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Charles Walston: Onion ringleader is back

Former Vidalias' singer/songwriter returns to alt-country scene

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The world has changed for Charles Walston in the decade since the Vidalias broke out of Atlanta to find acclaim on the alt-country circuit. He became a father. He moved to Washington, D.C. And he all but stopped performing.

"It was time," he says of the decision in 1998 to leave the Vidalias. "The record company wanted us to play out of town a lot and that was no longer any fun. Then my daughter was born so I had plenty to keep me busy and happy."

Walston returns to Atlanta Feb. 18 to showcase The Bourbon Dynasty, his first album since the Vidalias recorded Stayin' in the Doghouse in 1997. That band rose out of the Star Bar/Austin Avenue Buffet scene to record one of the best alt-country albums of the '90s.

Walston fondly remembers when the Vidalias first made their mark and it became hip to drink PBR at the Star Bar. "The scene in Atlanta was cool," he says. "The Star Bar was our home for years. People like Slim and the Diggers, and Deacon Lunchbox were doing their thing. So there was an awakening of interest in country music and all things redneck. I think it was Southern kids discovering their heritage and taking pride in it."

The Vidalias paid for their own studio time to record an album, then shopped it to a couple of labels. "I still remember sitting over at the studio on Clifton Road at 3 a.m. when we were making that record," he says. "We had no idea what we were gonna do with it, but I just had a feeling it was gonna turn out pretty well."

Evocative of Asleep at the Wheel and Gram Parsons, Melodyland was a tour de force of honky-tonk lyrics that were often quirky and always beer-drinking worthy. Released in 1995, it turned out to be a critically acclaimed album that positioned the Vidalias at the vanguard of the new wave of alt-country bands.

Just three years later, it was over. There was a disappointing second album, a pullback from the record company. Walston, the band's singer and songwriter, woke up on his 40th birthday in a Virginia Beach motel room -- having slept on the floor after a gig because there were five of them squeezed into a double room -- and suddenly realized, "I'm too old for this shit."

The Vidalias broke up and Walston's musical career barely simmered. His daughter was born. He left his day job as a political reporter at the AJC to move to Washington, D.C., where his wife was the press secretary for then-U.S. Sen. Zell Miller.

The genesis of the new album began in 2001 when Walston met bassist Philip Stevenson in Washington. They tried three different combos of guitarists and drummers before finding musicians they both liked, and began to record in 2004. Walston also brought up Vidalias guitarist Page Waldrop for some of the sessions. "Page did some guitar and pedal-steel tracks," Walston says. "It was actually a lot of fun making a record without a regular band, because I got to think about what would sound best on each song and then go for it."

That freedom on The Bourbon Dynasty is most in evidence on a song called "Behind Closed Doors," which is turned into a New Orleans-flavored dirge. "I knew that song was over-the-top, and didn't want to do it as a normal country song," he says. "I met a girl at a music store who said she played the tuba, and a light went on. I immediately knew we would do that song like a funeral march instead of a standard country tearjerker."

Walston will showcase his new band at the show, but also hopes the concert will feature a Vidalias reunion. He expects Waldrop and ex-Vidalias Henry Bruns (pedal steel) and Jim Johnson (bass) to be on hand and perform. "Hopefully, we'll have a little hillbilly hootenanny mash-up," he says.

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