Most musicians would be ready to call it a full career after decades backing such country, folk and pop luminaries as Waylon Jennings, Roy Orbison, Dottie West, Johnny Paycheck, Jimmy Webb and Nanci Griffith on the stage and in the studio. But virtuosic Nashville-based pianist Barry Walsh isn’t like most musicians. Sure, he’s done all that and more, but he’s also fashioned a new career for himself as musical partner to revered singer-songwriter Gretchen Peters and an artist in his own right. Paradiso—his second solo album—is the sound of a player who spent years shaping his keyboard contributions to the contours of other people’s music finally staking his courageous claim to creative freedom.
You could say Walsh has been preparing his entire life for the music he’s making now. He went from high school immersion in the works of visionary French composer Erik Satie to earning a living in Top 40 bar bands before age 20. Then he studied classical piano at Tennessee State University, but left before he graduated to take the gig with Paycheck, the consummate honky-tonker. And Walsh is probably the only guy on earth who could join the revived version of one of the world’s coolest blue-eyed soul groups, The Box Tops—led by the late Alex Chilton—and find inspiration to study Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier. “I wouldn’t have done it any other way,” he says of his rich and varied work as sideman and student, “because I was learning all that time.”
It was after Walsh laid most of that aside to focus on his collaboration with Peters—they’ve toured Europe together at least twenty times, co-produced her three most recent albums and, to top it all off, are now happily married—that he recorded his solo debut, The Crossing, in 2008. There was an Erik Satie composition on that album, just as there is on Paradiso. But Walsh’s latest mainly features his originals. “I think what I’ve done makes it unique,” he reflects, “because I’m coming at it not from a strictly classical place, or a strictly anything place. It’s a melting pot of who I am.” And the melting pot sounds positively pristine since he recorded on a Yamaha Conservatory C7-F series grand piano that he rescued from the shuttered Music Row studio Masterphonics—it happens to have been the favorite instrument of a number of players in Music City.
Some of Walsh’s new compositions have very personal origins, like the beautifully brooding “Gretchen’s Theme” (it’s no secret who that one’s for) or “Youth and Age”, with its eloquent call-and-response passages between piano and guitar. The latter marks his first collaboration with his guitarist son Brennan Walsh. Says the proud father, “We met as equals on the same stage, so to speak, for the first time.” And the Brian Eno-esque “Seven Weeks” came of an instrumental role reversal with Peters: “I thought it would be a great idea if we turned things on their head and let her play the piano part and I would find a guitar part to play.”
In tracks like “Marathon Motor Works”—named for an old car factory in Nashville—you can hear Walsh exploring cinematic ideas in the vein of one of his more contemporary influences, Philip Glass. Rob Ickes and David Henry provide fetchingly fluid accompaniment on dobro and cello. (Henry also mixed the album.) “With the constant motion going on on the piano,” Walsh explains, “I felt like it needed something smooth and legato riding over the top of that.”
Two compositions take their names from the places where he first premiered them: “Koblenz”, the German city, and “Paradiso”, the storied Amsterdam venue. Pondering the latter led him to Dante’s Divine Comedy (Paradiso is the third part of the poem, following Inferno and Purgatorio), and eventually to the album title and the vivid medieval print that adorns the album’s cover. Walsh describes the memorable, century’s-old scene this way: “The thing that’s subversive about it is here’s Dante and his amore Beatrice ascending up to paradise, meanwhile Satan is corrupting the clergy in Florence by dropping gold coins into their hands. I like the yin and yang of it”.
Such high-concept art is perfectly appropriate for the high-quality music Walsh can genuinely call his own. “I’m expanding myself, my artistry, on my terms,” he offers, “and I don’t have to be constrained by the parameters that I used to have to deal with on other people’s music. I can experiment and do the things I’ve been wanting to do for a long time. It’s very satisfying, the whole thing.” Indeed.