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Knurly, ass-length dreads, cleverly dowdy attire and a faint, oil-scented aura of some Rastafarian priest say the man could be some roots-revivalist south London hipster. In a Phoenix environ, he could be mistaken for an old-school weed connect, the one guy in tie-dye still clinging with bongloading fingers to a time best remembered for being forgotten.
To Tempe folk, Walt Richardson is a kind of neighborhood good-vibe merchant who, for the better part of two decades, has fronted the much-adored Walt Richardson and Morning Star, a sundry-styled blend of happy-faced vets playing with aplomb a "world pop" that has added much color to a somewhat milky Tempe music scene.
In certain Arizona circles, namely disadvantaged school kids and overburdened educators, he's perceived as a dreadlocked ambassador of altruism, using music as a kind of community outreach, demonstrating for children the value of art and music for self-definition and for their long-term worth in the grand scheme of things.
And only once, as an artist-in-residence with the Arizona Commission for the Arts, was he compensated for this work.
Holding forth in a Mill Avenue cafe, Richardson relates thoughts and observations in a gentle, kindly tone that I could almost imagine leading to an invite to the toilet stall for a ganja lesson in well-being. But that was just another in a litany of preconceptions. For one thing, he says, pot was but a tangent of youthful intemperance.
"I find my mission the same way I find music," confides Richardson between bites of a Mediterranean salad. "It would vibrate. That's what I try to tell the kids to do. Stick to the things that give you that vibration: 'You go read a book, you can feel it start there. You go ride a bike, you can feel it start there.' You increase that vibe, that feeling; it starts giving you ideas of other things that you can do."
He demonstrates said vibration by offering a terse, single-note hum, as if he's setting the pitch for a barbershop quartet: "Hmmmmmm," followed quickly with a kid-like "he-he" chortle that's sullied with a grainy timbre born of countless nights spent singing through dubious PA systems in smoky bars.
Astoundingly, for more than 20 years, the man has modeled a living -- albeit Spartan at times -- solely from performing live, and mainly in Tempe. Never has the windfall of a major-label advance or some fat publishing check lifted him from a tight circumstance. He is living by his own definition, the American Dream as defined by just being you.
Richardson's house is a carport made into a two-room apartment, in which the main room doubles as kitchen and a recording studio for his song demos. The place is comfortable and intimate and has a casual Caribbean color scheme. Shelves of books run the spiritual gamut. Healthy plants hang over the front window. A bit of Mexican folk art, analog and digital portable recorders, a stereo with his latest CD in the player, various knickknacks of his career and a Bob Marley calendar fill out the room. He has lived in this same spot for the last 20 years.
"When I come back to my apartment, my space, I realize you don't really need much. I am really glad for where I am. If you take what I have and put it in El Salvador, I'd look like upper class!
"I have also created a lifestyle that allows me to be able to spend more time and thought . . . . I don't have an overhead. But it has taken over 20 years to develop it; it didn't happen overnight. If I was working a job and supporting a family, I wouldn't have this time to do the other things."
In the mind of a career musician, decades of journeyman struggles and rock-star musings have a tendency to arouse cynicism and resentment toward exterior encumbrances such as people, places and things. Nary a trace surfaces in 46-year-old Richardson. Anything that could even remotely resemble bitterness is supplanted by spontaneous onrush of the compassion he has for needy kids lacking the means or parenting to build foundations of self-esteem.
"I attribute everything that I have learned from what I call a faith-based, spirit-based nurturing in the home. Praying together, understanding the nature of prayer. My dad is who I model my life after because he is the one who guided this. The things that I'm doing are simply one-tenth of the things that have been provided for me. That's why I feel like I can't give it up.
"As a kid I remember that 'get out in the world and win' attitude, and I was like, 'Win what? What am I going to win?' I am glad that I didn't run out there and do that."
Sandal-clad and sun-ripened ASU students stream through the cafe and stop long enough for half-sawbuck purchases of something frothy. Skulky posture, cumbersome book bags and murmurs as unobtrusive as the supersonic strains of Macy Gray's "I Try" all belie the usual April verve of spring and the school year's imminent end.
One of them, a pert brunette, sees Richardson and approaches our table. "Hey, Walt, sorry I missed your gig the other night. I had to study." The college girl has multiple piercings, and on her torso, a teal-colored, serpent-like tattoo peeking from beneath a loosely fitted top. She appears to be just this side of drinking age and digging the Richardson groove.