Hal Walker has a pied-piper effect on people. Post-interview, outside the Hudson Panera, he pulls a "khaen" from his car trunk. It's a long, bamboo-fashioned wind instrument from Northeast Thailand, grandmother of the harmonica. He plucks insect wax (which looks like dark, sticky resin) from the instrument's silver reed and covers a few holes before blowing a beautiful, magnetic melody. It's not long before a man runs up, wondering how this odd-looking pan flute could make a bizarrely attractive sound like an ancient organ.
Walker says it's a common reaction to his music.
"I write songs about connection," he says. "I think that's the interesting thing about my music. It engages people across cultures and across ages. I feel we live in this world that tends toward isolation. We stay in our cars and in our closed worlds, and I believe the solution for me is connecting with people. And [Ohioans] are my people. I spent a lot of years thinking I needed to move to New York or Oregon or Vermont to find the right people, but my people are right here."
When Walker isn't connecting with listeners in Panera parking lots, he's playing for students around Ohio (using instruments like West African banakulas, concertina, Jew's harp and the aforementioned khaen) or writing folk music with the good-natured swagger of a John Denver-style pop troubadour. The bespectacled Kent singer-songwriter has written and recorded three albums of warm acoustic folk that focuses on kinship, connection and Ohio. He'll celebrate the release of his latest, Home in Ohio, Friday at the Winchester. The album has 14 songs rooted in six-string guitar, harmonica and his big baritone voice.
"I'm an Ohio child," says Walker. "I grew up blowing the harmonica along the banks of the Cuyahoga River in Kent. For the last 10 years or so, I've made a lot of my living in schools as a musician in residence. My program is Music That Fits in Your Pocket. So I carry music with me wherever I go. But lately, my daughter's a little bit older, and I can get out a little bit later at night. So I've been getting back out into the clubs."
Leading a dual life, Walker teaches the importance of music to students during the day, then writes, records and performs as a folk bard at night. On first listen, Home in Ohio smacks of cheesy local pride set to overly wholesome music, made for moms, kids and Columbus Day. But give it a chance, and the radiant warmth of these 14 narratives will surprise you. Song like "Many Colors" and "Water Cycles" are hypnotic visions of harmony and diversity that sound like the sun-drenched country roads of Eric Andersen, rolling past the ripe golden fields of Gordon Lightfoot, right into "Walker-ville," where they're singing about blue-collar dreams, rust-belt beauty and your neighbor. The title track could be the state song.
"This is specifically a theme album," says Walker. "I'm thinking of it as a gift to Ohio."
Walker tries to illuminate local culture with genuine emotion, and it's working. His music has been used by GroundWorks DanceTheater as well as the Summit Choral Society, for whom he penned "Father Abraham" in honor of Abraham Lincoln's 200th birthday, sung by 200 children who at one point break out 200 harmonicas. This October, he's been commissioned to create a choir for the Inamori International Center for Ethics and Excellence at Case Western Reserve University.
"The center is having an International Peace Summit and they've invited me to provide an evening of music," says Walker. "My job is to create an intergenerational multicultural choir around the subject of peace. I'm not an expert on peace, but I'm great at writing songs about peace. No, wait. I shouldn't say that [laughing]. I mean my songs are poetic, and they inspire people to come together."