From rock to country to academia, Tricia Walker settles on ‘Velvet’|[08/17/08]

Published 12:00 am Friday, August 15, 2008

CLEVELAND – With a voice both soft and smooth, it was natural that Tricia Walker would call her new jazz CD “Velvet.”

It’s a collection of 10 songs – half of which were composed by Walker, the others by friends.

The idea was one she had been kicking around for some time and grew out of an “in-the-round” performance she was a part of at a cafe several years ago.

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Walker, who is director of the Delta Music Institute at Delta State University, has been singing and performing since she was a child in Fayette, where her mother was editor of a newspaper and her father was an attorney.

She’s adept at several styles of music but says, “In most of my career as a performing songwriter, I’ve had to sing the styles that seemed to fit my voice best, which is softer music – jazz, soulful, torchy kind of things.”

Though she loves it all, she isn’t a twangy singer or a shouter, “so twangy country and rock ‘n’ roll are not what I do. Most suited to me are gospel, soul and jazz.”

Her memories begin in Jefferson County where her folks moved from Jackson when she was 4. Her father was from Sandy Hook and Jackson, but the Fayette area, Harriston in particular, was her mother’s home turf.

Tricia – “My birth certificate says Patricia” – graduated from Jefferson County High School during a transitional time, spent two years at Co-Lin, two more at Delta State, where she majored in music education, and received her master’s degree in music theory and composition from Mississippi College.

To buy itTo purchase a copy of Tricia Walker’s “Velvet,” order via PayPal at or send a check for $17, which includes shipping and postage, to Big Front Porch Productions, Box 552, Cleveland, MS 38732. You can reach Walker at or dmi.deltastate.eduHer first performance was when she was about 7, and she sang “I Love You Truly” for a womanless wedding, a school fundraiser, in the auditorium.

Most of her youth, however, was not on stage, but in the gym where she spent countless hours playing basketball. She was also a member of the track team, one of seven girls who had to go to Port Gibson to run on their track because Fayette didn’t have one – but they won the state championship anyway.

For Tricia, it was either going to be a career in music or coaching, but after seeing the Beatles on “The Ed Sullivan Show,” she said, “That was it. It was all over,” and she organized her first rock ‘n’ roll band when she was 13. They played anything from the Top 40.

“We were called the Mishaps,” she said, though their original name was “Why Try Harder,” taken from a comic magazine. But when they were hired as a warm-up band for a gospel quartet which was traveling with a gubernatorial candidate, her father thought the name not exactly appropriate, so they changed it.

“Looking at the newspaper one day, we took the name from the misfortune of someone else,” she said. “The headline read ‘Mishap Kills Four in Car Wreck,’ and we thought, ‘That’s it,’ and we kept that name through high school.”

The Mishaps included Tricia, two brothers from Fayette and their cousin from Greenwood whose father flew him down in a crop duster for rehearsals. The father of the other two band members ran a chicken processing plant, “So our earliest rehearsal space was in one of the plants. It was not pleasant. We rehearsed often but not very long.”

Despite her major, Tricia never wanted to teach music in school, but she did have private piano students when she was at Delta State. After graduating, her husband became band director at Crystal Springs, and it was about that time that she began writing songs, and though she had dabbled in poetry, she never thought of songwriting as a profession. She began to do just that, however, and found places like the George Street Grocery, Poets and The Widow Watsons to play in Jackson. She had begun work on her master’s degree at Mississippi College, and after a divorce she decided to complete the degree.

After graduation, she was still playing around Jackson, including youth work at the Methodist church. She entered some contests, won a few prizes at the state level, and was encouraged by professional musicians to follow that career, but she would need to move to New York, Los Angeles or Nashville.

“Why Nashville? It wasn’t because of country music. It was because it was closer to home. If it didn’t work out, I could get back home to Mama in a hurry,” she said.

But things did work out for her in Tennessee. She likes country music, so in addition to working at the Opry, meeting country greats such as Roy Rogers, watching baseball with Roy Acuff, and hanging out with Cousin Minnie Pearl, she was a guitarist for six years in Connie Smith’s band.

In mid-2005, not long before Hurricane Katrina, she began to hear a voice in her ear saying it was time to come home. But what was she going to do? “I had been up there in Nashville all those years playing music and writing songs, but what was I going to do?”

She sent letters to friends across Mississippi, telling them, “I think I’m supposed to come home, but I don’t know what I’m supposed to do.”

She heard about a program called the Delta Music Institute – it dealt with business courses and the recording arts – that had just gotten off the ground at her alma mater in Cleveland. She talked to the search committee and the music faculty, but when she was offered the position she reminded school officials that she was a musician, not an academician. They offered her the job, and she’s beginning her third year as director.

Among the many accomplishments of the DMI is the soon-to-be-completed, state-of-the-art recording studio. Ironically, it’s in an old gym!

Tricia says she has “put to good use everything I’ve learned in the last 30 years in the school of hard knocks. I can apply it here.”

She still has time for personal musical pursuits and sometimes does a one-woman show with her guitar and collection of songs. She also has a multimedia presentation which she developed from her first CD, “The Heart of Dixie,” based on her Jefferson County memories.

Tricia has two other CDs in the works, a Christmas one due out in the fall and a gospel CD almost ready to hit the shelves.

When she was writing under contract for a Nashville publisher, she was required to craft songs for a commercial market, but she says, “The ones I like more tend to be story-driven. I can look back now with enough hindsight to see that the themes that really resonate are common to a lot of songwriters, you know, that are about home. Southerners all rely on that – longing for community, for home, drawn to the great gothic tales of the South – a lot of melancholy weaves in there.”

The name of her new CD has a story behind it, a kind of inside joke that has followed her for years. She attended a Nashville church where a lot of other musicians went, and she was to be in a concert sponsored by the church.

“I was on the bill,” she said, “and the man who was introducing the musicians said, ‘The next artist we’re going to introduce is Tricia Walker. She’s got the voice like velvet, and you just want to rub it all over your body.’ Everybody just kind of paused, and to this day – and that was 25 years ago – people come up to me and say, ‘I remember Dave introduced you about velvet ….'”

“I always wanted to do a torchy, soft, jazzy sort of CD,” she said. “I finally got around to it. I just had to call it Velvet.”

Gordon Cotton is an author and historian who lives in Vicksburg.