Internationally and nationally acclaimed Toby Walker has been hailed as a roots music fingerstyle guitar wizard. Walker was the 1st place recipient of the International Blues Challenge Award – Solo Division – given out by the Blues Foundation in Memphis TN.
Walker blends blues, ragtime, country, bluegrass, rock, and old-time jazz into his own unique style. Jorma Kaukonen of Hot Tuna and the Jefferson Airplane said “Flat out… you have to hear this great musician… I’m blown away!” and has employed Walker to teach at his famous Fur Peace Ranch Guitar Camp for 6 years.
Walker is coming to the Big Island for a four-venue tour and one guitar workshop (further info below). I caught up with Walker during his busy schedule to ask him about what fans can look forward to during his live performances here.
What is it about acoustic -blues music that inspired you to start playing it?
When I was a kid, all I could afford was a little simple acoustic guitar. So, I played that a whole bunch and listened to a lot of acoustic music. But I also listened to and played a lot of electric guitars when I could afford one. I eventually molded these styles together.
But was there a certain artist or song you heard that made you say, “Yeah, that’s it!”
From the acoustic side, Robert Johnson and then the guys that were influenced by him. There was a guy named John Mooney that came out of the original Rochester, New York, and New Orleans. On the electric side… everybody from Jerry Garcia, the Allman Brothers, and the Stones. It all kind of rolls into one for me.
What guitars do you play the most?
It’s a Huss & Dalton MJC with a cutaway. They come out of Virginia, and only make a couple hundred a year. It’s quite big and I have a lot of reach because of the cutaway. I also have a 1990 Martin acoustic guitar, and a Fender Telecaster, that’s the one I’m going to be bringing to the Big Island.
What type of reception do you get when you tour overseas?
I’ve always had a great reception overseas and have been touring there for 17 years now. I started touring in the British Isles and then all over Europe and then in the Mediterranean.
I understand you’ve received the International Blues Challenge and NY Blues Hall of Fame awards. How did that feel?
I was surprised! The Long Island Blues Society contacted me, and said they wanted to send me to Memphis for the International Blues Challenge contest. I had kept turning them down, but they were paying for hotel, food and drinks. So, I figured it would just be a party. I said, ‘Yeah!’
I think I did five songs and there were a bunch of other people competing. I went back to the bar and I just said, ‘OK, let’s get back to having a good time party.’ At the end of the night, my friend was shaking me, and I was like, ‘What’s up?’ He said, ‘You’re an idiot! They’ve been calling your name up there, and you won!’ I was completely surprised! I went up to the stage to get the award and it was nice.
Besides being a great guitarist, there’s also an entertainment factor in your show. Can you talk about that?
When I go to see a show, if there’s somebody up there just playing instrumentals, I can last about three songs. And then I’m antsy. I want to just get up and leave. But if it’s a talking solo performer, and they’re also injecting little funny lines, that keeps me interested. So, that’s what I’ve done with my shows. I’m always telling stories, little antidotes, little jokes here and there as well as playing the music.
In the ’90s, you made several trips to the deep South to study with some of the old-time players. Who did you meet, and what did you learn?
Let’s see… I found Etta Baker, and there was this guy Son Thomas from Waveland, Mississippi.
RL Burnside, who I think was from around the Holly Springs area, and Eugene Powell from Greenville, Mississippi. He used to record with Bo Carter. So, what I learned from them was like two or three songs from each one and we really delved into how their styles were. And I teach that now in my workshops. I think the biggest thing I ever learned from these folks is that they were original and creative in a way that is individual to each one of them. You could give them the same song, say, ‘Good Morning Little Schoolgirl,’ and every one of them is going to do it completely different in their style. I think that’s the biggest takeaway I got from that, as far as a player. From a social sense, I really saw firsthand the poverty that they come from and live in. All of them had hard lives.
Is there anybody you’d like to collaborate with that you haven’t already?
That’s an interesting question. I’ve never had anybody ask me a question like that. I always thought I’d love to play with Groucho Marx and Chico. They were actually excellent musicians.
Is there anything else you’d like to add before we go?
That I teach guitar as well. That’s been a part of my living and I produce these video lessons that I sell online. I was very fortunate to be picked up by a company called Happy Traum’s Homespun Music and have produced eight instructional DVDs with them. They distribute them all over the world.
Toby Walker Big Island Tour Dates
When: March 4, Weds.
Doors: 6:30 pm. Show: 7:00 p.m.
Where: Gertrude’s Jazz Bar, 75-5699 Alii Drive., Kailua-Kona
Info: 808-896-4845 or 808-327-5299
When: March 5, Thurs.
Doors: 6:00 p.m. Show: 7:00 p.m.
Where: Blue Dragon Tavern & Cosmic Musiquarium, 61-3616 Kawaihae Road, Kawaihae
Event: Guitar Workshop: (1.5 hrs.) with Toby Walker
When: March 7, Sat. 1:30 p.m. – 3 p.m.
Where: Hilo Ukulele & Guitar, 56 Ponahawai Street, Hilo
Info. 808-896-4845. Venue: 808-333-5450
Note: Workshop must be booked in advance at bluesbearhawaii.com
When: March 7, Saturday
Doors: 8:30 p.m. Show: 9:00 p.m.
Where: Hilo Town Tavern, 168 Keawe St., Hilo
Info: 808-896-4845. Venue: 808-935-2171
Tickets: $18. Advance
When: March 8, Sun.
Doors: 6:30 p.m. Show: 7:00 p.m.
Where: Ohia Room, KMC – Volcanoes National Park, Volcano
Info: 808-896-4845. Venue: 808-967-8335
Tickets: $20. Gen. Adm. Adv. $30. Gold Circle
Show Tickets: Gertrude’s Jazz Bar – Kona; Kiernan’s Music – Old Town Kainaliu; Blue Dragon Tavern – Kawaihae; Waimea General Store – Parker Square, Kamuela; Top Stitch – Honoka’a; Hilo Town Tavern, Hilo Guitars, Hilo Music Exchange; Hilo and Rogers Guitars- Kea’au.
For Tickets, Gold Circle Premium Seating, and more information Go to: http://www.bluesbearhawaii.com or call: 808-896-4845