Photo: Anna LoPinto
It’s not easy pulling Colter Wall away from spring calving season. This time of year, Wall isn’t a country and western artist. He spends his days checking on fresh calves atop his buckskin gelding Gus. The first calf dropped ten days ago, and now there are 7-12 new babies a day. But when I reached out to him to ask if he’d talk to me about W.B. Walker, he readily made an exception.
“W.B. is a hero of mine,” Colter Wall tells me from a landline in Southwestern Saskatchewan. “I’d be hard pressed to find anyone who cares about music and cares about the artistry of the song, particularly country music, more than W.B.”
Created in 2013, and now with well over 300 episodes, nearly 100 Youtube videos, rowdy live shows, and a robust online community, W.B. Walker’s Old Soul Radio Show has provided nearly a decade of independent country music. Garnering him an Ameripolitan award for “DJ of the Year” in 2018 as well as high praise from well-respected industry leaders like Thirty Tigers president David Macias, who calls Walker “an integral and fervent part of the community,” his contributions haven’t gone unnoticed. Macias calls Walker’s “advocacy a true gift” and credits him with championing the early careers of artists like Tyler Childers and Colter Wall. Wall agreed, stating, “W.B. found me before anybody else had.”
There are two parts to Walker’s success. The first is his unwavering commitment to the music he believes in, and the second is his good-natured and good-intentioned personality. Listening to his podcast you enjoy the commentary as much as his music. Walker’s show is infused with humor, stories, and catch phrases. From his cheeky warning about the possible risks of listening to his show (unwanted pregnancies) to sayings like “just jump in where you can and hold on” (a nod to The Darlings), his show is deeply personal. Creating a podcast in a music industry that at times can feel painfully formulaic, W.B. is a complete original. Part of that originality stems from where he records his podcast, at his mountain home in Dingess, West Virginia.
Dingess is remote. And not tourist remote. Appalachian holler remote. No cell service remote. Azalea-crowded porches, little tributaries with names like “greasy creek” and “briarpatch lake.”
The main road to Dingess requires traveling through a single lane, 3,331 foot mountain tunnel blasted into existence in 1892. Today, passage through the tunnel is not navigated by a stoplight or traffic light, but instead by a simple “Turn On Headlights” sign. The instructions go like this: Drive to the hole in the side of the mountain, squint, and don’t see any headlights? Then you can go. Once used as a railroad route to transport coal, the tunnel is one of two famous landmarks of Dingess.
The other is the shed behind W.B.’s house. He refers to it as W.B. Walker’s Barn and Grill. Once you arrive in Dingess, a town shy of 2,000 residents, it’s just a few turns to the Barn and Grill. A nondescript 12 by 30 Amish built shed on the outside, it is a honky tonk dream on the inside. Above the entrance door is a telling handwritten sign by Walker: “If you could look inside of my mind, I imagine it would look a whole damn lot like the walls of this bar.” It’s a Billy Bob’s of Fort Worth or Robert’s Western World of Nashville on a microscale. The inside of the shed is a dizzying mix of thoughtful, humorous, sentimental, and personal. There are clever nods to song lyrics like the taxidermy “coyote chewing on a cigarette,” one-of-a-kind signed memorabilia by the likes of John Prine and Hank Williams Sr., photos and notes from Walker’s famous friends, a 1908 church pew (an homage to the Ryman), and a working vending machine that dispenses cold beer for a nickel. Walker provides the nickels.
When I step inside the Barn and Grill a Gary Stewart vinyl Out of Hand is playing, and Walker is sitting behind the bar with a can of Budweiser in his hand and a black and mild hanging off his lip. He wears a pair of aviators and a black felt hat. I ask him if he’d remove his sunglasses for a few portraits, and he graciously abides by my request, but I feel torn. The shades are a part of his persona. I comment that his look reminds me of Shooter Jennings, and he responds, “Shooter told me I reminded him of his Daddy.”
Walker was raised in Martin County, Kentucky, in the early 90s. Like many of us, he owes all of his good taste to his grandmothers. During Walker’s childhood, one grandmother was playing local country music in her kitchen while she cooked, and the other played CMT in the sewing and craft room off of her garage. “I remember seeing a video for [Hank Williams Jr.] ‘Tear in my Beer,’ and it blew me away.” The video, created in 1988, used electronic merging technology to pair footage of Hank Williams Jr. with his deceased father Hank Williams Sr. The end of the video features father and son singing side by side. At the time of its release, it was groundbreaking. Walker cites Hank Williams Sr. as a major influence on his musical tastes, as well as his favorite songwriter of all time. There are nods to Williams throughout the Barn and Grill, including a life-sized cardboard cutout Walker had custom made.
Another experience that solidified his musical obsession happened while he was perusing through his dad’s vinyl collection. There he found an early Randy Travis record, Always and Forever. “I remember when I heard ‘Forever, and Ever, Amen,’ it changed me. It was so beautiful.”
Walker also cites his professional life as a railroad worker as a factor in his love of country music. As a young man in rural Appalachia, Walker had a few options for work. “There was the electric company, the gas company, or a coal mine. I never wanted to go into a coal mine because that’s where one of my great grandparents got killed… so I tried to get on the railroad.” For nearly 13 years he worked as a conductor and loved it.
“Country music and trains are like bread and butter, you know what I mean? As far as you go back [there are references to trains], like old Hank with ‘Lonesome Whistle Blow,’ to Cash with ‘Folsom Prison Blues.’ Everybody at some point has sung about trains. Growing up I was always fascinated by the railroad.”
The work culture was also conducive to Walker’s deep appreciation of country music. Between shifts he’d chat with his buddies about songs they were listening to or artists they liked. When his coworker, John Brown, introduced him to the music of Chris Knight, this became the catalyst for his radio show. “I heard him and thought, how in the hell do I not know who this guy is? That moment is what got me into the wheelhouse of music that I play on my show.” Walker became obsessed with finding new-to-him artists. He did a deep dive on other artists like Ray Wylie Hubbard and Lucero. “I was blown away. I couldn’t believe this shit ain’t on the radio… It got me wondering if I could do my own little show.”
As music has become increasingly accessible and commercialized, radio stations have also consolidated. With massive companies like iHeartRadio, Audacy, and Cumulus Media monopolizing the airwaves, the story of a successful one-man show or even smaller independent radio stations have become less common. While iHeartMedia controls 855 stations, Walker started with a website created by his railroad buddy, Roger Workman. Keeping it very “in-house,” Workman also recorded the intro, and an artist friend painted the podcast cover art. The cover features W.B. Walker and his wife Fallon outside the Dingess tunnel in Hank William Senior’s cadillac. The structure and feel of his podcast has stayed relatively the same. Where other programs might chase the latest trend or flash in the pan, Walker is steadfast in what he believes in.
Yes, he’s had incredible experiences with some of the biggest artists in the alternative country scene. Tyler Childers has slept on his couch, Colter Wall is one of his dearest friends (Walker is even on his record), and he receives high praise from industry leaders like David Macias, but that’s not the point. For him it’s the artistry, it’s the song. He speaks with conviction about folks like Cody Lee Moomey, Travis Napier, Kadie Meadows, and Ginger Wixx, who are in the infancy of their careers. When I hear of a new artist, I compulsively check their social media, Spotify streams, and tour dates, but Walker doesn’t.
I share this observation with Macias and he laughs, “I don’t think he ever looks at that shit. He recognizes quality, and when he does he’s super passionate and it doesn’t matter if that person doesn’t have anything going on…If there is one throughline with W.B. it’s that he recognizes the true artists.”
There is a level of undeniable humanity in how W.B. navigates the world, and that is what makes him so great. I felt it the first time we chatted on the phone, I heard the same sentiment from those closest to him, and I experienced it when I traveled to take photos of him with my baby on my hip. Wall notices it too. “They don’t make a lot of people like W.B. Walker. They just don’t. I knew right off meeting him that he is just about as genuine as they come. There’s an expression people have, ‘that guy would give you the shirt off his back.’ I think a lot of people throw that term around loosely, but W.B. actually would.”