By Richard Skanse
At a glance — and even on closer inspection — Walt Wilkins really doesn’t fit the profile of your everyday Texas country artist. At least, not the modern mold. At 45, he’s a good decade older than most of the big young dogs on the scene, including pack leader Pat Green. But you gotta wonder where Green and so many others who have come in his wake would be today if not for the quiet but profound influence of Wilkins and his songs. If Ray Wylie Hubbard is, as some young writers have called him, sort of an Obi Wan sage of Texas songcraft, then Wilkins kind of is, too; think of him as the younger but still wizened and battle-scarred Ewan McGregor to Hubbard’s Sir Alec Guinness. To wit: where most of the songwriters on the Texas scene today discovered guys like Jerry Jeff Walker through records handed down from their parents or older siblings, Wilkins was just old enough as a teenager growing up in Austin in the mid-’70s to see his heroes live and in their prime. Years later, when the upstarts back in Texas where grumbling about Nashville from afar, Wilkins was in the very belly of the beast, subverting the system by writing songs from the heart instead of by the book — and subsequently landing cuts of several of those songs on mainstream records. All the while, he still made frequent trips back to his native Texas, where, thanks in no small part to one of his biggest fans — Green — several of his songs had taken on anthem status: “Poetry,” “Carry On,” “Who’s to Say” and most notably, “Songs About Texas.”
But for all the success he’s had with other artists cutting his songs, any true Wilkins fan — Green included — will surely attest that Wilkins’ songs sound best when they’re done by Wilkins himself. His own records, like 2000’s Fire, Honey & Angels, 2002’s Rivertown and 2004’s Mustang Island, deserve pride of place in the collection of any self-respecting aficionado of Texas songwriters, or of great songwriters, period. His latest, Hopewell, is a quieter, more reflective record than Mustang Island, but song for song it showcases Wilkins at his very best. More significantly, as its title suggests, it’s a happy record, which captures Wilkins, who recently returned to Austin to settle down with his wife (fellow singer/songwriter Tina Mitchell Wilkins) and 4-year-old son, Luke, to a T.
So how long have you been back in Texas now? Have you adjusted back to the Texas way of life yet?
We’ve moved back 15 months ago, and as far as adjusting, it took about half an hour! I was so ready to be back home, ready to move my little family home. I wanted us to be back here, and it’s fit us all really well.
How long exactly were you in Nashville?
Ten years. Before I moved there, I’d been writing my own stuff for about seven or eight years, and performing them for three or four. I was lucky in that I moved there with a publishing deal already in hand — I wouldn’t have moved there, otherwise. What happened was I got a call from a guy at BMI Nashville, who said, “I heard these songs of yours on a tape, and I think you should come out here.” I told him I didn’t want to go there — “I hate Nashville!” But he paid for me to come up, so I visited, and on my first trip there I saw Guy Clark and a lot of other writers from Texas. And they were like, “Well, if you want to make money doing this — having other people record your songs, this is a good place to be. Especially if you already have a publishing deal.” So I moved there, thinking, “Well, I’ll stay here two, maybe three years.” But I stayed 10.
I’m sure you missed a lot of things about Texas while you were away. But now that you’re home, is there anything you really miss about Nashville? Like, do you find yourself craving really bad Mexican food?
Hah! No, not that. But we actually became big fans of the triple-A baseball team there — the Nashville Sounds — and we lived really close to the field. It was great to just go, “Hey, let’s go to the game tonight,” and it’d just be 15 minutes away. So we went a lot. Now when we go to the Round Rock Express games, it’s more of a drive.
And, honestly another thing I miss about Nashville is that the songwriting musician community there is more concentrated. It’s more of a well-defined community, with more hangs to go to, like the weekly show at Billy Block’s on Tuesday. Here, there’s not that many places to get together with other songwriters, because everybody has to make their money on the road. Whereas in Nashville, a lot of people were making money doing sessions, so they were free to stay in town and hang out the rest of the week. It was fun to see everyone all the time.
What made you finally decide it was time to come back home?
I think playing down here again. I did 90 dates a year for three years in a row, which means that I’d come down here from Nashville and stay for two weeks at a time, and play all my gigs at once, go back for two weeks, come back for two weeks. And it was just hard to be away from everybody, but that’s what I had to do, because this is where I could play. So that helped make moving here make sense to my wife; she was like, “OK, we have to be there at least so you’re not gone so much from us.” But honestly, she was ready. I realized I could have stayed and kept toiling in the demo-making trenches, but there were just less and less reasons to live there.
Do you still have your publishing deal?
Yeah. I wrote for BMG Nashville for five years, and I’m writing at Curb Nashville now for like, the seventh year. So I still have a toe in the water up there.
That’ll hopefully help pay for your kid’s college some day.
Yeah. Well, if I get lucky … I’ve still never had a hit. Some folks think that I’ve made a lot of money doing this, but I’ve never made much money at it at all. I’ve got some cool cuts, and I’m proud of it, but I’ve never had a hit on the radio across the country, really. But I’m still in the lottery. As long as I have a publishing deal, that helps a lot.
What was your very first cut as a songwriter?
My first cut was a song called “Absolut Crazy.” It was cut by Perfect Stranger, back when they were on Curb. This was about 10 years ago. And right after that was a really personal song called “Big Hopes,” which was recorded by Ty Herndon right when he was really rocking. In fact, it was the title track of his record right when he finally kind of took off. That was a very personal song to me, and he did a beautiful version of it.
As a songwriter, do you have right of refusal, in case someone you really don’t respect wants to cover one of your songs and you don’t want them to?
It’s funny, because in your contract, you do, but nobody ever takes advantage of it because everyone’s always so grateful when someone cuts their song. I can say I had a couple of cuts that I hope no one ever hears, but mostly I’ve been lucky in that that’s not the case.
What’s your favorite?
My absolute favorite is a song I wrote called “Someone Somewhere Tonight” that a guy named Ray Stephenson has done. He’s not on a label yet — he’s close to it — but it’s pretty magical. And that same song was also recorded by Kenny Rogers last year and it’s coming out next month, and it is as artistic as anything you’ve ever heard come out of Nashville. It’s really beautiful. And Ricky Skaggs did a song of mine which I never dreamed would be cut by anyone. It’s a very strange story song called “Seven Hillsides.” That was very meaningful to me because it’s not an easy song; it’s about doubt and faith. It’s a story told from the viewpoint of a preacher; I mean, how many songs do you hear like that? And, Pat’s version of ‘Ruby’s Two Sad Daughters,’ I love that, too.
When you were living in Nashville, did you get into a groove where you were punching a clock, writing songs for nine hours and then going home?
Well, I’d love to say, “No, it’s not like that at all.” But there is an element of that there, and it’s bad. I wasted some time doing that until I figured out how soul-killing it was pretty quick, and then I found my way to work the system, and it wasn’t a bad way at all. I think I remained pretty unscathed. But there is that element of it, and it is that element of the machine that contributes to how soulless some of the records are that are made there. There’s no question about that.
So how did you dodge that trap?
By not writing everyday with someone. I mean, they would love it if you went in every day and wrote with someone different. And I tried it for a stretch. But you know, playing live was the main thing, because that made me want to write songs that were my own, that were distinct, and that were connecting to people in a room, the way we do it here in Texas, which is how it’s supposed to be. I mean, when I moved to Nashville, there were probably 2,000 people a day who went in and wrote songs that were never going to be played live for anyone, ever. And that’s no good.
Exactly. Formulaic things to fill up a record so they could keep getting them out. And singles — people are always trying to write singles. But not every song can be a single; not if it’s real. So it is pretty crazy, that system. It’s not healthy, and country music has suffered for it, for sure.
Once you start getting cuts, does that start messing with your song writing process any? Where you come to edit out the more personal stuff?
I watched it happen with other people, but I was lucky in that the system showed me that the songs of mine that people chose to record were songs that I wrote for myself. Almost every time. The songs that I found interesting and really dug into and knew that I would play, those were the songs that were covered by other artists.
Pat Green’s cover of “Songs About Texas” is still probably your best-known song, at least here in Texas. According to your bio, that was the first real song you ever wrote, right? Where were you at that point in your life?
I was in Louisville, Kentucky, going to seminary. Which I didn’t finish, but I went for a while. Anyway, I was real homesick, and that’s what the song is about. Before that, I’d written a lot of poetry, and I’d played with bands, and I knew I wanted to write songs, but that was the first one where I knew I’d really written a song. I thought, “I would play this for somebody.”
Obviously you weren’t the first person to write a song about Texas. And I’m not knocking that song itself. But, in light of how popular that song became after Pat cut it, are you willing to shoulder the blame for so many of the bad songs about Texas that have come in it’s wake?
Do I shoulder the blame? Hah! I got ya. The short answer is “yes.” But I will say that I’ve never been ashamed of that song. I do hear people say, “I’m so sick of that song,” but it was real to me. I was 24. I’m just part of a long tradition of Texas boys who got homesick, and my song is maybe better than some, and not as good as others.
On the occasions that I’ve interviewed Pat Green, he’s always spoken very highly of you. How did you and he first meet?
We met because he had recorded “Rain in Lafayette” and “Songs About Texas.” The reason he had heard them before I had recorded either of them on records was, Pat’s brother dated my ex-girlfriend’s baby sister. It was that tenuous! But he heard a cassette tape of one of my very first live shows, and called to tell me he was recording them. I was living in Nashville, but I when I came down to play SXSW that year, I went out to Cedar Creek Studios where he was recording to meet him.
Let’s go even farther back. Tell me how you got started writing songs in the first place. You grew up in Austin, right?
Yeah. But I was born in San Antonio. And my dad was in the Air Force, so we moved around a lot. But when he got to a point where he could pick where he wanted to live, he wanted to move home — both my folks are from Texas. So we moved to Austin when I was 8. And then I had my first band in Austin when I was 14. We were called Nobody’s Fools, and we played everything on the radio: from Kiss to Rusty Weir, the Eagles, REO Speedwagon, everything.
You were a teenager right during the height of Austin’s progressive country glory days. Fittingly, you just recorded a song for that remake of Jerry Jeff Walker’s Viva Terlingua! that was recorded at Luckenbach, didn’t you?
Yeah, I did “Little Bird.” And Tommy Alverson and I are co-producing the record, too. It’s a bunch of folks who are working these days who are really affected by that record. It’s actually the nine songs from Viva Terlingua, which was from 1973, and three songs from Viva Luckenbach, which I think was from 1993. The recording of the new album was a tremendous success — the live shows were incredible. Now we’re talking about maybe doing a series of records like this: taking great records that really defined some of this music, and paying tribute to them.
What records would you like to redo?
Cosmic Cowboy Souvenir, by Michael Martin Murphey, from the same year or the year after Viva Terlingua. Those two records, to me, were the real bookends of that whole Austin era. You had the wild party stuff, like the Jerry Jeff record, and then this completely experimental, evocative music that Michael Murphey was doing at the same time. Murphey’s record to me is such a strange and powerful thing. The first record I ever did in Austin was called Bull Creek Souvenir, and I called it that as kind of an homage to Cosmic Cowboy Souvenir. He was a huge influence on me. That record and Geronimo’s Cadillac — they really split my head open when I was 12, 13, 14 years old.
Who do you look up to as a songwriter these days? Who’s your gold standard?
I’ve got a bunch of them. The guys I grew up listening to, like Willis Alan Ramsey, Steve Fromholz and Murphey, they were the first ones. I mean, as a kid, even before I could drive, I would go hear them play. And then there’s Guy Clark, Townes, and all the ones you discover that not every great songwriter is from Texas, like John Prine, Kevin Welch and Kieran Kane. Kevin, Davis Raines and Sam Baker are actually my big three right now. They’re like my graduate committee, where I’ll wonder “What are they going to say about this?” whenever I write a song that I know I’m going to play.
When did you realize your calling was songwriting?
Honestly, I feel like I always wrote. I wrote poetry from the time I was 7 or 8 years old. And I also wrote a couple of goofy songs for my high school band. But after I wrote “Songs About Texas,” I thought, “I can do this. I’m not ashamed of this, this is what I want to do.” And then, it was figuring out, “How do I get these songs to people so they can record them?” I didn’t think about recording them much back then, and I only started performing them because I didn’t know how else people were going to get to hear them. So I had to. Fortunately, I found out that I liked performing, too, because I had good models, from seeing Fromholz and all those guys play so many times. And then, “Ruby’s Two Sad Daughters” was like the ninth or tenth song I wrote; it took me months, but I thought, “I can make a life doing this.”
Let’s shift to the recording side of your career. You made your last record, Mustang Island, really quick, didn’t you?
In one day! We tracked it in one day, I sang it in one day, and then we mixed it in one day. It was by necessity, but we found the meaningful part of doing it that way. Going into that project, I was thinking about the records I loved growing up: mid-70s country rock records from Texas and California. I thought, “Let’s make a record like that. Let’s just go from the gut and we’ll do it in a day.” I thought it’d be real fun that way. Plus, I was playing with guys that I knew really well and trusted, so I knew we could get it done. And it was fun, it was meaningful, and it does sound, to me, like the records that shaped me.
Did you take more time to make your new record, Hopewell?
This record was different in that this year I was going back and forth to Nashville, and I’d record a song or two when I could and hope that it made sense as a whole. So it was almost the opposite of Mustang Island, again out of necessity. I was working on other people’s records so much last year, which I’m glad and thankful for it, but I’d have to just squirrel away songs for myself when I could and I’d record them. So I just did work when I could in little corners over the course of a year.
Who all did you produce?
My partner Tim Lorsch and I produced Ryan James at the end of ’04, and then we did Brandon Rhyder, Brad Himes, Jason Eady, Bonnie Bishop, and a great kid from Fort Worth named Bobby Duncan. And we also did my wife Tina’s record and my record, all over the course of a year. And I kept up my usual touring, which was my regular 90 dates a year. So last year went real fast. I think I took four days off!
Now that it’s all done, what do you like best about Hopewell?
When I look back, it’s a record about moving. That’s the theme that runs through most of it. It’s about how we’re free to go in search for whatever we want to, whenever we want to. I like that aspect of it, and I really do like the songs. But what I like most is the playing. In some ways, it’s sort of a letter to Nashville, knowing that I may never go back up there and record the same way with this group of guys. The guys on this record are like my brothers up there: Mike Daily, Rick Plant and Tim Lorsch. I’ve played with them and loved them for almost 10 years. So, I like that there’s a lot of room for them all to play on the record, because I think they’re best players in the world.
And, I like that it’s a hopeful record, mostly. I think the only really sad song on it is “Absolut Crazy,” which I did mainly because people ask me to play it all the time, and I’d never recorded it, and it was time to put a version down. But really … I’m a 45 year old guy, and I’m lucky that I get to do this for a living. I like being married, I have a 4-year-old boy I love, and I like it when we get to be on the road together. So it’s nice to have a record of songs that show, you know, “Hey, look at this guy – he’s happy!”
I think the song “Standing by the Rambler” is the real standout here. Is that about you and your wife, or someone else in your life?
No. I mean, that’s part of the story. But it was inspired by, of all things — and I’ve never told this story — but it was inspired by a line I heard seven or eight years ago on the Ellen DeGeneres show. Not the talk show, but back when she had a series. I was just walking through the room while my wife was watching it, I caught about 15 seconds, and she said that line. I thought, “What a line!” The theme of that particular episode was, she was watching her parents age and saying how one day you’re “standing by the rambler, and next day, they’re old people.” And I’m not kidding you — I walked into to the kitchen and wrote almost that whole song on the spot. And I had a songwriting appointment the next day with a friend of mine named Kyle Matthews, and he helped me make a whole big beautiful circle out of it in the last verse. He got it.
So you stole it from Ellen?
Yeah I did! But, I’ve got a friend named Liz Rose, who co-wrote Bonnie Raitt’s new single. Bonnie Raitt just played on the Ellen DeGeneres talk show, and Liz said she was going to give Ellen a copy of the song if she met her. And I’m going to send one to her, too, and say, “Hey, I got this from one of your shows ….”
You know, admitting that is going to be good for your karma. Which, speaking of good luck, brings me to my last question: Dude, when was the last time you had a haircut?
Hah! I quit cutting it in 1989.
You and Kevin Welch.
Yeah, probably at the same time. I got to know Kevin right when I got to Nashville. And the last time I got my hair cut shoulder length, his daughters thought it looked cool so they talked him into doing it. And we both hated it! So we both swore never to do it again.