Tricia Walker is a Grammy award winning singer and songwriter whose songs are steeped in the passion, pain and grace of the American South. Born and raised in Mississippi, her music has been recorded by Faith Hill, Patty Loveless and Alison Krauss. Walker backed Grand Ole Opry star Connie Smith for six years and toured extensively with Shania Twain and Paul Overstreet as a keyboard player and vocalist. Tricia was a founding member of “Women in the Round,” along with Pam Tillis, Karen Staley and Ashley Cleveland, one of the most celebrated foursomes at Nashville’s prestigious Bluebird Café.
Tricia will retire from Delta State as the head of the Delta Music Institute after this semester. Her new album, “Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter Eye” is due this spring.
There’s a drive I like to make between Indianola and Cleveland that clears my head; so in preparation for our meeting, I listened to Tricia’s portfolio as I straddled the yellow lines. Her record, Heart of Dixie, has old classics and original tracks alike, but there was one song towards the end, “Look Away,” that made my my drive a little bit longer. A beginner when it comes to Mississippi storytelling, much less the mechanics of songwriting, I tried to make sense of what Tricia was leaving up for consideration.
Claire: What can you tell me about “Look Away”?
Tricia: “Look Away,” what a great song. Kate Campbell, who is a song writer from Mississippi, and I became friends over twenty years ago now and it was on one of her second or third records, with Walt Aldridge. I was driving down the road, listening one day, heard the song and had to just pull over and weep. I knew immediately that it was referencing the ruins of an old mansion named Windsor, which is five miles from where I grew up in southwest Mississippi.
C: Is there a marker or something now that I could go and see?
T: Oh well the columns are still there. Have you never seen it?
T: Oh gosh, it’s one of the most photographed places in Mississippi. Eudora Welty used to go out there and have picnics and just hang out. I mean it’s incredible to sit there and imagine.
Windsor Ruins — Lorman, MS
C: And what town did you grow up in?
T: It was outside of Fayette, MS, between Natchez and Vicksburg. So it’s about three hours south of here on Highway 61. I grew up in the 60’s in the middle of the civil rights movement and Fayette was very much a hot bed of civil rights activity. Charles Evers, brother of Medgar Evers, became the first black mayor of a biracial town after reconstruction, that was our little town. So there was a lot of tension. It was was most certainly a time of segregation. It just was. But I was never taught to hate. Of course I grew up in the church, so when I came to those coming of age years I really had to struggle with what I was being taught in church and looking out my door and seeing these inconsistencies. It was a huge time of change. So everything about the song, all the lyrics are just spot on.
She went on to play the keys on her desk as she walked me through the lyrics of the song, top to bottom.
“Never saw a cross on fire, never saw an angry mob. I saw sweet magnolias blossom, I chased lightning bugs at night. Never dreaming others saw our way of life in black and white.”
T: It was such an innocent perspective.
“It’s a long and slow surrender, retreating from the past. It’s important to remember to fly the flag half mast and look away.”
C: I’m interested in what you think about the usage of “look away” in tandem with that narrative. Do you see or feel juxtaposition?
T: Oh, yeah! It’s brilliant. “Ode to Billy Joe” does a little bit of the same thing in that it allows the listener to make their own interpretation. Depending on what side of the fence you fall on, you can look away and try to ignore it; stay in your same ole lane that you’ve always been in and not change your position on it. Or you can look away, with a little sadness at the passing of an era. It could mean different things and that’s the genius of great songwriting.
The original setlist from Women In The Round’s first meeting, courtesy of Tricia Walker.
C: Have you ever had any heartburn or fear about presenting your story without trying to make disclaimers on the front end?
T: You know, that’s a really good question. I wonder if generationally it makes a difference because I was coming of age when all of the real changes began to take place. You know Malcom White? He’s the head of the Mississippi Arts Commission. He believes, as I do, that it’s all about telling your story. I think we have to give each other space to tell our stories. Some of us are better storytellers than others and I think out of respect for another person, there’s probably a time and place to tell the story.
Tricia performing "Heart of Dixie"
Tricia has been performing “Heart of Dixie” as a one woman show and performance made up of songs and stories. There is a gutsy part of the show that has caused audience members to leave, depending on how she delivered her lines.
T: So, all of that to say, I think it’s important to be respectful when trying to tell your story. I try to really wrestle with the fact that it’s an artist’s job to tell the truth. Tell the story. But be considerate of the other person, almost ask permission. You know, “There’s some things I want to share, but they may be kind of tough. Are you good with that?”
C: It’s easy for me to want to get defensive on the front end before I present something, but you can’t do that until the end of time. There is something to be said for saying your piece at the beginning and then not having to repeat yourself once you have some credibility.
T: And it is frustrating! When I go outside of Mississippi and outside of the South. Now that I’m the age that I am, it’s even more frustrating, to try to fight against those stereotypes.
C: I’d like to get your opinion on that, on the characterization of Mississippi — from all sides. From my experience, my community here is tired of talking about a lot of it. It’s reality, but it’s also low hanging fruit.
T: I hear you. I think there is a state wide fatigue.
C: That’s a great word.
T: And, yet, it is the cross we bear. If we’re not willing to talk about it, and everybody needs a break every now and then, but if we’re not willing to talk about it, then history will be doomed to repeat itself. So, it’s an inch by inch battle. I look at some of it here…
Looking out the window, Tricia points to one of her students saying, “Here’s a kid that’s going to be in the DMI All Stars. Here’s a kid who’s probably never been out of the Delta. He got picked to be in this All Star band. He’s gonna go to Los Angeles. He’s never been on a plane. He’s never seen the mountains. He’s never seen the ocean.”
T: So that’s part of my fight. If we can get young people to change their minds, they’re gonna have to pick up the ball. I’m old. I am tired! I’ll keep fighting, but the truth is the next generation is gonna have to do it. So how do you change the minds and the characterization of young professionals and young adults? All of my years in Nashville I used to love to bring people home with me because usually they’d go away saying, “Aw this is great down here! It’s not like what I…” and I’m like, “Duh…”
C: Of course it’s not.
T: So that’s why I’m all about tourism and getting people here.
C: That and we do everybody a disservice by saying this is all that we can expect. I went to a panel, shortly after we met, at Third Man Records. It was a young blues artist, Adia Victoria, and five others. It was on the Delta blues talking, largely, about the appropriation and status of it today, but no one on the panel was actually from the Delta. I learned a lot, but it was interesting not having representation from the Delta to speak to any of it. So I wound up in this place of, “I totally hear that, but also I wish some people I know could be up there.”
T: You need to spend some time with Roger Stolle. He is your guy. I just think he’s an incredible marketer. He’s done some films, but a lot of it starts with music. With Roger, you’ve got somebody that invested in the community. Stays here, lives here, bet the farm on it. He’s done well and it’s had a huge impact. Obviously, earned trust of the community and the blues community. So, yeah, I always sort of squint my eye if there’s a panel like that and there’s not anybody from the Delta on it.
C: I do think they could’ve done that a little bit better, but it did its job in that it got me thinking about my own experience with the blues and the events I attend. How I engage with it, how I view it, what I picture when I think about the blues. It called a lot of that learning into question. In hindsight, it’s interesting to see the difference in platforms that people are given, despite their impact.
T: Delta State’s president, President LaForge, had two real big initiatives when he came in and I think this is a real important part of Delta State and just the region. One is for Delta State to be the academic home of the blues. He wanted to start a conference, which we have done, The International Conference on the Blues. So we actually have an academic conference and people come from all of the world, but we also have some performances. Last year we did sort of a joint thing with Trombone Shorty. One year we had Alvin Youngblood Hart. One year we had Don Fleming.
He also wanted Delta State to be the school that, intentionally, had the open and honest dialogue on race because we are the most diverse public university in Mississippi. So coming up in March we’ll have the fifth “Winning The Race,” as they call it, and this year the theme is going to be “Millennials in Motion.” They’ll bring in national speakers and then we have break out sessions. The topics are all about race and economics and social justice. Out of this conference actually grew a local leadership initiative that Delta State works with. You know a lot of the little Delta towns are so small and the people that serve as their mayors really have never had any training. So there’s a mayor’s, a rural mayor’s initiative. All that to say, they’ve had some really amazing speakers who come and they just cut it open raw.
C: Well that’s people doing stuff, which is what I like to hear.
T: People doing stuff. People telling their stories.
Photos courtesy of Tricia Walker
C: I’d so much rather talk about this kind of stuff than drudging up… I’m not reinventing the wheel here. I’m not the first person, nor the best person to talk about all that stuff from the past. I’d much rather pivot.
T: Well, and the nice thing about this being in an academic setting, you get away from the here-say when you have data and facts.
C: Characterization was a word the panel used when they spoke about the marketing behind blues musicians and it made me wonder, especially as a white person, how I can be a respectful fan of the blues and not get sucked into that?
T: Well and these blues conferences, those are some of the topics they look at. I mean, how did the field hollers develop? It’s academic to the core. But Roger (Stolle), to me, looking back on the last 12 or 13 years and what I see, I mean, Clarksdale people have joined in too, but him being an outsider and coming in, he has done more to I think properly develop and market the blues the than anybody I’ve seen.”
Whenever I’m in the Delta, good things seem to happen. I’ll sit down with Roger next week and look forward to reporting back on the above.