CRITICAL EAR

Written By: Joshua Bradford Gray | Photography By: Kit Noble

How a Rolling Stone landed on Nantucket.

For musicians in the late seventies and eighties, Rolling Stone magazine could make or break a career. A favorable review of an album in their pages could send record sales soaring, while criticism might land a lead singer back in his parents’ garage. So it was that Rolling Stone’s music critics wielded a unique power of the pen that could change the trajectory of the music industry. As it happened, one of these kingmakers penned his reviews from the shores of Nantucket during a golden era of rock ‘n’ roll.

A native of Cambridge, Massachusetts, Charley Walters summered with his family on the island for the majority of his childhood. He obsessed over music growing up, learning to play the guitar in high school and following bands around the state. “I remember hearing ‘Hound Dog’ [by Elvis Presley] on the radio when it was a new hit and really liking it,” he said, “but I really didn’t take music seriously until The Beatles.” Walters spent the next few years going to every concert he could, seeing The Beatles three times when they came to Boston.

After graduating from Boston University and then completing an English degree at Hellenic College in Brookline, Walters made Nantucket his year-round home and eventually took a position managing the island’s only record store, Nantucket Sound, which was owned by Gene Mahon.

“Charley was the first Shazam,” Mahon said. “Play a song and he knew who and what it was—and he was rarely wrong.” During that time, Walters sought opportunities to write record reviews. Through famed music critic Jon Landau, whom he was introduced to by islander George Frazier, Walters began writing reviews for Rolling Stone and the Boston Phoenix.

In the pages of Rolling Stone, his byline landed alongside the likes of such literary legends as Hunter S. Thompson. Walters scrutinized albums like Bad Company’s Run with the Pack, Brian Eno’s Another Green World, Emerson, Lake & Palmer’s Works, Vol. 1, and Cat Stevens’ Izitso. Perhaps his most widely read review came in 1976 with the release of the Eagles’ seminal album, Hotel California. Magazines and newspapers across the country and dotting the globe wrote glowing reviews of what would later become the second most successful album in history. But Walters had a different take in Rolling Stone that raised some eyebrows. “I gave it a mixed review, I guess you could say,” Walters remembered. “It was mostly a lot of ‘I did like this, I didn’t like that,’ but little did I know that a zillion people were going to buy it and I’d be hearing about that one for a while.”

Walters continued writing his reviews in the hours when he wasn’t managing the music store, but the writing gig was beginning to wear on him. Reviewing albums robbed him of the joy he found in music as a kid. Listening to songs morphed into something of a chore, and being forced to constantly criticize the thing that made him happiest became a sacrifice he was no longer willing to make. So Walters stopped writing reviews and instead decided to buy the record store from Mahon. That was in 1982, which also happened to be the year he met his future wife, novelist Nancy Thayer.

It wasn’t until the proliferation of the internet that Walters began to worry about the future of his small music shop. He saw the writing on the wall when murmurings about music piracy began, and Apple’s iPod hit the market. He made the hard decision to close the store in 2006 but had no intention of retiring. For years, he had enjoyed travel writing in the vein of Travels with Charley by John Steinbeck, and after doing some research on U.S. highways, he settled in on his own journey down the country’s longest road, U.S. Route 20, which begins in Boston at Kenmore Square and doesn’t end until you hit the Oregon coast.

The next year was spent writing and submitting manuscripts to publishers, receiving notes, editing and picking up other writing projects. He now spends the majority of his time engaged in the Nantucket community, teaching music education classes for the Atheneum, hosting jazz- and blues-focused radio programs for 97.7 ACK FM, hosting talk/interview programs for NCTV Channel 18 and serving on various boards and committees. Surrounded by a voluminous collection of records and CDs, Walters continues to work daily on these endeavors simply because they are meaningful to him and they support the community he’s always considered home.

Tags from the story
, ,
Written By
More from Josh Gray

BOATLOADS OF BURRITOS

Hera Maharjan hits mid-island with a new Mexican eatery called Boathouse. When...
Read More