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Crystal Bowersox' husband Brian Walker waits for his big break

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Brian Walker, married to “American Idol” star Crystal Bowersox, dreams of making it big, too. | Photo courtesy of Kat Fitzgerald

Home, 2 Homes

So Bad

Brian Walker

When: 9 p.m. Thursday

Where: Rockit Bar & Grill, 3700 N. Clark

Tickets: No cover

Information: (773) 645-4400; rockitbarandgrill.com or
brianwalkerlive.com

Updated: May 9, 2012 9:36AM



We’re standing in the doorway of Cafe Mustache, a cramped and crunchy Logan Square-area establishment with beat-up furniture, an eclectic array of local artwork and a small tea-java bar in back.

His brief but well-received vocal/acoustic set with guitarist mate Dan Allen now over and his first-ever CD, “Lookin for Light,” sheepishly self-hawked for $10 “or best offer,” Brian Walker — formally Brian Walker Linsk, which sounds more American Taliban-y than showbiz-y — is relishing a Camel Light beneath the cool spring drizzle. After today, it’s cold turkey, he says. And he’ll be true to his word. Eventually.

As the singer-songwriter fest continues inside talk turns, as it invariably does, to her. To “Mama,” “Mamasox” — “Crystal” only when he’s peeved or passionate. Surname: Bowersox. His wife.

Barefoot and clad in white, the two exchanged vows and custom-made rings last October in a noisy hush-hush ceremony at Uncommon Ground coffee cafe/acoustic music mecca on North Clark. Afterward, they joined forces and voices and sang his lovely love song “Mason” for a small gathering of family and friends. “I wanna be your Mason, baby/I wanna build my life with you.” People magazine was on hand to chronicle the happening. Guards stood by the entrance to stave off interlopers and tabloid spies. Because of her.

The only reason I’m here, he knows, is because of her. While writing about her, I discovered him. Otherwise, as the Philadelphia-born ex-bookie later puts it, “Had I just called you and sent you my stuff as Brian Walker — Crystal’s not my wife — you’re not doing a story on me. Nobody would.”

The scrappy and judge-wowing runner-up on Season 9 of Fox’s singing showcase “American Idol,” Bowersox, 26, arguably is one of the most extraordinary talents ever to appear on that program. As such, she was signed to a deal with Sony Music’s 19 Recordings/Jive label and often is approached by autograph- and photograph-seeking fans. Her debut album, “Farmer’s Daughter,” has sold roughly 200,000 copies.

Gig-wise, as Bowersox tries to transition from folk-rock to country, exposure keeps broadening and venues expanding — both in size and stature. Last month, in Fort Myers, Fla., she opened for country hitmaker Darius Rucker. At this year’s South by Southwest music festival in Austin, Texas, she jammed with Blues Traveler harmonica virtuoso John Popper. In late February, country chart-topper Vince Gill introduced her to a capacity crowd at the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville, where she sang a love song she’d penned for Walker (“Mine All Mine”) and earned a standing ovation as her man watched proudly from the wings.

†††

Throughout this “amazing ride,” as Walker characterizes the virtually nonstop whirlwind that is their post-“Idol” life, he’s often with Mama in person, and when that proves unfeasible, via Skype, by phone and in spirit. Though even when he’s present in the flesh, there are times when he might as well be invisible.

“We’ll meet a bunch of people in the business, and of course, they only want to talk to Crystal,” says Ryan Suzuka, Bowersox’s harmonica player and the live-in “manny” for her toddler son, Tony. (The boy’s biological father, Bowersox’s former boyfriend, lives in Europe.) “So then [Brian and I are] just left on the side. We’re really close to what we want but so far away from it.”

A former high school tennis champ and club pro who attended Temple University for a short time on an athletic scholarship, the chilled-out and well-traveled Walker, 41, has graciously enjoyed the perks of his spouse’s burgeoning fame . Unfortunately, his vicariously privileged existence has done little to enhance Walker’s standing in the musical world. Some of those who’ve charted his evolution believe that standing should be far greater than it is.

“Truth be told, he’s [Crystal’s] equal onstage,” says Michael Teach, the couple’s longtime friend and founder of Chicago Acoustic Underground. “He is her equal in songwriting.”

Chicago open-mike impresario Kat Fitzgerald, one of the couple’s earliest supporters, thinks Walker could be “as big as Crystal, if not bigger.”

But if the odds of making it big are a million to one, the odds of making it big in middle age are even slimmer. “I don’t know the last guy who became a huge success starting so late,” says Walker’s pal and sometime guitarist Charlie King . But King, like Teach, praises Walker’s formidable songwriting chops. And this: “He’s got some magic pipes.”

†††

Besides landing some decent-paying documentary soundtrack work and scoring some thrilling stage time with his missus, Walker essentially remains where he and Bowersox both once were before TV came calling: playing around town, struggling to be heard, wondering how to make a name for himself in a city — a country — full of aspiring artists striving for a sliver of spotlight. (To that end, he’ll do a couple of sets Thursday at Rockit Bar & Grill in Wrigleyville.)

“Where am I going/Where have I been/And where am I now?” Walker sings in the opening line of his tune “Gravity.”

It is a question he’s surely asked himself repeatedly. Of course, things could be worse. For one, he no longer needs to busk for rent money at L stations. Walker’s got a huge advantage: the power of Mama, whose reflected glow illuminates everyone in her orbit. For instance, a tweet about one of Walker’s shows to her nearly 45,000 Twitter followers can increase attendance more than he ever could on his own — not only because her endorsement carries considerable weight but also, no doubt, because it raises hopes that Bowersox herself might swing by to chime in.

Then again, the more he’s associated with Mama, the more he runs the risk of becoming known as “Mr. Bowersox.” People, he says, have called him that to his face. Unsarcastically.

Walker claims he’s neither intimidated nor emasculated by such well-meaning dunderheads, only “grateful.” “If you’re looking for attention, which as a musician and artist I’m trying to do, how can I negate any of it? Whichever direction it comes from, how can I not be thankful?”

Perhaps the biggest blow came from Mama herself, and only in the name of creative independence. Amid her ongoing genre switch (she and Walker are moving to Nashville this fall), Bowersox has decided it’s best they go their own ways musically.

“I personally would like for him to be doing his own stuff,” she says. “I’d love to work together on certain things, but I want us to have separate careers.”

Consequently, Walker says, “now I’m really having to do this without her help, but at the same time under that shadow. At least under the shadow, with her help, I don’t mind people getting a glimpse of me. I have no problem with having the door kicked open for me, so to speak. People with talent can’t kick the door open themselves. Nobody can. She didn’t. She had ‘Idol’ kick a huge door down for her. So that’s where my main struggle is now.”

Lack of management is an issue as well, he notes, and insiders agree. WXRT-FM program director Norm Winer says it has “never been the case that someone fending for [himself] could create a real career in a major market, major media kind of a way.”

Of this, Walker is well aware. And he can’t simply use Mama’s folks, because, well, they’re Mama’s. “Nobody good wants to manage you until they know you,” he says, “and nobody will know you until somebody good manages you.”

Teach, who financed Walker’s new CD and distributes it on his CAUDog Records label, echoes and expounds on Walker’s concerns. Bowersox’s “Idol”-propelled stardom, he says, has created “a strange situation.”

“I think [Brian] expected to be taken along with Crystal, and I think that he was almost counting on being her guaranteed opening act.”

When that didn’t happen, “it hurt. A lot.” Bowersox, Teach says, is giving Walker “a little kick in the butt right now. She’s trying to get him to move in his own path and not sit in the shade.”

Fitzgerald thinks that’s precisely the right tack. Merely being Bowersox’s warm-up act would undermine Walker’s attempts to bolster his reputation as a solo performer.

“Brian is his own worst enemy,” she says. “It’s sad, because in the last five years, I’ve seen him want to give up music. And I look at him and I want to slap him upside the head and go, ‘Are you insane?’ ”

Driven as he is to succeed, Walker says he has no interest in being part of a televised talent battle that might catapult him to prominence as “Idol” did Bowersox.

“I’m a competitive guy by nature,” he says, “but with music, I feel like it’s against the grain.”

†††

And though Walker says he’s always writing, he has cooked up only a few new half-songs and has no idea what, if anything, will be recorded.

The chief impediment to progress, he contends, is lack of time. Child-care duties keep him occupied, so music-making has been less prolific than Walker would like. Being a good dad and giving “mini man” his full attention takes precedence.

Walker’s own late dad, a deeply devoted parent himself, had his priorities similarly straight. But he also celebrated his son’s exceptionalism, be it in music or sports, and his inspirational presence lingers.

“I think I hear him laughin’ now, sayin’/don’t go halfway, son,” Walker sings in “Gravity.” “Either come in or go out.”

The lyrics then turn more conversational.

“I often wonder what you’d say if you could hear me,” Walker continues, speaking directly to the old man. “You’d say, ‘Get on your feet and use your gifts/And you’ll be free from this gravity.’”

And father, as they say, knows best.

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