As John Prine, Elliott Murphy and many other singer/songwriters can attest, evoking the world of Bob Dylan, deliberately or otherwise, constitutes dangerous business. While a musician’s Dylanesque traits may initially serve as an effective attention-getting device, the difficult-to-shake association can foster unreasonable listener expectations. If an artist himself fails to understand that the “next” Dylan will be found only in that performer’s future work, moreover, he may well make the mistake of trying to play the other man’s cards instead of his own.
A fledgling talent who has already traveled some of Dylan’s roads, Sammy Walker seems extremely vulnerable to these pitfalls, Like his progenitor, Walker published his first songs in Broadside, made his first important concert appearances at New York’s Gerde’s Folk City and recorded his first album (1975’s Song for Patty, on Folkways) after being hailed as “a young Woody Guthrie.” More significantly, his guitar and harp playing and poetically flavored, topical compositions prove quite Dylaneseque and, as a vocalist, Walker often sounds more like the early Dylan than anybody since Blind Boy Grunt.
On portions of this auspicious but uneven major label debut, which boasts agreeable country/rock backup and a well-suited production by Nick Venet (Wendy Waldman, etc.), Dylan’s ubiquitous specter causes problems. Crossing a thin line from adulation to imitation on “If I Had the Time,” for example, Walker creates what casual listeners could easily mistake for a National Lampoon spoof. The similarly flawed but infectious “Catcher in the Rye,” which brings vacuous verbiage about why the singer wants to “turn the phony world I left to sand,” might well be dubbed “Mr. Tambourine Man Revisited.”
Those and a few other tunes here notwithstanding, however, the lion’s share of the program finds Walker only tangentially recalling the master while evidencing a talent that, in several cases, completely transcends the evocation’s importance. Though the well-sung “East Colorado Dam” echoes the lugubrious tone of Dylan’s “Ballad of Hollis Brown,” for instance, Walker’s mordant vignette marks him as a noteworthy raconteur in his own right. And the fiddle-spiced “Brown-Eyed Georgia Darlin’,” which weds lilting melody to sharply honed metaphoric imagery about its protagonists’ redemption, further indicates that the artist has what it takes to make potent, original music. If he can nurture the distinctive ability displayed in such songs, he may even blossom to the point where he has his own crop of emulators.