Austin “Walkin' Cane” by Silver Michaels

Posted on 8/05/2010 by Silver Michaels

There are many formulas for becoming a respected blues musician/singer. Being gifted with a fine gravel-tinged baritone voice and having some natural talent on guitar that has been fine-tuned by hours and days and years of devotion is a good start. Blend the musical talent with a wickedly dark sense of humor, a keen eye for observation, a little adversity tossed at you by the fates and the ability to catch all that in words and music and it would seem like you'd have more than a leg up on the competition. Such an artist is Cleveland's Austin “Walkin' Cane.”

Born Austin Charanghat a little more than 40 years ago, the first curveball tossed his way came in the form of an arterial venous malformation, a birth defect that affects the body's circulation to varying degrees. By the time he was 16, he could no longer walk without a cane or crutches. At one point during this ten year period of his life, he was on Bourbon Street in New Orleans when a homeless man called out "Hey Walkin' Cane - got some spare change for a brother?” He kept the greeting as his professional name. At the age of 26, he could no longer battle the inevitable and his left leg was amputated below the knee. Walkin' Cane was back performing in less than a year after the surgery, “stronger and better than ever,” in his own words.

Check his web site bio, and you'll find him described as playing "Damn Fine Blues - original & classic delta blues featuring slide guitar and soulful vocals, a blues gumbo repertoire that can conjure up the ghosts of highway 61 & the delta blues experience.” That's a pretty accurate description of his persona. My first experience with him was at the 2008 International Blues Challenge in Memphis, where he was chosen as one of the finalists in the “Solo/Duo” competition (he also competed in the 2009 IBC). His performances were riveting, among my very favorites of either IBC event. He a superb slide guitarist - he still carries a sponsorship from National Reso-Phonic Guitars – and his playing provides the perfect backdrop to his smokey vocals and stellar songwriting and talespinning. Perhaps the greatest testaments to both his talent and authenticity as a performer come from the discovery that off stage he's very much the man being presented as a performer; astute with a keen sense of observation and very, very funny.

Most of us think of Cleveland's musical legacy in terms of classic rock; the city is, of course, home to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. This provided a fine springboard for Walkin' Cane's journey to the blues, a journey that actually benefitted from his misfortune at birth. “I started playing when I was about fourteen,” he recalls. “During that time, I couldn't really do much of anything, and my refuge was practicing my guitar eight to ten hours a day. I was laid up most of the time, so I'd have my record player and just go back and forth and back and forth until I got the parts I was hearing right... or at least as close to right as I could get with my skills at the time. Around here, the game is pretty much centered around classic rock, the guitar-hero sort of thing... Hendrix, Clapton, Keith Richard. I dug that stuff, so that's what I set out to learn. While I was learning that stuff, I figured out pretty quickly that it was all sixties guys who were influenced by the blues. Every time I'd read articles and interviews with those guys, they always talked about the different blues artists who had influenced them... the three Kings (BB, Albert, Freddie), Robert Johnson, people like that kept being named as influences, so I went and started checking out their stuff. The first blues album I remember buying was BB King, "Live At The Regal," which is still one of my favorite blues records ever. I remember checking out the album "Joe Williams Sings The Blues," which has a bunch of jazz cats on it, and I thought, 'What a phenomenal record!' I loved how it was blues in a jazzy setting, kind of like some of what T-Bone Walker did. Then I found Mississippi John Hurt, recorded live... a double album which just blew me away. That's where I started, then I started listening to every blues compilation I could get my hands on so I could become familiar with more people as quickly as possible.”

He continues, “I started playing slide guitar right off the bat because I was intrigued by it. I had a pretty good grip on playing slide at a fairly young age; took about six months worth of lessons from a man who's now a good friend of mine. He refined what I was doing a little, pointed out a few things where I could improve, and other than that, I've been on my own with it ever since. Slide guitar is a lot harder than it seems, and I don't think a lot of people spend a lot of time on it. Too often I see somebody just grab a beer bottle or something for the sake of show rather than actual technique. It's really all a matter of practice. To me, slide guitar is almost addictive... maybe it's because slide emulates the human voice so well. A lot of people copy a vocal line with the electric guitar, but a slide just makes it all the more haunting and personal.”

Like most, his first experience with performing live was as a member of a band. “My first group... we couldn't play, to be honest. We just hung with it. At first, we just played anything we could work out, lots of stuff like “Batman" and "Wipeout," stuff like that... but we hung with it for about eleven years.” Eventually, though, his love of the blues won him over, and by 1995, he had devoted his performing almost exclusively to the blues. As he remembers, “It was mainly electric blues until four or five years ago... then, it was economic conditions that had to do with my deciding to play solo and acoustic. Once gas went from $1.25 a gallon to $3.50 a gallon, it made it pretty impossible to drive a van loaded with equipment that got about ten miles to a gallon. We were coming home with a little bit of scratch, but now we all have wives and kids and families, so I had to find a way to step it up a notch. I always like to find a way to take a forward step; I'm one of those people where if I take a step backwards, something is really wrong. I put out a solo album in 2003; my wife and I got married at Sun Studios in Memphis, and after we got married, I recorded a handful of songs there. I played them for some of my friends, and they all said, 'Hey, yeah, you should do something with this!' So I did, and a little while later, solo gigs starting becoming available, so I found I needed to focus on the solo acoustic side of things. By now, I've gotten rid of my band, bought a small car, travel with a small little PA system, and so now I can tour all over.”

That doesn't mean he's lost his taste for electric blues. The second time Walkin' Cane visited Memphis for the IBC, I had the pleasure of watching him jam with some friends in an electric setting. At this point, I had only known him as an acoustic bluesman, but he played electric that day and simply blew people away – honestly, one of the most memorable electric performances I've ever seen. He had to borrow an electric from one of his pals in the band, and when Walkin' Cane was finished, his friend jokingly refused the axe when it was returned, in deference to the quality of his playing. “Yeah, If money wasn't a consideration, I'd probably play half and half between solo and a band,” he says. “Still, there's such authenticity about solo playing that sometimes gets lost in an electric setting. I also think that in electric blues, the writing tends to suffer a lot. So often, the song takes a real back seat to the arrangement, and usually to the electric guitar solo. That bothers me a bit... but I'd still do both if I could.”

Walkin' Cane has an impressive discography available, and one of the things that is plainly obvious from listening to his work is that songwriting does not take a back seat. It's a constant process for him, a process that is deeply rooted in his desire to present good work at all times. “For me, personally, I find that I have to write about twenty songs in order to make a ten song album,” he observes. “I always stick with ten songs on the albums. I know a CD can hold a lot more, but I don't know... I know I get bored with people after a while, and I think a lot of artists put a lot of crap on their albums that isn't necessary just to fill the space. It's not making the record better, it's just making it longer.”

Austin also doesn't confine himself to a formulaic method of composing. “My creative process is always changing.. I used to almost exclusively start with words, make sure the words were good and then build a melody around them. Now, more than I used to, I'll sometimes try to start with something interesting musically, or at least interesting to me. Lately, I'm basing a lot of my work around a phrase. When I think of a phrase that grabs me, I've been doing well at making that the focus of a song. Taking that even further, I'll sometimes just try to think of a title for a song, then see if I can find a hook to wrap around that, something decent to hold a listener's attention.” When asked how often he relives his own work, he replies, “Once in a blue moon, I'll go back and listen to my own old stuff. It's not that I want to reinvent the wheel... I just want to keep it going. A lot of the blues legends are getting up there in age, and you never know, you just never know. To keep the music alive, we have to write it and play it, and if I'm lucky enough to be one of those guys, then I'm happy. I'm not really a perfectionist or anything like that; I love mistakes and I love raw energy when I'm making records. Myself, if I make a mistake, there's a good chance that I'm going for something that I don't normally do, and eventually that's the sort of thing that turns into an improvement. Most times, things that have bugged me when I was recording a record and trying to be too perfect... I go back and listen a little while later and think to myself, 'Hey, that sounds just fine.' I look at my records as being a journal of what my life was like when I was making the record. When I need a reminder of what my life was like at 25 or 37, my records are the first place I look.”

Still, no proper overview of the man would be complete without touching on his sense of humor. When life gives you lemons, make lemonade, as the saying goes, and Walkin' Cane has truly taken that sort of attitude to heart. “I learned very young that no matter what, there's somebody a whole lot worse off than you,” he say. “All I can do is try to keep the glass half full, just move on. Sometimes I just think of myself as the old dog who got hit by a car and they had to cut off one of his legs, so he just keeps going on the three he's got left.” Is that where the humor fits in most? “Well, when I was young, I never really felt like I fit in with a lot of people. I figured out pretty young that if you could make people laugh, they'd generally at least think you were all right. I always dug a lot of the old comic guys... Marx Brothers, Three Stooges, all that stuff. I have a lot of respect for comics anyways, especially on a stage. As a comedian, you really have nothing up there but the belief that you can make people laugh. I find it's a good way to bring my own personality to the performances, and it's also a good way to gauge which people in the room are the most interested. I figure if they're laughing at some of my stories, they're at least paying attention. The way I think is that you just gotta find the humor in everything. That's why I talk some crazy shit between the tunes.”

“Crazy shit” might not go quite far enough to describe some of the stories you could hear during a performance or even in conversation with him. During our interview, I recalled a story he had told about a later appearance in New Orleans, and he shared genuine laughter with me when he remembered it again. Even though I felt like a little kid wanting to hear a favorite story again, he was gracious enough to retell it for me. “One night we were playing in New Orleans on Bourbon Street, which is a pretty good drive from Cleveland, and I passed the tip bucket around and it came back with maybe 30 bucks in it, something like that. I remember thinking that 30 bucks wasn't even necessarily going to get us back home... Well, I might have had a couple of cocktails in me, and had the crazy thought that I'd take my artificial leg off, which I did, and I held the leg in the air and kind of bellowed out, 'Put your money in the leg and you shall be saved!' The rest of the guys were cracking up, and I handed the leg to our manager at the time, and when he came back, we had about 750 bucks! I guess it's kind of weird that people who see us in New Orleans probably remember that more than the music. I don't do that very often...”

I had to ask. “Why... because you don't want to overdo the schtick?”

His reply was priceless. “Well... that, and it's a real hassle to take the leg off and put it back on!”

* * * * *

Austin “Walkin' Cane” has a fairly constant touring and performing schedule. Among his many scheduled performances is an appearance at this year's Arkansas Blues and Heritage Festival in Helena (formerly known as The King Biscuit Blues Festival) on October 9. “Playing the Arkansas festival is going to be a huge honor for me. I consider it to be one of the two or three finest festivals you can play as a musician and I'm really excited about it. I'm friends with or have met a lot of the other artists playing, so it's going to be both an honor as a musician and a real treat as a fan.”
His web site at is a good one, with examples of his music, discography, a full touring schedule and additional bio and contact information.

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