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From Bourbon Street to Muscle Shoals: Austin Walkin' Cane plays the blues in Cleveland and beyond

 Blues artist Austin Walkin' Cane sits in an old car with his steel guitar
Ruddy Roye
Austin Walkin' Cane poses with his steel guitar, which provides the sole instrumentation on his latest release, "Muscle Shoals," which was recorded at the legendary FAME Studios in Alabama.

Cleveland blues singer-songwriter and slide guitarist Austin Charanghat, who goes by Austin Walkin’ Cane, recently released a new album, recorded at the renowned FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals, Ala.

He has traveled the world over the last three decades with just a guitar and suitcase in tow, sharing the stage with blues legends B.B. King and Buddy Guy and rock icons Johnny Winter, Deep Purple and ZZ Top.

In 2022, Walkin' Cane signed with Hoboville Records, a new German roots record label, and released his album “Muscle Shoals” early this year.

The Delta-blues artist originally planned to travel to Memphis after a scheduled European tour was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Austin Walkin' Cane

A friend mentioned considering a visit to the nearby Muscle Shoals, where artists like Aretha Franklin, Otis Redding and the Allman Brothers have recorded music.

In a spur-of-the-moment decision, he reached out to the studio, ready to record acoustic versions of a selection of his originally released songs.

“I got in my car on Monday morning, and I drove to Alabama,” he said.

He spent the day recording 15 songs, including an original, “Sun Go Down," penned on the long drive to the studio.

“A friend of mine, her son had passed away. He was 27. It was awful. You know, he was a great kid, and it was unfortunate, and, you know, addictions and all that kind of thing,” he said. “I was driving to Muscle Shoals, and she was in my head.”

Walkin' Cane stopped at a gas station and recorded himself singing lyrics about his friend. He sent the recording to his longtime collaborator and Ohio City Singers bandmate, Christopher Allen, who quickly wrote a guitar part.

“And I went, ‘Wow. All right, we have a song,’” he said.

Starting his blues journey

The musician, who has released a handful of albums as Austin Walkin’ Cane, got his distinctive stage name while busking on Bourbon Street in New Orleans.

 Blues artist Austin Walkin' Cane hugs his steel guitar in front of a decrepit building
Ruddy Roye
Cleveland's Austin Walkin' Cane has toured the world with his guitar and suitcase in tow for nearly 30 years.

Born with an arteriovenous malformation affecting the arteries and veins, he found himself relying on a cane by the age of 16.

While strolling through the French Quarter, a man called out, "Hey, walkin' cane! You got some spare change for a brother?"

He embraced the nickname, assuming a cane would likely remain a part of his life.

“And then, you know, at 26, I had my leg taken off,” he said. “Now, I don't really need a cane all that much. If you see me with a cane, I'm probably in a bad way. But usually, it's pretty good."

He said as a “blues guy" having an ailment is part of the persona. The name Walkin’ Cane stuck, and the artist returned to music after a year of recovery after his surgery.

He released his debut album, “Help Yourself,” in 1996.

Nearly 20 years later, his 2015 release, “One Heart Walkin’,” was nominated by the Blues Foundation for its Blues Music Awards.

Walkin' Cane writes all of his original music with Allen, whom he has been friends with since elementary school. Producer and bassist Don Dixon fleshes out the sound.

The musician has played blues festivals in Chicago and Washington, D.C., as well as all the way to France, Nepal and Australia.

“I thought it'd be really great to be able to play music and just see different parts of America that I've never seen,” he said about first traveling overseas to perform. “And, you know, I was like a 20-year-old guy or something like that. That was a dream.”

The connections he made playing out in the United States opened new doors for him to become a global performer.

In fact, he just wrapped up a gig at the Åmåls Blues Fest in Sweden this month.

“I have lots of almost, like, different families. You know, I go to Memphis, I have my Memphis family. I go to, you know, Clarksdale, Miss., I've got that family. I go to, you know, Europe or wherever. There's just people everywhere,” he said.

The magic of Muscle Shoals

Cleveland radio DJ and music manager David Spero approached Walkin' Cane about signing to a German record label last year.

“Over the course of many years now, we've become pretty good friends,” he said. “When Hoboville was looking for somebody and asked David Spero, ‘Do you know any blues guys? You know, we want to do more of a roots label.’ He said, ‘Yeah, I got a guy for you."

The label was looking to release a stripped-down blues album to align with its roots music stylings, based in traditional Americana, early blues, country and folk.

“I go, ‘I have this thing at Muscle Shoals when I was down at FAME recording. They listen to it. ‘That's perfect. That’s exactly what we want.’ So, it worked out pretty cool.”
Austin Walkin' Cane

“We were talking about different songs, because I have a whole record that's done, but it's with a band and horns and all that kind of stuff,” Walkin’ Cane‌ said. “They were like, ‘We like it, but I think we need something with just you and a guitar.’”

In 2020, the musician was already working on incorporating roots-music culture into his new material, bringing together Delta blues troubadour traditions and Bourbon Street jazz flavor.

He reworked the original songs he was ready to record to be paired down with just his voice and an acoustic guitar.

He reached out to the record label about the music he recorded in Alabama.

“I go, ‘I have this thing at Muscle Shoals when I was down at FAME recording,’” he said. “They listen to it. ‘That's perfect. That’s exactly what we want.’ So, it worked out pretty cool.”

Muscle Shoals” was released in March. Hear a selection from Austin Walkin’ Cane’s latest album during his in-studio performance on Applause Performances.

Expertise: Audio storytelling, journalism and production
Brittany Nader is the producer of "Shuffle" on Ideastream Public Media. She joins "All Things Considered" host Amanda Rabinowitz on Thursdays to chat about Northeast Ohio’s vibrant music scene.