Now Solo, Melody Walker Serves Songs In Her Writers' Kitchen
Nobody really knows who first came up with the concept of songwriters performing “in the round,” but the Bluebird Cafe certainly made the format a famous part of the Nashville experience. In case you’re new here, three or more writers take turns offering songs, while the others listen, nod along and sometimes lend support with harmony or enthusiasm. It’s the meat-and-three of music, a friendly and intimate microcosm of our city's songwriting community.
There’s a new weekly song round in the heart of a music scene not known for them - East Nashville - run by Melody Walker, a powerhouse vocalist and songwriter who’s spent most of the last decade on the road fronting the progressive string band Front Country. Her new Writers' Kitchen on Tuesday nights, is part of a pandemic-inspired overhaul that’s put her in more writing situations, including her four “Grammy adjacent” co-writes with Molly Tuttle on Tuttle’s big 2022 album Crooked Tree.
“I saw an opening for a more Americana, roots and bluegrass-based round in Nashville, because that doesn't exist, as far as I know,” she says. “I love pop and country, don't get me wrong. But there are a lot of rounds that cater to that, and I wanted to have just a little different angle on it. I'm open to people who do more poppy stuff, but it just has to have a little bit of a misfit vibe to it. That's all.”
On a Tuesday in January, I watched the Writers' Kitchen rev up at 8 pm in the glow of a pink neon sign at its home, Jane’s Hideaway at 405 Gallatin Ave., a couple blocks from Five Points and next door to dive burger bar Dino’s. Jane’s, a restaurant, bar and live venue, actually started its life downtown in Printer’s Alley in the middle of 2020, gaining enough foothold to be voted Best New Restaurant by the readers of the Nashville Scene in 2021. Then it improbably moved to Gallatin Ave., opening its doors in late August of ‘22 in a space formerly occupied by cocktail bar No. 308. The crafty cocktail vibe remains, along with a sophisticated menu overseen by chef Charlie Davis.
What sets Jane’s apart musically is its devotion to bluegrass and acoustic roots, with a nightly live schedule curated by musician Shawn Spencer, leader of the house band Greenwood Rye. “(Bluegrass) can be authentic, and it can be very listenable in a space like this. I think there's just so many people crafting it too that just aren't really getting a spot to play it. And I think there's a lot of people that want to connect with it,” Spencer told me. As for Melody’s song circle, “we're willing to specialize on the rootsy side of things, the Americana side of things, and I think Melody is the perfect connection to lead that.”
That Tuesday, Walker set off her fuchsia hair with playful, Bowie-inspired rainbow eye makeup as she introduced songwriters Cristina Vane, Libby Weitnauer, and Chris Housman, some playing their first-ever round. Vane, whom I profiled last year, played heavy-thumb, fingerstyle slide blues guitar behind her original songs. Weitnauer pursues various projects, including old-time fiddling with Jake Blount and the indie folk band Dallas Ugly. At the Kitchen, it was just her rippling Smoky Mountain voice and acoustic guitar. Housman is a Kansas native who’s famous on TikTok for his song “Blueneck” about being a proud liberal country boy, and he performed a queer pop country love song on one of his turns. This is the kind of range Walker is aiming for in her curation of Writer’s Kitchen.
“I try to have it to be at least half women, and I try to have it be queer and racially diverse,” she says. Musical variety kind of takes care of itself in the roots space, she continues. “I'm always so blown away by how different every songwriter is. But I do try to have a contrast, you know, somebody who does more country, somebody who does a little more pop, somebody who's maybe on piano.”
Since its start last October, Writers' Kitchen has featured Vince Herman of Leftover Salmon, Sierra Ferrell, Steve Poltz, Maya De Vitry, Justin Hiltner, Miss Tess, Oliver Craven, Jobi Riccio, Gabe Lee, Crys Matthews, Danni Nichols, Sarah Potenza and quite a few more who make up quite a comprehensive picture of indie roots Nashville in the 2020s.
Writers' Kitchen is just part of Melody Walker’s post-pandemic reinvention. She’s a Bay Area native who came up in a variety of music, studying classical voice and world percussion, traveling to India and Brazil for musical tutelage and ultimately working in roots and bluegrass out of San Francisco. Her duo with flatpick guitarist Jacob Groopman blossomed into the band Front Country, a far-reaching and award-winning string band. They moved the band to Nashville in the 2010s and continued to tour heavily. They also released some fine albums, including the Impossible World in 2020. It was produced by Dan Knobler but it became something of a pandemic orphan, and the band went on an indefinite hiatus. Walker took the time to regroup and reassess.
“I had to realize that it was up to me to decide what kind of musical life I really wanted to have, and what was making me happy,” Walker says, adding that while the band was pretty no-boundaries musically, simply being in a band began to seem limiting. “It's been about a decade since I released any music under my name. And I was like, well, who am I now? What is the Melody Walker sound now? And I've been doing the hard work to figure that out.”
Writing with others has been, perhaps paradoxically, an important step in that process, and one especially fruitful partnership has been with her California friend Molly Tuttle. The bluegrass guitar and vocal star asked Walker to co-write for the album that would become 2022’s Crooked Tree. And Walker called it “extremely liberating” to look for inspiration for somebody else rather than herself. They wrote four songs that made the album, including its title track, using a tree that survives because of, rather than in spite of, its imperfections as a metaphor for our own limitations and idiosyncrasies. “The River Knows” updates and flips the old trope of the misogynist murder ballad for a song that’s dark and cathartic. Walker brought what she thought was a corny idea to a session, but they came out with “Side Saddle,” the album’s bright western swing tune. Early this month, Crooked Tree won the Grammy Award for Best Bluegrass Album.
“I am just so proud of that song (‘Crooked Tree’),” says Walker. “And I think it's gonna go far. I think it's a song that people are gonna want to play. I would love to write a song that ends up in the bluegrass songbook, you know, that people want to play at jams and at festivals. Because that's how I grew up - going to bluegrass festivals, hearing my dad and his friends jam music into the night and play all kinds of great songs. And Molly came from that too.”
Walker played her solo take on “Crooked Tree” that Tuesday at Jane’s Hideaway and it’ll be a staple of her sets from now on, one suspects. She’s also had songs cut by Della Mae and the acoustic duo Sally & George. She’s been writing with throwback country blues standout Sierra Ferrell, who included some of their songs at her circus-inspired New Year’s Eve show at the Brooklyn Bowl, something Walker was excited to be surprised by at the show.
“That's literally the feeling that I live for, as a songwriter, to hear a song that I wrote with somebody else just come alive on stage with all the power and the energy that people bring in a live performance,” she says. “They're literally breathing life into the song.”
Walker has recorded material for an EP with Dan Knobler she hopes to release this year. For more on all this, listen to our full interview in the audio player.