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When five-year-old Mike Walker learned how to work his mother's record player, he had no idea he was setting the course of his future. Like most kids, his tastes were shaped by the music he heard around the house. The bad news was that his mom, herself a singer, owned only two records; the good news is they were by Elvis Presley and Conway Twitty. “That's who taught me how to sing,” Walker says.

His standards indeed drew on the crackling energy and romantic balladry that made those artists legends. Over the years, Walker would learn from his mother's other favorites (she managed to pick up a few more records), among them Tammy

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Wynette and George Jones, and from his own discovery of artists like Roy Orbison and Marty Robbins. What stayed with him most was the desire to convey real passion and retain the authenticity of these country stars.

“If you don't feel what a song is saying, if you can't relate it in some way to yourself or somebody you know, you're really better off not doing it,” he says, “because you're really not doing justice to the songwriter or to yourself. Even if you didn't write it, if you can take the song and interpret it in a way that makes it your own, you're doing your job. I mean, if you don't really believe in what you're singing, what's the point?”

Throughout his dues-paying years, Walker continued to measure himself against the emotive skills of the masters and push himself toward their heights. So when he and Nashville finally converged in 1999, he was ready and as a result, quickly found a label home for his debut album. In fact, Mike Walker (released Oct. 9, 2001, on DreamWorks Records) introduces a singer steeped in the classics, boasting a performance style that ranges from the tenderly intimate to the larger-than-life.

Likewise, the disc balances feel-good rockers like first radio track “Honey Do” and “Long Long Kiss,” bluesy excursions like “Memphis Women And Chicken” and the rockabilly of “I Want A Little More” with ballads like “If There's A Chance To Say I Love You” (which Walker co-wrote) and “Stones In The Road,” a story of perseverance that is one of his personal favorites. Anyone with ears can hear how Mike Walker is the fulfillment of a lifelong love of music. The singer got his start at the age of eight when he ran out of money at the local bowling alley. “My mom and dad liked to bowl when I was a kid,” he explains, “so every week we'd spend an evening at the alley. They'd give my cousin and me $10 or $15 so we could feed quarters into the game machines. One night we ran out of money in about half an hour. We couldn't really go ask for more, so my cousin got this bright idea and said, 'I'll act like I'm your manager, and we'll tell people you'll sing them some songs for a quarter.' I spent the rest of the night singing whatever songs I knew. We were making so much money that we never did have the time to play more games. I think we walked out of there with about $75. When my mom said, 'Where in the world did you get that money?' I just told her, 'I sang for it.'”

By then, however, his parents had already begun to recognize his talent. His mother often took him to perform for the people in the nursing homes where she worked. “That's where I really got my feel for entertaining people,” Walker says. From there, he moved to parties, festivals, corporate events and fairs.

Meanwhile, his father, a carpenter and painter, made sure he looked every bit the professional entertainer he was becoming. “He told me, 'I really don't want you to sing anywhere unless you're on a proper stage,'” Walker informs, “so he built me a 10-foot-wide stage with lights and everything, and he built it so he could take it apart and load it in his truck when he took me places to perform.” Walker's father also booked gigs for the youngster. Mike found these shows so enjoyable (and lucrative) that, in the eighth grade, he left the football team to devote more time to singing.

A gig he did when he was 17 would prove pivotal. The teen was opening for the acclaimed vintage vocal groups The Coasters and The Drifters at the Crockett Theater in Lawrenceburg, Tenn., singing as he normally did with just a karaoke-style tape for accompaniment. After Walker's performance, The Coasters' saxophone player asked for his phone number, remarking, “There's a guy up in Nashville who really needs to hear you.”

So Walker and his father drove from their home in Jackson, Tenn., to Nashville to meet with a man named Lloyd Barker. Barker told them he'd offer career help if he could, and that he'd call when that day arrived. Time passed and no call came and Mike eventually forgot about the meeting as he formed his own band and took over booking chores from his father. He played everywhere from Beale Street clubs in Memphis to community centers in rural Kentucky.

“I just loved to play,” he says. “It didn't matter if it was in a pub or at a state fair. Anywhere there was a crowd that needed to be entertained, I wanted to be there.” He also developed a tough-as-nails work ethic, once delivering a four-hour performance at a steamy summer festival in Memphis – with a case of double pneumonia.

Then, in 1999, he got a call. “Mike, this is Lloyd,” the voice said. “I need you to send me some tapes and promotional material.” Walker responded, “Lloyd who?” Barker then reminded him of their meeting six years earlier and said he was following up as he said he would. So Walker went back to Nashville, this time with his guitar player. They attended a meeting Barker had arranged with Dale Morris, who'd managed Alabama for 20 years and also handled Kenny Chesney.

Morris held up the tape Walker had sent Barker and said, “If this is you on this tape, we've got some business to do and we're gonna have a great time doing it; if it's not you, I guess you'll be going back to Jackson.”

Walker opened his mouth and sang. Duly convinced and clearly delighted, Morris then gave him some songs to learn and told him to come back once he'd mastered them to record some demos. The depth of Walker's preparation – all those years of putting his own stamp on the lessons learned from legends – and a simple bit of serendipity conspired to turn him from strictly a road musician into a recording artist: DreamWorks Records principal executive James Stroud happened to be in the studio when Walker was laying down those demos. He asked Morris for a copy of the tape.

“The next thing I know, I've got a record deal,” Walker marvels. “I still wake up every morning and pinch myself to make sure I'm not dreaming. I'm very fortunate to have such a great team behind me.”

Walker's approach to his debut album, which Stroud produced with Don Cook, was simple: “I wanted to make a positive record. I'm a very positive person, and there's enough negativity in the world.”

And while he greatly enjoyed the recording process, he still reserves his greatest enthusiasm for the stage. “There is nothing in the world like it,” he says. “I love everything about being onstage. I don't care if there are ten people in the audience or 100,000; it's still a huge adrenaline rush. As long as I can make somebody smile or feel something, make them move their feet and clap their hands, shake their head or wag their tail, I'm happy. I get goosebumps just thinking about it.”

Summer of 2001 found Walker walking it like he talks it, performing with Brooks & Dunn's Neon Circus & Wild West Show and visiting radio stations throughout the country. He fully understands how much hard work is down the road in support of Mike Walker, but Mike Walker wouldn't have it any other way.

“This has never been about fame,” he points out. “It's never been about money. It's never been about any of those things. I just love what I do and I'm happy to do it anytime, anywhere for anyone.”

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