Maybe, as the blues composer Willie Dixon once wrote, you can't judge a book by looking at the cover, but you can judge Standing on the Word-the latest album by the south-Louisiana bluesman Walter Jr.-by looking at its packaging. Measuring 5½ inches by 7 inches and decorated with Old English lettering, the cover looks more like a well-used Bible than it does a jewel box.
"What I did not want to happen," Walter told me, "was for people to get the record, load it on their iPod, and throw the package away. So I said, 'We're going to make it so good that they're going to hold on to it.' And what better to hold than the Bible?"
Standing on the Word's scriptural imagery doesn't end with its cover. There's the name under which Walter published the songs (Road to Emmaus Music), and there are, of course, the songs themselves: the title cut (which opens with a quote from John 1), "Wedding Wine" (which summarizes John 2:1-10), and "It's About Love" (which enjoins listeners to "turn to" Mark 12:31, Luke 6:29, and John 13:35).
But, for sheer biblical fidelity, nothing else on the album beats "The Weight of the Cross," a dead ringer for Slow Train Coming-era Bob Dylan that finds Walter singing "Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani" as naturally as if it were just one more blues trope. "If anybody had the right to sing the blues," Walter says, "it was Christ."
At 58, the Mermentau, La., native exudes a peace of mind that belies his struggle as a singer-songwriter and guitarist to, as he puts it, "blur the lines of distinction between the illusion of the duality between sacred and secular." Other than Learning to Love (2003), experimental "sounds for relaxation, meditation, and contemplative prayer," Walter's albums have mined what he calls "swamp rock" (Louisiana Soul, 1999), "swamp roll" (Back on the Bayou Road, 2006), and "Louisiana blues" (The River Club, 2008).
Mixed and-or produced by Johnny Sandlin (of Allman Brothers and Widespread Panic fame), they might even have become part of the legendary Capricorn Records catalog if the label hadn't ceased operations in 1999. "Louisiana Soul," he says, "was on the desk when Capricorn closed." The experience, however, wasn't for naught. For instance, through Sandlin, Walter met Bonnie Bramlett, whose singing on Standing on the Word marks her first gospel recordings in 30 years.
Until the appearance of "Jesus Say" and "He Holds the Lightning," however, on The River Club, connoisseurs of gospel-rock could've easily overlooked the extent to which Walter's faith and works went together.
Reared as a Catholic in the days before Vatican II, he went on to study at a Catholic seminary before drifting away from the Church. Now, when asked whether he's Catholic or Protestant, he just smiles and says, "Yes." "But," he says, "whether in or out of church, I always maintained a study of the Word." He also maintained a busy performing schedule and found time to earn a philosophy degree. To this day he can discuss Kierkegaard and Muddy Waters with equal finesse.
He can also lead congregational worship, something he's being asked to do more and more-and not only in the South. "We've got a date later this year to play at a leadership conference for pastors in Decatur, Ill.," he says. "Having studied Scripture and played music for so long, to be able to put those two things together has really been interesting. There is no model for what I'm being led to do. But I'm listening [to God]. I'm just trying to follow directions."