just a California liberal whose lost touch with your roots." And it's like, "No, not really." I mean, I've spent my time between both places. And I care about a lot of things. There's a couple of instances [in American Love Story] where characters get stereotyped. And that's the whole idea is that you hear the white guy, redneck, or whatever saying the [stuff] he's saying. And then you hear the California hippie girl saying the stuff that she's saying. And it's all kind of just to lightly poke fun at the stereotypes, and realize that not everyone is like that.

You make a joke in your notes about turning it into a TV movie. But do you have aspirations to transpose it into a visual medium? 

I mean that would be the thing, right?  It'd be ironic if it ever turned into something that could be a visual spectacle. And I'd be lying if I said I didn't think big every time I do something. Because I do. I definitely don't ever feel like I'm subtle. That being said, I would love more than anything for this to turn into something like that. But even if it just ends up being a few shows in a few cities of just doing it with me on stage with a guitar and a piano, and telling the story — I'd be happy if it at least enlightened one person, or even just people got something out of it, some emotion, some happiness and some sadness.

Given that people are doing wacky things while we're all stuck inside, is there any chance that there will be a SouthGang reunion livestream while we're all isolated?

I doubt it. I think it would hurt me physically to play that kind of music now.

How about Marvelous 3?

I'm not ruling that one out.

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