Retro Review: Sawyer Brown, “The Walk”

I debated for the longest time whether to review this song or Patty Loveless’s “How Can I Help You Say Goodbye,” but the points I want to make are pretty similar for both tracks, so feel free to replace one with the other while you’re reading this.

Modern country music is missing a lot of things compared to its predecessors, but one of the biggest omissions from today’s tracks is maturity, or any sense of perspective born of experience. The artists may get older (heck, people like Jason Aldean and Luke Bryan are now in their mid-forties), but their music never does: Everyone is still eighteen, every night is still Friday night, and everyone still drinks and hooks up like they haven’t got a care in the world. There just aren’t many (any?) songs that deal with adult concerns and offer advice on how to deal with them (or even reassurance that they will deal with them, no matter how bad they seem), and there certainly aren’t any songs that put together an elaborate three-act play to make their case.

These kind of songs and setups were a bit more common back in the neotraditional era, and a good example of this is “The Walk,” a 1991 Sawyer Brown single that kick-started the band’s second act and was one of those late-single surprises that gets added to a subsequent disc to capitalize on its success (it was originally on the group’s Buick album, but was added to their next project Dirt Road as well). Fundamentally, it’s a song about the circle of life, and how those that come before us can provide guidance and perspective on tasks they went through themselves, even as they age out of that caregiving, decision-making role and we age into it. It’s the sort of strong take-home message that makes a song both enjoyable and practical, and it give the listener something to hold on to long after Friday night has passed and the liquor has worn off.

The production makes some interesting choices with its presentation, and for the most part I’d say they pay off. Despite the more-serious nature of the song, the dominant instruments here (acoustic and electric guitar, keyboard, mandolin, and even the drum set) have a brighter tone and a lighter touch, giving the song a spacious, reflective feel that invites the listener to think about the lyrics and their own similar experiences. It also emphasizes (for lack of a better term) the safety of the moment, reminding the narrator and the audience that things are not as scary as they seem and will generally work out in the end. The mix also doesn’t ramp up as much on the choruses as you’d expect, and in fact it pulls back during the last verse, letting the mandolin take the lead and giving the sound a soft-yet-fragile feel, helping to drive home the plot twist and adding some extra poignancy to the moment. It’s not the piano-heavy, super-serious mix that you might expect from a song like this (it’s certainly what we would get on a song like this in 2023), but it works by keeping the focus on the lyrics and providing some sonic reassurance that no matter the obstacle, it’s been confronted before, and it’s always worked out.

Lead singer Mark Miller was only 32 (i.e. the same age as Luke Combs is now, and far younger than Aldean or Bryan) when “The Walk” was released, but there’s a gravitas to his performance here that allows him to sell the story (and in truth, you don’t have to be that old to get through the first two verses credibly). The best word I could use to describe Miller’s performance here is controlled: He doesn’t shout or over-sing his lines, and instead opts for a measured tone that feels right for someone telling a story like this one (especially with the confidence of hindsight that yes, things really did turn out okay). Lots of artists struggle with this approach because they work so hard to restrain themselves that they don’t put any feeling behind their delivery at all, but Miller finds the sweet spot on this track, and he’s able to convey that the stories mean something to him without getting overly worked up or emotional about it. (As far as the band goes, they don’t contribute much of anything vocally, but they at least have a hint of a signature sound that distinguishes them from a bunch of session players, even if that sound isn’t as recognizable as, say, Diamond Rio’s.) It’s a performance that gives off an air of experience and wisdom, which is more than most country artists today could pull off.

The writing shows off the typical three-act story construction that was common of the era: The story begins with an innocuous tale of youth with a generalized message, the second verse shows us a later moment (usually late-teenage or young adult years) in which the original message still holds sway, and the third verse (which most songs don’t even get nowadays) introduces a heavier plot twist in which tragedy and/or death become involved but still reinforce the universality of the message. In this case, the narrator starts with a reluctant trip to school (a reassuring father says they’ve been there before and it will be fine), follows it up with the moment the narrator leaves home (a reassuring father says they’ve been there before and it will be fine), and then tosses us a curveball where the father now has to be taken to a nursing home (amazingly, the reassuring father says they’ve been there before and insists that it will still be fine). The wise father figure is the key here, and their steady hand and wealth of experience makes them a likeable and sympathetic character, making the knife twist in Act III cut that much deeper. While part of me wonders if such a zen response to leaving the family home would be believable (you’re not getting my dad out of the old homestead without a tranquilizer gun), but the fact that they understand what the speaker is going through and are trying to make it as painless a process as possible makes them even more likeable and sympathetic, which in turn makes the situation even more powerful and harder to bear. All the while, the message comes through loud and clear: We may fear the unknown (especially when we’re young), but quite often these roads are more well-traveled than we realize, and there are those around us who “took this same walk with my old man” and are willing to guide us along our own journey. The story can be a bit light on details at times (the second verse in particular felt a little sparse), but it’s a engaging tale with a strong message, and there’s simply nothing like it on the radio today.

The older I get, the more I find that songs like “The Walk” are what I want out of country music: They have something to say that’s worth hearing, and might even help you out in a pinch someday. Instead of drinking yourself into a stupor to avoid confronting your problems, this song encourages you to face them head on, and that many who have come before you (including some in your family) have walked this same path and can help you along the way. The sound encourages thoughtful pondering, the writing has a lot that’s actually worth pondering, and Sawyer Brown wraps up it all up into a palatable package that’s simply a joy to listen to. Nashville may be chasing an audience that’s eternally young and thrill-seeking, but eventually time catches up to us all, and it would be nice to have more songs that gave us an adult perspective on things, something we could use long after the music stops and the bottles are empty. We may not get songs like this anymore, but at least we got them once, and that’s just going to have to do.

Rating: 10/10. Sawyer Brown’s got a lot of good stuff hidden in their discography, and this is one of their best.


One thought on “Retro Review: Sawyer Brown, “The Walk”

  1. You did fail to mention that legendary songwriter Mac McAnally wrote this song for them and help resurrect the last half of the bands run.


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