If Walter Tragert maybe wasn’t born to be a singer-songwriter, it became his obvious destiny not long afterward. His obvious gift for words and music – plus delivering them with passion, sincerity and emotional impact – has taken him to some interesting and varied places. A beloved local favorite in the very musical city of Austin, Texas for some 20 years now, he also has devoted followings in such far-flung locales as Japan and Italy. And most important of all, his musical journey has brought Tragert to a place of creative and personal satisfaction and fulfillment.
It’s clear that Tragert’s talents are in full bloom from the first notes of A Single Drop Of Rain, his latest and third album, and everything that follows only underscores the artistic fruition the 11-song collection represents. Masterfully produced by Mark Addison, the set is an engaging and enriching listening experience that spotlights what the Austin Chronicle calls his “remarkably soulful voice,” “impressively crafted” songs and his “wry, acerbic way with words” and well as skillful way with words and imagery plus melodic gifts that hit straight to the heart and pique the mind.
A Single Drop Of Rain musically recalls the time when rock’n’roll was an all-embracing locus of popular music styles, and writing songs was a call to greatness. Starting out with the bracing country-rocking title song, Tragert follows it with the updated Byrds-style folk-rock chime melded with gospel call and response choruses on the bracing “Brand New Edition.” He then follows it with the syncopated soul dance grooves of “Get It Back.” All of which could have slotted right into the top of the pops playlists of classic Top 40 radio, yet sound right on time for 2012. And that’s just for starters.
He reaches back to a cha cha beat with a rock kick on “Obvious Reasons,” and builds the melancholy of “Purple Heart” with dramatic stops and starts to a crescendo and then down to a final grace note, drawing both aching country fiddle and bittersweet pennywhistle into the middle instrumental break. (Yes, this is the work of a thoughtful pop-rock craftsman here.) Tracks like “Sleepless Nights,” “Red Wine Romeo” and “Streets Of Hyattsville” can easily stand head and shoulders with such contemporary stalwarts if not saviors of classicist rock’n’roll as Bruce Springsteen and Tom Petty. “8-Track” bristles with punk-ish modernism and a touch of Brit-rock glam. If his loving and subdued tribute to his late mother, “Dear Eileen,” doesn’t bring a tear to your eye it’s time to get your heart checked. And then Tragert wraps it all up with “Don’t Rule Me Out,” which draws from folk, R&B, a touch of jazz and more to create a number that would have opened the doors of the Brill Building in pop-rock’s golden age to Tragert and welcomed him with open arms.
And throughout it all he makes emotions we have all felt like love, loss, desire, growing up, feeling down and so much more palpable and at the same time both fresh yet familiar with his gift for turns of phrase, metaphors and lyrical lines that ring true. And then sweetens it all with singalong choruses and that ring in the mind long after the album stops playing. Yep, A Single Drop Of Rain is an album that fondly recalls the musical past, plays perfectly today, and will no doubt endure in the years to come.
It’s also the culmination of a very musical life rich with experience. Reared on the outskirts of Cleveland and the suburbs of Washington, DC, Tragert was instilled with a full and broad perspective on rock’n’roll and pop music thanks to his three older brothers “I was an old man as a young boy,” he wryly observes with a chuckle, and music captivated his soul from soon after his first breaths. “My oldest brother had a band that practiced in the basement when I was a baby, and I would rock out in the crib. I used to make up songs when I was a little kid about clowns and flying monkeys and stuff like that.” Another brother would play the toddling Walter records, and by age six he’d mastered the lyrics to “Sweet Jane” and “All The Young Dudes.”
Not long after he picked up a brother’s Boy Scout bugle and started making music. The trombone and trumpet soon followed at school while he also showed a gift for picking out tunes on an old out-of-tune piano in the basement of his family home. Finally acquiring a guitar at age 10 at a garage sale, Tragert recalls “telling people I was a songwriter before I ever wrote a song.” Yet by the time he was 14, song ideas and snippets started popping up in his head as he aspired to write as well as his wide variety of inspirations that ranges from Ray Charles to Neil Young to Bob Marley to Leadbelly, the young Steve Winwood, Mississippi John Hurt, Lieber & Stoller and even Morocco's Master Musicians of Joujouka, among many others. At 18, “I wrote a song for my first real girlfriend. It was this beautifully crafted pop song. That’s when I realized that if I needed to do this thing, I could always do it. If I had to write jingles or something like that, I could write really good ones. Because I had to do it and it just came out of me.
“I loved playing music. I knew that it was something I was good at,” he explains. “I wasn’t sure whether I wanted to be a jazz trumpet player or a classical musician or what. But I was never really that focused on playing instruments as a way of expressing myself. I had a room full of stuff in high school and college: guitar, flute, trumpet, trombone, accordion, saxophone, harmonicas and more.
“But I’m also funny,” Tragert adds. “So I wanted to express myself with words too. So it all just kind of fell together.”
His stabs at college failed to take, but as he dropped classes at the University of Maryland on the last possible day before getting failing grades, he did learn a new word: autodidact, or a self taught person. And educating himself in his young adulthood included hitchhiking across country and living in a tent on a mountaintop with a friend who reintroduced falcons into the wild, rafting down the Green River, and spending time in Boulder, CO performing on the street. “I played every night there and people kept coming like it was like a gig,” he recalls.
Finally back home in Maryland and working in a music store, Tragert was referred for a role in the acclaimed and awarded Dinosaur Rock educational music touring troupe and won it. As “Professor Jones the yodeling paleontologist who brought dinosaurs back to life with his magic spell,” he spent nearly three years touring nationwide and appearing in theaters, community centers and school auditoriums, honing his natural knack for entertaining. After a show in College Station, TX, he decided to visit nearby Austin – “Just about the only place I hadn't been” – and discovered a city just as musical and broad in its stylistic references and mixtures as he is.
“I checked out the town, flew back home, quit the job, got a driveaway car, and got here as quickly as I could,” Tragert says. “I immediately felt at home musically.” His gigs and two cassettes he released – Scrapple From The Road To Apple and Victory At Sea – sparked a buzz in Austin that spread as far as Italy, where a label signed him up to make his first CD, Heavy Just The Same, and also tour the country. The album established him as a deeply-rooted contemporary singer-songwriter of great promise who “tears some of the best pages from the Graham Parker and Elvis Costello songbooks, crumples them up, and then tosses them out to the audience with an aplomb and charm that's all his own,” noted the Austin Chronicle at the time. A second album, Lousy With Desire, secured Tragert’s stature as one of Austin’s leading rock singer-songwriters, and again earned such praise from the Austin Chronicle as being “a tribute to his talents” with “not a clinker in the lot.” It landed Tragert a record deal in Japan and a tour there. His job teaching music to kids at the Armstrong Community Music School also inspired a delightful children’s album, Rough Day At The Sandbox, by Walter T. & The Rated G’s.
Now with A Single Drop Of Rain, Tragert finds his creative sweet spot on a world-class album that marks him as a superior singer and songwriter to rival any who has emerged in recent decades. But what matters most to him isn’t critical acclaim or even reaching a wider audience. Rather, it’s the intrinsic satisfaction of doing the best he can with his talents, and the esteem he has earned in the world renowned music community he lives and works within. “At the end of the day, respect from people you respect, your peer group, is really what’s golden,” he says. “I didn’t realize that when I was young, but I sort of got it later in life.
“I’m really happy with this record. It’s off the charts good,” Tragert concludes in all modesty. And as the Austin Chronicle observes, “Austin could use more of Walter Tragert. A lot more.” And so could the rest of the nation if not the world at large. Yeah, he’s that good.