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Butch Walker: In Focus at SXSW

Photo Credit: Mike McDonald

One of America's greatest songwriters has been one of the hardest working artists at South By Southwest this year. That commitment, however, shouldn't be a surprise to anyone who has followed his long and unpredictable career.

There’s a difference between writing a good song and a hit song.

If there was a single artist who could embody that very phrase, it would be the one who actually said it. Butch Walker has been put through the music industry ringer more than once. From his days in a hair metal band called SouthGang during the late 1980s, to the pop/power rock trio the Marvelous 3 he fronted in the 1990s, all the way up to the penmanship he displayed behind radio smashes for P!nk and Avril Lavigne as well as his mildly acclaimed career as a solo artist in the last decade, the Georgia native knows a thing or two about that subtle, yet telling difference between “good” and “hit.”

Such is why his career, in theory, would make for a fairly interesting documentary, if nothing else. Out of Focus, screened Wednesday afternoon as part of the South By Southwest festivities, in fact, proved to be that very interesting depiction of a guy who may just have the most subliminal career popular music has seen since the Funk Brothers played on every important record that came out of Motown in the 1960s.

The bad? If you are one of the many who don’t already know him and his work, the film may be a bit more self-indulgent than you might be able to stomach. The good? If you are one of the few who already know about him and his work … well, you can’t get a more intricate, personal take on the recent life and times of one, Mr. Butch Walker. And that’s saying something for a guy who consistently bleeds through his own lyrics and has created an unprecedented second act as a producer.

That’s not to say he doesn’t have the talent to be a chart-topper himself – as he displayed Wednesday night during Rachel Ray’s Feedback House Party at Bangers, the guy has a very rare and very admirable ability to craft the kind of songs that refuse to leave your head. Even so, and as the screening of Focus proved, there is a part of Walker that longs for the darkness of inevitable failure that life can offer. “If it’s your first time, this will be your last time,” he tells a crowd during one of the performances in his documentary. You simply can’t manufacture that type of cynicism.

Yet, it’s the precise pessimist within him that made his performances this week so addicting. If it wasn’t donning a black leather vest in front of about 90 people under a makeshift outdoor stage Wednesday evening, it was the sentimental and vulnerable artist that showed up to Thursday night’s set at the Central Presbyterian Church. Whichever incarnation one may prefer, you couldn’t negate the fact that this was a guy who will forever be in his element when confronting poignancy, or even something as generic as depression.

And that’s why what he’s doing is so damn impressive. Butch Walker is someone who has had his fair share of opportunities in the music industry. There’s no obvious reason for him to be dripping sweat on a weekday night in front of small, sometimes-apathetic crowds at the one music conference a year that dismisses artists like him – the kind of songwriter who Pitchfork-obsessed hipsters would dismiss as an artist without enough credibility; the kind of songwriter who MTV-watching fanatics would deem too underground.

But that doesn’t mean he doesn’t have an overtly loyal and rambunctious fan base, and the most obvious example of as much came Thursday night when the singer took the stage a little after 1 AM in a church far removed from the party-obsessed atmosphere that typically goes hand in hand with SXSW. A stark contrast from two nights before when Chris Carrabba’s Twin Falls held court, the building felt full and free, a testament to how affecting Walker’s presence can be. It becomes contagious, his energy and vulnerability.

More impressive is how he’s still able to embody those traits after so many years going through the high ups and low downs a career as a working musician always promises. Even when he was visibly shaken and baffled as he walked out in front of his Friday morning/Thursday night crowd that happened to be sitting down in row after row of church pews, never once did it seem as though he was unsure of himself. That confidence can go a long way when trying to win over a crowd, but it can also open up throngs of doors if you are serious about sustaining a career in music.

Walker is. He has been. He will forever be. As Peter Harding, the director of Out of Focus, told me Wednesday, there is nothing about him that is insincere. The documentary itself was never supposed to happen, until Harding decided to fool around with a camera one day as Walker and his Black Widows were working on their latest album. As the director put it, a few days turned into a few months and before they knew it, “I realized I had a movie here.”

“He’s just the nicest guy,” Harding noted. “There’s just something about him.”

Indeed. It’s a something that can’t be learned, for one could only be born with it. It’s a something that has turned this one-time metal-head into one of the most respected singer/songwriters and sought-after producers in American music today. It’s a something that has afforded Butch Walker the ability to get this far for this long. And it’s a something that all but promises there’s a good chance he won’t be stopping anytime soon.

Regardless of good. Regardless of hit.

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