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Soul Springs Eternal For Nashville Native Charles “Wigg” Walker

Charles "Wigg" Walker
Cage Free Images

ACME Feed & Seed is something of a refuge from the party scrum on Lower Broadway. The four-level restaurant, bar and venue is at the very end of the strip, overlooking the Cumberland River in a 130-year-old building with timber beams and vast old arched brick windows. It’s a space with soul, especially on Saturdays around noon when Nashville icon Charles “Wigg” Walker takes the stage to sing for excited crowds at his Soul Brunch.

This Wigg gig has been going on for at least eight years and is like other residencies around town, whether the Time Jumpers at 3rd & Lindsley or Mike Henderson at the Bluebird. Except for the fact that Walker is 83 years old. He’s been entertaining and arranging, writing and singing sweet soul and blues since the 1950s. He’s working with a top-tier and musically nimble band featuring Charles Treadway on organ with guitarist Pat Bergeson and drummer Pete Abbott. Decades of experience and heart and silky timbres are poured into every performance. He even says that since he had heart bypass surgery late last year, he’s feeling in fine form.

“I feel like I'm stronger at singing for some reason,” he says in Episode 243 of The String. “I can do things now that I was doing way back then. I cut it loose for a while because I was kind of a heavy smoker. But ever since I had the surgery, I've been singing like a bird.”

He also says something immensely gratifying about his relationship with his audience and his legacy, which is that “I feel more appreciated now than ever.” His ACME shows put him in touch with an ever-changing audience, but he’s heard from out-of-town visitors, including many from overseas, who make a point to come to Soul Brunch every time they visit Nashville. “And so it makes you feel real good. And it keeps your career going.”

Charles "Wigg" Walker

That career started in the heyday of Nashville’s Jefferson Street entertainment district in the years after WWII, when a robust infrastructure of Black nightlife made the city - at least one of its neighborhoods - a hub of early R&B music. Walker got a standing gig at the famous New Era Club when he was just 15, too young to legally be in the place. He released his first single out of Music City as well, in 1959 on the Champion label, billed as Charles Walker and the Daffodils, even though there was no such group. Then he left. With Music Row miles away preoccupied with country music and white audiences, he saw more opportunity in New York, so he moved there at 20 years old, in part to open shows for James Brown. We talk about his trajectory - to the legendary Apollo Theater, through a long residency at Small’s Paradise in Harlem, to many years living and working overseas after disco displaced traditional R&B.

We also talk about his return to Nashville in the early 90s, which seems a bit fated. Walker has been part of the fabric of Music City as long as I’ve been living here, and it’s remarkable that we can hear him almost every weekend, sounding so passionate and in command. Walker’s recordings are hard to find and deserve to be pulled together into an anthology. But since 2000 he’s made some commanding and exciting albums with the band The Dynamites that are on the streaming services. Now he’s got a new project, produced by Charles Treadway, in the can and waiting for a release plan.

Learn more about Soul Brunch here.

Craig Havighurst is WMOT's music news producer and host of The String, a show featuring conversations on culture, media and American music. New episodes of The String air on WMOT 89.5 in Middle Tennessee on Mondays at 8 pm, repeating Sundays at 7 am. Twitter and Instagram: @chavighurst. Email: craig@wmot.org