There are several versions of Ryley Walker. An acoustic folk guitarist and songwriter, fresh enough in his musical voice that certifiable guitar hero Richard Thompson booked him as an opener. His 2018 album, "Deafman Glance," earned positive reviews for the way he moved past traditional folk.
And then there's the Walker with an idiosyncratic streak, who in the same year recorded and released "The Lillywhite Sessions." It was cover of a scrapped and unreleased album by Dave Matthews Band, a move that was guaranteed to raise eyebrows from both people who love and hate the band.
There's also the Walker who appears on Twitter, where he makes fun of himself, eating habits and obscure musical genres.
The 29-year-old spoke last month on subjects like getting into both fingerpicking and Sonic Youth, taking music seriously but not himself, and opening for guitar legend Thompson on this tour.
"I grew up collecting his records like everybody else and I got to know 'em a couple of years ago and kind of became pals so it's a real treat, real honor, very excited," he said, adding that he usually plays to sometimes-inebriated crowds, who you might call "the rowdy heads, you know, the deep-fried fans of music, so it'll be nice to play for a nice, sit-down audience who gets a nice drink and enjoys the music."
Walker's full-band electric sets, available on nyctaper.com, are worth checking out, but for this tour he'll be playing solo acoustic, drawing on his stoic, downtrodden songs and acoustic technique. Playing on his own, he still branches out beyond the songs' structure on his records.
"I don't know if I'd be able to live with myself if I played them the same every night. It's always nice to sort of expand upon ideas and carve new paths in each song. I think it's important to change every night and make it a different show for the audience every night. That's always been a very big part of the gig, is the open-endedness of the music, and for sure, I'm going to keep it like that here," he said.
Growing up in Rockford, Illinois, not far from Chicago, he dove into the house shows, where you could see most any kind of band.
"I'm sure it's still going on in Chicago, I have no idea, but 10 or 12 years ago the house-show scene in Logan Square was sort of popping off. You know you could see a garage-rock band, and a free-jazz and some sort of noise project all at the same gig, and I thought that was awesome, you know, so I kinda became super-immersed in this spiderweb of house shows," he said.
While he was a "sort of shreddy, punk-rock noise guitarist" in those days, through record collecting he got into folk music in his late teens — specifically instrumental finger-pickers who are loosely filed under the "American Primitive" style.
"I always liked Neil Young and Bob Dylan since I was very young but I think, you know, somebody like John Fahey, I got into hardcore. Glenn Jones and Jack Rose and all those sorts of people were at their peak when I got into that. That music enamored me, I just sat in my room for several years and eventually got singing and here I am today. I'm still kinda doing it. But that music was very big for me for sure," he said.
Those artists have been influences on a number of new guitar players, like Steve Gunn, William Tyler, and more, who come to the acoustic from a different background than straight-up traditional folk players.
Fahey was an outsider figure who punks discovered through record collecting, he said, but he also likes more straight-up folk groups like Fairport Convention.
"Even though they kind of come from a traditional folk with a capital 'F' they put really fried guitar solos in there, like extended versions of things. So I think, you know, taking those traditions and putting them in a frying pan and making them come out extra crispy is part of guitar music, and that sort of attracts punk rockers and musicians like that," he said.
His live band tends to split the difference between his studio work and more cacophonous indie-rock, like Sonic Youth, with longer guitar freak-outs.
"I like the sort of angular open-endedness of like harsh noise and stuff like that," he said. "We have deep grooves within it that, I guess, can be comparable to jam bands and stuff, whether it's really droney or based in Eastern ragas or noise music and stuff like that," he said.
As a kid, he was a fan of DMB, which resulted in that covers album. While it seemed like it could be trolling, it was earnest, and got positive reviews for staying true to the songwriting while deconstructing the music itself.
"I've had a lot of Dave Matthews fans who'd never heard of me prior to that come out to the shows. That's been really nice. Obviously, I get it. If people don't like the source material, they're not going to like this," he said. He said it wasn't ironic, though, or an attempt at a bold statement.
"If we gave it the weight of some very serious academic thing I think that would've been worse for it. So we came to it with a lot of love, a lot of fun, and in general it's been nice. Even good friends of mine have told me it's (expletive) stupid, and it's OK. I understand, but I mean by and large it's been nice and a very good response to it," he said.
He recently moved from Chicago, with that crossover-heavy scene, to Brooklyn, where he's playing with a few "improvised bands, weirdo noise music, and kind of starting from scratch."
Outside of another tour in April, he wants to spend the rest of the year writing and woodshedding.
"I'm just trying to stay busy with that, and I'm just like delivering for a Chinese restaurant in Brooklyn. So that's kind of keeping me busy by day. I live off the tips and I play gigs for the rent. It's all right," he said.
As an opener, and in general, he doesn't like the attitude that fans can't even whisper in the crowd during a live show. He prefers to regain their attention through playing, or other means.
"That's where a big part of where my banter comes from. Seriously, I started in (expletive) basements and I still play (expletive) basements and (expletive) bars," he said. Getting upset at the crowd doesn't work, "'cause an audience can read resentment in a performer really well. I know when I'm an audience member, I can tell when somebody doesn't want to be there," he said.
"I learned a lot the first time I went to the U.K., because people heckle there. It's kind of endearing, you know, it's out of love, but they're really good at it, you know, so it really stings, so you give it back," he said.
In a related facet of his personality, his Twitter feed is filled with jokes that poke at pretensions of musicians and fans.
"But mostly I guess I use it to disarm any sort of attitude like that. People can do whatever they'd like. It's not my place to tell people how to live their lives and promote their art. But you know, for me, I just find so much humor in how weight people give their stupid (expletive) ambient project, I don't know. It's music. Have fun. Feel lucky that you don't have to work in a factory mixing concrete," he said.
After all, he said, he is on a tour, opening for Richard Thompson. Since he's spent his life in larger cities, driving through Montana and its open landscape its "really something," he said, describing it as "endless and really gorgeous."
"It's so foreign for me. It's a pretty psychedelic experience to drive through that state," he said. "It's amazing, there's a place called the Howdy Hotel I remember stopping at," he said. He recalls being shocked by the cheap room price.
"It's the like same amount when they started mining that town in the 1930s, or whatever, you know. It's real deal. I'm excited to go back and drive through it. I love being in that part of the world," he said.