'Waltons' Star Jon Walmsley on His Blues-Inspired Album & Memories of Merle Haggard

Jon Walmsley
Marion Walmsley

Jon Walmsley

If your first musical impressions of Jon Walmsley revolve around the down-home image he projected as Jason Walton in the classic 1970s series The Waltons, the blues sound of his new album Goin’ To Clarksdale might take you by surprise. But he tells Billboard the blues are a part of his DNA.

“I would say that [the sound of the album] is new to my audience – The Waltons fans - but it’s actually the music that inspired me to play when I was a kid. I remember listening to early rock n' roll first, and I started playing guitar at age eight. I didn’t realize until I was about 13 that the thing I loved about early rock n' roll was the bluesy elements. As Muddy Waters once said – and it’s a song title – 'The Blues Had A Baby And They Named It Rock and Roll.’ That was the thing. I loved Elvis when I was a little kid, and I was singing the blues -- 'That’s All Right Mama’ and ‘Hound Dog.’ I covered ‘Hound Dog’ on the new CD, but it’s not Elvis’ version or Big Mama Thornton’s version, it’s something I came up with – something very swampy.”

The inspiration for the record – on which Walmsley sang and played all the instruments – came from a trip to the Delta region. “I had a gig in Tunica at the Memphis Western Film Festival, which is basically a homage to western films and television, as well as being an autograph show. I had the good fortune to be the entertainment at the end of the weekend. I did it in 2014 and then last year, so when my wife Marion and I went back, we decided to go early, and took a trip following the Blues Trail through the Mississippi Delta. Of course, Clarksdale is one of the main stops on the tour. I just got inspired, and it was time to do a blues project.”

One song that was inspired by the trip was his cover of B.B. King’s “The Thrill Is Gone,” with King’s native Indianola being just an hour away from Clarksdale. Walmsley admitted he had mixed emotions about recording the tune.

“I was so hesitant to do that one because it was so iconic. But also it meant so much to me. So I gave it a shot, and I think that it turned out really well. It has a sound and an ambiance that is different than any other track on the CD, and I’m not sure how I got it, but it was there. I thought it was a sign that it was meant to be on the album.”

The album mixes classic blues standards with a few of Walmsley’s original tunes, including the stunning closer, “Katahdin,” which is about the beautiful mountains in his home state of Maine (the highest mountain in Maine at 5,267 feet). “I have to admit that technically it’s not a blues song, but I wanted something pretty and mellow to come down after all the raucous stuff that preceded it, to finish off on a sweet note. When my wife and I returned from our Mississippi trip, we came back to Maine, and took a trip through Northern New England, and drove past Mt. Katahdin. It’s in the middle of all this unspoiled wilderness. When I wrote the instrumental, it just reminded me of the majesty and the beauty of that area, so I named it in honor of the mountain and the blues fans in the area.”

It's fitting his album includes a song inspired by the mountains, given that the series he's best known for was set in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. Walmsley says the stories fans have shared with him over the years about how The Waltons touched their lives give him a great feeling.

“It’s amazing, and so gratifying,” he beams. “When you show up on the set, you’ve memorized your lines, you try to do your scenes, and be credible and authentic as an actor, but we initially had little idea the show would have such an impact on people. It’s a very insular little world. You go to work, and you’re around the same people every day – the cast, crew, and producers. It’s not until later that you get out and meet people, and you hear stories about how the show affected their lives in some way or helped them through problems they were going through. You then realize that there is something bigger than the show just being entertainment.”

The show has had an impact on his life, too, giving him a completely separate family. “We are all very aware of the fact that we share a unique relationship, having been through that experience together – and a great experience it was. We’re all so very lucky that we are so close – and were so close from day one. It’s all so remarkable how fast we all clicked personality wise. It was almost like one of those situations where you meet somebody and you feel like you have always known them. I think that contributed to the authenticity and the success the show had. I’m grateful that those relationships continue. So many of the things that I have done in my life, and people I have met who have become close friends of mine, are all an indirect result of me having done The Waltons.”

The series introduced his musical talents to America when it premiered in the September 1972, and even offered him chances to perform with some of the top stars in the country format during the show’s run, such as Merle Haggard. In October 1976, the Country Music Hall of Fame member guest-starred on the series in the role of musician Red Turner. Walmsley said that working with the legendary performer was an unforgettable experience.

“I was thrilled to have him come on the show as a guest star, and even more so that the main plot of the show was the relationship between our two characters,” he recalled. “We spent a lot of time together during that six or seven days away from the camera. We did a lot of playing guitar on the set between takes. In fact, the assistant director had to tell us to shut up because they couldn’t concentrate on their work. What a nice guy Merle was. We all know how talented he was, but he was really a sweet, genuine, and down to earth man. He came onto the lot, on his bus, with his tour manager and those people. It was interesting, because he seemed so humble and shy. He wasn’t a real showbiz personality. He struck me as being a little bit like Elvis – where he had his guys who were around him all the time. I think he felt most comfortable at home on the stage. I would have loved to have gotten to know him away from Hollywood, and hung out. Unfortunately, that wasn’t to be, but what a great memory.”

His musical talents took him to Nashville on many occasions, with a couple of performances at the Grand Ole Opry on his resume. Playing the hallowed stage was something he will never forget. “I first did the Opry in 1974, and it was shortly after they moved to the new Opry House. What a wonderful experience. That vibe – backstage alone – is just unbelievable, walking past all the dressing rooms, and all the acts are there, talking and jamming away with each other. I remember meeting Minnie Pearl, Grandpa Jones, Hank Snow, and Roy Acuff. I actually got to sing with Roy Acuff in Opryland on another trip. I also remember meeting Marty Stuart. He was still playing with Lester Flatt at the time, and we’re about the same age. We hung out a little bit. That was a great night.”

Walmsley’s musical career also included stints playing with Richard Marx and several collaborations with the late Americana artist Greg Trooper. “I loved Greg. I met him through a friend. We wrote a couple of songs together that I really like, and want to record at some point. Tragically, we lost him last year – much too young. I say that because we’re the same age. I know I’m not ready to go yet. The song that we wrote together that he recorded was called ‘There’s A Light In The Window.’ That’s on one of his earlier albums, and a bluegrass artist named April Verch recorded it as well. I’ve always loved that song.”

Walmsley is promoting the new release through his website, and says many of the songs he covered on the disc take him back in time – especially “You Can’t Judge A Book By the Cover,” a Willie Dixon tune made famous by Bo Diddley – though that’s not where he heard the anthem. “Oddly, the first time I had ever heard this song was at a Monkees concert in 1967. My parents took me – at this point I was already playing guitar and acting – to a Monkees concert at the Hollywood Bowl. At one point in the show, each guy in the band had a solo tune, and Mike Nesmith’s solo tune was ‘You Can’t Judge A Book.’ He put the guitar down, and just sang and played maracas. This was before I realized it was the blues. Bo Diddley had a fellow in his band named Jerome, who was so important to him that he wrote a song with his name in it. I had to play maracas on my version – as well as some blues harmonica on it as well. I played all the instruments on the album, and recorded it and mixed it myself. It was mastered by Brad Vance, a friend of mine, in L.A. My goal was to create that old, raw blues feeling. So, I played everything and went for it, and left the mistakes in – just like the old records!”