With a natural, beguiling style, the 25-year-old songwriter and violinist has been a fixture on the Austin roots scene for nearly a decade, carrying on the legacy of his late father, Champ, of Uncle Walt’s Band. He has just released his eponymous solo debut.
Why a solo album now?
It took me two years to make the thing. It should have come out a long time ago. The album was a chance for me to experiment with ideas that do not exactly fit with the ensembles I’ve played with.
How would you describe your music?
I have a lot of influences, from Uncle Walt’s Band to Bach to the Rolling Stones, Toni Price, and Ray Charles. I have studied classical and jazz formally, and I have my father’s one-thousand-piece album collection. I’ve also got six thousand songs on my iPod. I am always listening to music, whether I’m traveling or sitting at home. I make a point to find at least one album a week by somebody I’ve never heard of. Sometimes it turns out to be great, and I will find more by the same band. I call my music Americana, because to me, that is shorter than saying country, blues, rock, bluegrass, and jazz.
Do you get as much satisfaction from songwriting as you do from playing the violin?
Yes, but it is a little different. Songwriting—finding the right words to fit the music—offers up a whole new set of challenges.
With your expressive sound, people might be surprised to hear you’re a graduate of the Berklee School of Music.
When I got out of Berklee, I tried to fit everything I knew into every solo I played and sounded worse than before I went. [Austin guitarist] Rich Brotherton once told me, “It takes five years once you’ve left music school to decompress so you can really start playing.” Their job is to fill your brain with every possibility, and your job is to sift through it until you find your sound. It takes a lifetime.
You seem strongly influenced by the hot jazz era of gypsy swing—Stéphane Grappelli, Django Reinhardt.
Stéphane Grappelli was the gypsy-jazz violinist whom I first heard when I was twelve. He is the reason I crossed over from classical into what I do now. I leaped from classical to swing, to bluegrass, to rock, to blues-country in that order. It all started with Grappelli. My father also had some to do with that, but when I was a kid, I was a bit of a classical snob. My dad wanted to show me a fiddle tune, but I wanted to play Vivaldi. After he introduced me to Grappelli, I was much more open to learning the fiddle tunes, and now I love them.
How important was Champ in getting you into music? Would any of this have happened without him?
We are very different players, singers, and writers. His influence is there, but I do things my own way and that makes all of the difference. You also have to understand that the shadow only falls over Austin. Most people around the country have never heard of him or Uncle Walt’s Band. I love introducing people to that music for the first time. His passing was almost like the passing of the baton to me. I’m just continuing the same race. It is cool to play some of the same venues all over the country that he played 25 years ago. In some cases the same owner will still be there and tell me stories of UWB at his club.