Michelle LaRose talks with Greg T. Walker for Road To Jacksonville
Photographs by Michelle LaRose
Currently on tour with Molly Hatchet, the recently regrouped Blackfoot is hitting stages across America to the delight of their devoted fans.
Blackfoot became a Southern Rock staple with hits such as Train Train and Highway Song earning them Gold and Platinum awards.
Rising like a Phoenix from the ashes, Greg T. Walker is unwilling to let his life’s work and dreams of Blackfoot go down in flames.
We were able to talk with Mr. Walker about his thoughts on Blackfoot, Native Americans and the devastation of New Orleans left by Hurricane Katrina last year.
Greg: Great and very busy which is a wonderful thing, it means you’re working.
RTJ: Tell us about “The Smokestack” on XM Satellite radio.
Greg: We were asked by the XM people to host a weekly show. When they said, “Cross Country” we were thinking it was country-country. We said, “No, we’re a rock n’ roll band.” They said, “Yeah we realize that, it’s just called Cross Country or X Country.” So they asked us about doing it and we thought it would be a great idea with all the subscribers they are garnering every single day. Between XM and Sirius [Satellite radio]… I don’t know if its going to be the wave of the future or not but we agreed to do it. It’s been a lot of fun! We were pretty much relegated to only Southern Rock bands to begin with. If you think of all the Southern Rock bands and all the albums made, there would be hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of songs but when you’re doing thirty-two songs a week you’d be surprised how quickly you run out! [Laughing] However on a lot of records, sometimes three or four cuts in is the best song on the entire CD or album. So we decided to do it and we’re having a lot of fun with it.
RTJ: The band was reunited due to a world wide petition. Can you tell us about that?
Greg: A friend of mine named Texas Rich, obviously from Texas, started this petition to get the band back together. He’s been a friend of mine for nearly thirty years now. We had often talked about it so he simply put it out there on the internet and it started picking up momentum very quickly. I was happily surprised! Within days a lot of people had signed it online. It went from a thousand to ten thousand to thirty thousand. I said, “Gosh, you know, it’s worth pursuing.” We always wanted to do it anyway. I wasn’t sure if the market would still be there. That’s really what got the ball rolling thanks to my good friend there. We got enough signatures and I started talking to every body again and said, “You know, we need to stand up and take notice of this. It’s worth looking into.” It’s where my heart lies, always did. So it was that simple. The petition was going, we paid attention, we finished up our side projects and I put the band back together.
RTJ: Is it hard starting over, so to speak?
Greg: In some ways… I would say “different” more than “hard”. Coming up the way we did, the old school ways of doing things has drastically changed. In fact it’s nothing today like it was. Everything as we knew it, no longer is. When it comes to marketing, when it comes to records, recording, deals, so much if not everything has changed. Marketing is marketing, I’ll take that back, but so much has changed. It took us a while to realize what we thought were cool ideas, “Hey we can do this to get more attention. We can do that.” We quickly found out, “No guys. That doesn’t work anymore.” Promo kits do not work anymore, press kits do not work anymore. MTV and all that… none of that works anymore. I’m not saying it doesn’t help a little but in some cases it may do more damage than good. So it’s been different but not any harder.
Greg: In the beginning of 2006 Bobby Barth started experiencing some very intense pain in first his right arm then his left. He had some shoulder problems due to an auto accident in the ‘80’s. It went from severe pain to numbness in the course of a day. He said, “It’s killing me.” It had been bothering him for a couple of months. He went to a doctor, got an evaluation and they decided to get x-rays. They did that and thought they found a problem and said, “You really need to have an MRI.” So he did. It all stems from an auto accident in 1982 I think, when he was in the band Axe which was his band. He was in a bad accident; his guitar player was killed in that same accident. They never diagnosed that Bobby had a broken neck.
Greg: So all these years, all this gristle and scar tissue had grown over the disc between his shoulder blades and it finally caught up to him. The MRI showed that clearly and he had to get that taken care of. We didn’t want to miss any jobs and we had a huge job coming up with 10,000 people. At the last minute when Bobby said, “I’m not sure I can do this show one hundred percent… I can do it but not one hundred percent.” We called Jay Johnson. We’ve known Jay since he was ten years old. His dad produced our very first two albums in Muscle Shoals. So we’ve known him since he was a little kid literally. I’ve played with Jay, Charlie has… He’s got an impressive resume. I called him up and I said, ”What are you doing Monday?” He said, “Ah, nothing.” I said, “Do you think you can get on a plane and fly to Florida?” He said, “Well, what’s up?” I told him and he said, “Yep.” I picked him up on Monday and we went straight into rehearsal. It was that quick. He stepped right in; he knew everything that we ever did. It was a very easy transition to work him into the band. After some time as Bobby started to heal it was obvious that Jay was very important to this band as well and he always had a connection so Bobby came back and we kept Jay. It’s really that simple. It added another element, another dimension to the band.
RTJ: You mentioned a DVD shoot earlier. Originally there was a DVD shoot scheduled for Blackfoot, Molly Hatchet and Atlanta Rhythm Section, which was postponed. Is it on again or is this something else?
Greg: It’s the same one. At one point it was going to be done at the Ocala show because that was the first time that we had all three bands in the same place on the same day. That’s been the hardest thing to do. The agency that we’re with books all three of us. You would think that would be an easy task, to simply find a venue. We do so many shows with Hatchet anyway; we always did even back when. We did some with ARS as well. This was the first time that we had got on the same show together, all three of us. Well, you were there… It wasn’t the proper place to do it. The guy called me last night from L.A. and that’s what I’ve been on the phone doing. He just called me again and I’ll call him back later. He’s checking into places. We’re still searching for the right venue so it’s more than just getting all three bands to play on the same day. It’s got to be the right type of venue that’s suitable for filming and conducive to good sound. It’s not as easy as I thought. Three or four places popped into my head right off the bat, like House of Blues in Orlando. It’s a great venue! Some of these places have to grant license, they get a royalty, they get an ongoing percentage. It’s like, “Awe, come on man!” Hard Rock Café is the same way because they are corporately owned. They’re franchised out in a sense. That’s what we’re working on, trying to find the right venue. We’re trying to do it soon because we were originally going to do this on my birthday back in July. I don’t remember what happened, it just didn’t happen. Promoters getting flaky and you think, this show is not going to be your normal show. There are things sending up red flags. But we are going to do it. The plan is… we’re just going to have to “Git-R-Done!” as they say. October is the cut off point if we want to get the project out before Christmas.
Greg: Maybe. We certainly have material from day one when I put this band back together in 2004. At the first rehearsals we went over some new material that everyone had, a combination of writers, Bobby and Jackson who was with us in the early part before he passed away. We had wrote songs together and separately, we’d gone over them in rehearsals and played a couple of them at sound check. We only played one new song out live one time. We would love to do it and we hope the time comes that we can do that. There’s just other things that factor into weather we will or will not. We certainly plan to at some point. At least the DVD will be new product in the sense that it’s most of the old catalog but it’s ‘today’, it’s new. It’s not like re-releasing an existing album. And it will be live. There’s no patching. What you see is what you’re going to get. We’re very excited about it.
RTJ: You also have another project, NDN. Are there any plans for another NDN album?
Greg: Absolutely! I thought that I would have already had that done but since reforming Blackfoot my energy and focus has been on Blackfoot and I have not allowed myself time to do anything else. I do that by choice. NDN is my baby anyway, as I call it. So is Blackfoot. I formed this band originally and I reformed it. My heart has always been with Blackfoot. NDN was a solo project and was successful in some way but in a different arena so to speak, the Native community, and still is. Yes I will do another NDN record. I really thought I would have had one out a year ago but it’s not over believe me.
RTJ: You are from the Muskogee Creek Indians?
RTJ: Can you tell us a little bit about the Muskogee Creek Indians?
Greg: Well originally they occupied what is now the entire state of Georgia, geographically. My family, my mother and my dad’s side both were in the very northern tip of Florida about forty miles south of today’s Georgia/Florida boarder. At one time it was the largest tribe in the entire southeast in terms of numbers. A very powerful tribe, not a warring tribe. People think Indians are savages and all that. That’s not necessarily true. Anybody would fight to protect their own of course. We’ve been around for centuries and centuries. From the Creek is where you get Seminole, actually Mikasuki. From Mikasuki come Seminole. We’re blood related but Creek was there from day one. That’s not uncommon. There are a lot of larger tribes that bands split off from; they’re still related they’re just living in different areas. It’s and old, old tribe. Muskhogean is the actual dialect itself. A very difficult language. It’s very hard to speak it, I can tell you that.
RTJ: Yeah, I saw that on the Internet. Estonko means hello. The language does look very difficult.
Greg: Actually it’s Estonko… You don’t pronounce the “E” and the “K” is more of a “G” sound.
Greg: Yes! There’s a lot of “V’s” in this language. It reminds me of Russian, what little bit of Russian I’ve seen. It just does not get pronounced anywhere near the way it’s spelled. But that’s not untrue of other languages either if you think about it. This seems to be very, very difficult. Not the one now but the Medicine Man we had about ten years ago was fluent in it. The way he spoke it with such ease. He’s known my family since before I remembered him actually. He and my brother went to school together and graduated together. He spoke it so easily. I was like, “How do you do that?” I’ve got the books and the tapes and I’ve listened to it and its really, really difficult. “See you later” is “Mvto” and it’s pronounced “Mad-Oh” like M A D O. It’s nothing like it’s spelled. It’s a difficult language.
Greg: [Laughing] We get asked that a lot. When we first formed we were actually called Hammer for about six months. We left Florida and went to New York City and found out a band on the west coast had released an album called Hammer. We said, “Well, we have to change the band name.” So we changed it to Free and about two or three weeks later “All Right Now” came out. We said, “We have to change the name of the band again!” [Laughing] We were sitting around talking, just throwing around ideas day after day. We really wanted to do something that pertained to our heritage. Jackson was Cheyenne and Cherokee. Neither one of those sounded like a band name. Creek doesn’t. One night he just said, “Blackfoot!” and we said, “Yeah!” It just had a nice strong sound to it. Also we were watching Johnny Cash who always had a segment on his show once a week, he had a variety show for about a year. He always did a five-minute or so segment on Native Americans. If I remember right we had watched it that night or maybe we were watching it at the time that’s how the name popped into Jackson’s head. It was Jackson’s idea to use that name. We said, “Yeah! We like that. It’s bold.” We didn’t think much more about it at the time other than we acknowledged that it was a name that not any of us were a member of. We liked the name! It’s as simple as that.
RTJ: Tell us about your stage wear. Is it authentic? Does it have meaning?
Greg: It’s pretty much traditional for my people because we’re what you call “Woodland” which most of the east coast tribes are. I think that the stereotype Plains Indians that you see in the movies and Hollywood that are always running across the plains on horseback with a bow and arrow shooting a buffalo, which of course you didn’t have in Florida or Georgia. Woodland had exposure to European probably one hundred and fifty, two hundred years, maybe even more than some of the other cultures because of the ships coming over in the fifteen hundreds. By the sixteen hundreds, certainly before the seventeen hundreds a lot of cotton and calico was being worn and fabric rather than just ‘skins’. They were still being mixed, a little of each. The leggings were common because of briars, especially in Florida. I was raised there. It’s pretty thick in those woods to this day. As far as shirts… yeah, I do have a calico shirt and I have other shirts. A little more is accepted today with the brighter colors and more modern colors, but still in the traditional style. A pullover that has no buttons. It’s authentic in the sense that it’s a Woodland style, there’s more cotton. It’s authentic in that respect. I remember at one point… Medicine Man got all over me for wearing a deerskin shirt. I mean got mad at me! I said, “Lighten up! What’s up? This took a lot of work. It’s all done by hand. It has horse hair on it.” What he didn’t like was the bead work down the sleeves because that’s not Creek. I felt like saying, “Well excuse me. I didn’t know!” There’s so little written on our people. Now the Oklahoma Creek, there’s like forty thousand of those guys. The eastern branch of the Florida Creek Nation, up until just a few years ago was about two hundred and sixty. The last time I checked about a year and a half ago, all of a sudden it’s around two thousand members. I thought, gosh what happened? That’s an awful big jump in five years! I think it’s just gotten to be the cool thing to do because everybody that talks to us just about, the first words out of their mouth is, “Oh I’m part Cherokee.” I wish somebody would say, “I’m part Apache” or something. Gosh!
RTJ & Greg T. Walker: [Laughing]
Greg: It’s fairly accurate. The style is certainly accurate. I try to not use synthetics. The ribbons on my shirts, those are ribbons that you buy in a fabric shop. They had shiny fabric back then. They had silks probably two thousand years ago. I try to stay as accurate as I can. That kind of period correct. If you go to powwows today and you watch the Fancy Dancers and the Grass Dancers you see a lot of multi colored silk, polyester and everything else and it’s ok because the style is still accurate. We didn’t wear breastplates for one thing. I used to wear breastplates on stage. Our people never ever wore breastplates. We didn’t wear headdresses like you’re used to seeing in the movies. It was more of a turban and the prized possession was an ostrich feather. I don’t particularly like the looks of them on me so I choose not to wear that.
RTJ: I’ve seen that you actually make breastplates; you also make native jewelry and crafts. How come you don’t offer that at shows? I would think you could make a fortune if you took your art on the road with you.
Greg: I probably could but to be honest with you I do not have time. I’m standing here as we speak looking at my bead bin and all my supplies. I’ve got elk skin rolled up. I’ve got hair pipe and porcupine quills, glass, brass and everything else. I’ve got about eight chokers laying here of my own in disrepair and I’ve been saying every week, “I want to fix those next week.” I just don’t have time. I miss it because I thoroughly enjoy doing it. It’s great therapy. If you have a lot going on sometimes and you need a break… it’s a creative process. I try never to make two things exactly alike. I really miss doing it. I probably just need to quit saying I don’t have the time and make the time. I’ve made the breastplates, I’ve made bows and arrows, quivers, shields, lances. Everything I make is usable, functional. You can go shoot the bow and arrow. You can hunt with it. I just don’t have the time.
RTJ: Bobby and Christoph live in New Orleans. How were they affected by last years devastating Hurricane Katrina?
Greg: Actually Christoph never went back! He’s been residing in Florida since several days after that. Bobby’s house is on what they call the crescent part of the city, the highest part. He is six or seven blocks from the Super dome, which we know was partly under water. Even two or three blocks from his home, there was water but it never flooded the strip that he lives on. I don’t know how many houses maybe forty or fifty on that one particular stretch was not flooded. Even literally a block away is a street in New Orleans, you can tell where the trolley runs, all of that was under water. You could literally throw a rock from the corner of his home and hit those tracks. He got a little bit of wind damage. There was so much water that a little bit came down the walls from the roof but nothing got damaged so he was very, very lucky. The problem was, Bobby also stayed in Florida for almost three months because he couldn’t get back. They would not let him back in the city in that particular spot. That area was closed for a long, long time. He was worried about moving tons of guitars and other instruments. He was very fortunate. The structure was fine. When he finally got home, he walked in and the lights were on and the alarm system was working. [Laughing] Believe it or not. It was still a mess. The refrigerator had been off so they duct taped it shut and got it out the front door.
Greg: It is. It’s a mess out there still. I went out there and saw it for myself. It’s unbelievable. I went there in December to see it first hand rather than on the news. It just about made me nauseous. It just makes your heart sick. As you’re riding down the street and you look at all these homes with cars parked out front you’re thinking it’s not so bad. Then it dawns on you… it’s vacant. Every one of those cars was totally submerged. You look at the watermarks above the garage doors and realize it was seven or eight feet deep. On ground level homes, it was literally up to the eaves of the rooftops. We went to Biloxi this year in April and they were hit just as hard. It was as intense as New Orleans. New Orleans got intense flooding more so than wind damage. East of New Orleans all the other Gulf States… those are the ones that got hammered with the wind and the rain. Biloxi just about got wiped out too. They’re right on the shore. It’s a bad situation. Bobby’s back there now. We were out on the road that weekend as well. Bobby stayed in a hotel for a few days and came down to Florida and stayed. Christoph never did go back to New Orleans except to visit so now he’s a Florida resident.
RTJ: I’m from Michigan and you’re getting ready to play there next week at the DTE Energy Center. You probably remember it back in the day as Pine Knob.
Greg: Yeah. I talked to the promoter yesterday and I said, “How far is the venue from the airport?” and he said, “Do you remember Pine Knob?” I said, “Well of course!” He said, “Well that’s what it is.” We lived in Ann Arbor [Michigan] for a long time as well. Our manager was there and that was our headquarters.
RTJ: Pine Knob’s an awesome venue. You’re going to have a great time there! You’re playing with Marshall Tucker.
Greg: And Molly Hatchet. We do a lot of shows with Hatchet. Yeah, we’re doing Detroit Wednesday night and then we fly to Albuquerque Thursday. We have to drive five and a half hours Ignacio Colorado and play Friday. Then we drive back to Albuquerque all night long. Then we have a 6:00 am flight to Indianapolis to play Saturday. We go from the airport to the site instead of the hotel. We play Indianapolis on Saturday. We fly to Atlanta Sunday to play Blairsville just North of Atlanta, another festival. We do four shows in five days, flying every day and we’ll get home on Labor Day. It keeps going and going and that’s what we like. I love to be able to tell the guys on the weekends when we’re a little tired and exhausted, “Hey we can sleep Monday.” It beats cropping tobacco!
RTJ & Greg T. Walker: [Laughing]
Greg: I’ve had my share of that!
RTJ & Greg T. Walker: [Laughing]
RTJ: Well Greg we’d like to thank you for taking time to speak with Road To Jacksonville today.
Greg: Thanks a million. I appreciate your time as well.