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HHS graduate shines on very big stages

Brad Walker started out playing the clarinet in sixth grade band, but not because that’s the instrument he wanted.

Band teacher Fran Shelton wouldn’t let young musicians start on the saxophone.
“It’s the expense first of all,” she said. “You hate for parents to dish the money out. If they start out on the clarinet and they can learn to play the clarinet pretty well, they can pick up the saxophone and they can learn almost overnight. Then they have two instruments they can play.”
Walker would fall into the learning overnight category.
“Those little eyes were burning,” Shelton said. “You could tell in the sixth grade he was going to be good. He was a fabulous player from the sixth grade on. The first kid that could play ‘Mary Had a Little Lamb’ and ‘Hot Cross Buns.’”
Walker said seven years of training under Shelton, a taskmaster who directed award-winning bands at Hendersonville High School for 28 years, helped shape his career.
“I wouldn’t be playing music if it weren’t for her,” he said. “I remember her having consistently high expectations. There were constant expectations of performing at the highest level you’re capable of. She was also a very encouraging person.”
In high school, “I did all the damage you could do” music wise, he joked. He started at 7 a.m. in jazz band, performed in the symphonic band and played in the marching band and pep band.
Twenty years later, Shelton and others who knew Walker back then are watching late night television, Saturday Night Live and the Grammy Awards and there’s Brad Walker, spotlighted in sensational saxophone solos in the band that backs crossover country star Sturgill Simpson.
After Simpson recruited him to add sax to his hard-driving country sound in March of 2016, Walker joined a year-long tour of almost 100 concerts across the U.S. and Canada and in Europe.
BradWalkerHeadshot copyBrad Walker“Tour bus life is nice,” he said. “You play your show and then you go on the bus and go to sleep. Then you just wake up and you might be able to go exercise” in the next town before the concert. Tour bus life is easier than the grind of a 15-passenger van, “not because it’s a cushy lifestyle but because it’s easier to perform well when you’re well rested. You’re still exhausted all the time but it’s better.”
Back home in New Orleans, Walker, 32, remains busy even if he’s staying in one place. There are plenty of festivals this time of year and now that he’s well-known in the woodwind world, Walker can play as much as he wants. After graduating from LSU, he taught band in a public school in New York City for a year, an experience that clarified his career path. He returned to Baton Rouge to earn a second master’s degree, in jazz studies. He started playing professionally and has never let up. Settling in New Orleans, he worked his way up by playing with some of the biggest jazz names in a city brimming with jazz royalty.
“It definitely isn’t luck,” he told an interviewer for The Advocate in New Orleans in May 2016, just after he had won the spot in the Sturgill Simpson tour. “My bread and butter has been backing up songwriters, helping them achieve their overall vision. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had someone play me a song and say, ‘What do you hear for this?’”
A 2002 graduate of HHS, Walker didn’t take his gift for granted, even at a young age. He worked harder than anyone else. His high school era featured some of the school’s most talented horn players, including another Brad, Brad Phillis, and Steve Sigmon, a Fran Shelton protégé who is now band director at North Henderson High School.
“Brad was very very talented and smart smart smart,” Shelton said. “He had a ponytail back then. I made him pull it back. I told him that his hair wasn’t going to be flopping around during a performance. I made him rewrite and transpose. Every time he thought he was getting good, I’d say, ‘Nope, do this, do this.’ He got bored easy.”
He’d finish his class work in English or history ahead of his classmates and beg to go to the band room and practice. Shelton would send him to the middle school to conduct sectionals for young saxophone players.
Brad and his younger brother, David, had strong support from their parents, Martha and Ken Walker.
“He had great parents,” Shelton said. “They were very involved. They were there for everything.”
Back in his hometown last summer, Walker stopped by to visit Shelton. He thanked her for her teaching and guidance then invited her to a concert at the historic Ryman Auditorium in Nashville.
“We went out after the concert and then we hung out with Brad and got to meet Sturgill and the guys in the band,” she said. “Brad introduced me as his mentor and I said, ‘I’m not his mentor. I’m his sixth grade band director.’ Sturgill said, ‘We thank you so much for what you’ve done.’ I made him work. He has an amazing work ethic, that wasn’t just me. That comes from his parents as well. He’s got amazing family support.”
His parents, both retired nurses, traveled to shows in Knoxville and Birmingham to see their son perform.
Having reached a high level of success at a young age, Walker basks in the joy of sax.
“I’m a little overwhelmed right now,” he said a few weeks after the Grammy performance closed the 2016-17 Sturgill Simpson tour. “There’s just so much going on in New Orleans. I’m just grateful to be a fulltime musician in the greatest city in the world for music and I’m grateful go up and do this high-profile gig and come home and not skip a beat and go back to fulltime performance.
“I don’t think everybody realizes how challenging this lifestyle can be,” he says. “I’m out to 2 or 3 in the morning. I haven’t had a regular sleep pattern in about a decade.”

His job is performing music with “energy and emotion and enthusiasm in a very serious way that’s really important on a daily basis,” he says. The work is rewarding but “that makes it hard to take days off. You can’t really just go through the

Watching Brad Walker on YouTube will tell you this is not a guy who mails it in.