Butch Walker: musician, rocker, Georgia boy. Composer of dozens of songs that stick in your head; Choruses you want to sing (or shout) along to; Purveyor of authentic stories of exploits and predicaments and romance that are filled with optimism; Architect of albums that have few boundaries, embracing hard rock and ballads, pop rock, Americana and singer-songwriter. Or, as Butch says, “I think it’s all just rock & roll.”
Stay Gold is Butch’s 8th album. The last one, 2015’s Ryan Adams’ produced Afraid Of Ghosts, was a cathartic record that dealt with a devastating personal experience, the passing of his father. This one’s a celebration. In Butch’s words, “After coming out of the AOG album cycle and tour where, at the risk of sounding ridiculous, I spent a lot of time on stage bawling my eyes out, I felt a very calm sense of peace. Like I’d done what I needed to do to get it outta my system. Every song that came after that was almost a nostalgic, celebratory … for lack of a better word – “jam.” And the songs just kept coming to me (snaps fingers three times), which was good cos that’s not always the case!”
You’ll find that the stories on Stay Gold are very well fleshed out, something Butch credits to “growing up on some of those dudes – Elton John and the (Bernie) Taupin lyrics, Springsteen and Joel. I love that stuff. I had a buddy, Matt Marston, who was actually dating my sister back in the early 90s. He was a songwriter and ended up being a pretty big unsung influence on me because – well, there’s no escaping the fact that I had a hair metal band in the late 80s / early 90s and it was a lot of fun but it wasn’t always very broad, lyrically. I certainly listened to people whose words blew my mind, like Elvis Costello, Tom Waits and others, but I couldn’t cop it. I didn’t even understand how to go about it. And this guy, Matt, opened my mind. He could paint these vivid pictures and stories … so, I asked him how he did it. He told me, ‘I just kind of pay attention to my surroundings, sitting on the subway or the bus and I see a guy over in the corner reading the paper, he’s maybe like fifty-five-years-old, sixty-years–old, and I’m wondering what his story is.’ For some reason, the light bulb went off in my head. I gotta give it to that guy, Matt, for helping me figure it out.” That long ago ’eureka moment’ still informs Butch’s writing and the material on Stay Gold is clearly his most articulate to date. When asked if the stories are real or imagined, he replies, “All the songs are half true.”
The new album kicks off with the title song, a straight-ahead rocker, loaded with swagger and lyrics that call out native GA locales. It’s a tale Butch says is “about being from a shit-dead-end-town and not having a glimmer of hope. I wanted this record to somehow spin all of those negative stories into a positive light.” The title comes from a borrowed catch-phrase – ‘Stay gold, Ponyboy’ – from the S.E. Hinton novel (and later, a Coppola film), The Outsiders. “It became a positive send-off, to tell somebody to not give up hope, ‘Stay gold’, ya know?”
“East Coast Girl,” is “a nod to me moving to LA in the late 80s. I just remember running into so many tragic stories when I moved out here. Guys and girls that had just come from the east coast to do exactly what I did.” The song effectively combines an anthemic chorus with spoken verses, recorded conversationally (at Ryan’s suggestion) on an iPhone. Listen closely and you’ll notice the guitar parts are a tip o’ the hat to The Pretenders’ James Honeymoon Scott, “who made the Tele sound rock & roll to me.”
The writerly eye for detail is apparent in one of Stay Gold’s standout tracks, “Wilder In The Heart.” Describing an airport meeting with a girlfriend, Butch sings, “Baby blue suitcase from your grandad / New tattoo above your bra.” And there’s a cut-right-to-it honesty when he asks, “Did you come back to say you’re sorry / Or are you just scared of being alone.” Interesting to note – this was the first song written and recorded for the album.
According to Butch, “Ludlow Expectations” (with its excellent pun title) was written in NYC and was designed to “give you that feeling of no school, no work, nothing but girls on your brain.”
The ballad, “Descending” is a unique one in Butch’s canon. A beautiful, decidedly tender duet / co-write with country singer, Ashley Monroe, about survival and staying on the course of love.
“Irish Exit” provides a cool stylistic shift with a Celtic sound, “Like The Pogues or Springsteen doing Van Morrison.” A hilarious and lively tune about ducking out of a party to get away from the “selfie selves.”
“Mexican Coke” is another one inspired by the move to Los Angeles. A playful yarn describing a “snot-nosed kid” on a soda sugar-high, with a crush on an older woman of an ethnicity never experienced in Cartersville, GA.
There’s a tight, dramatic segue into the next one – a down-tempo ballad called “Can We Just Not Talk About Last Night” – that indirectly makes us focus on the provocative topic. The lyric relates to the “weird spot in a friendship that becomes physical by accident” and the awkwardness of the morning after. The rasp in Butch’s voice here adds so much, you can feel him digging deep to capture the emotion.
“Spark: Lost” begins the album’s wrap up with a monster chorus and a gorgeous guitar solo. It has a simple, melancholy lyric about “love running its course and the severing of ties with everything and everyone that comes with it.”
“Record Store” is a nostalgic, heartfelt look at the diminishing record store culture, with a sidebar about being enamored with a “badass rock chick that worked the counter, who went on to be a successful recording artist, but lost her way in the business.” Written specifically as a closing song on the very last day of recording, the basic track “was done live – acoustic and vocal. And it kinda got to me as I was singing it. Which is cheesy to say, but it hit home. A sore subject for many of us. The record stores I hung out at (in Rome and Cartersville) really shaped me as a musician, shaped me as a person … and I wish it was as big a thing in shaping kids today.”
The freedom one senses from a Butch Walker album is a big part of the attraction. He makes them exactly the way he wants to and never does the same kind of record twice. And he’s able to do that for two reasons: First off, on the financial side, he’s produced and/or co-written with the likes of Avril Lavigne, Weezer, Pink, Fall Out Boy and Taylor Swift, which pays a lot of bills. “I love helping other people make their music. It feels good to get outside of my own box.” Secondly, in artistic terms, he’s with a label that gives him a lot of elbow room, Dangerbird Records. “Jenni (Sperandeo) and those guys over there have been great. They let me do the creative part, they do the business part and it’s awesome!”
Having ace players on Stay Gold, like keyboardist Roger Manning Jr. (Jellyfish, Beck, AIR), drummer Mark Stepro (Ben Kweller, Keith Urban, Panic! At The Disco) and Suzanne Santos (HoneyHoney) on backing vocals and violin, adds to the considerable strength of the recordings. “It’s been fun to listen to it in the car. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t listen to my records after I do ‘em. And it’s a blast to drive down the PCH and listen. I wanted to make that kind of record.”