As a teen, he was expelled from Aiken County’s Silver Bluff High School. The summer before his senior year, his girlfriend became pregnant. He was 17; she was 18.
“I’ve always been that guy who had to learn the hard way,” he said. “I was being stupid. Partying, messing with drugs, fighting, getting in trouble with Richmond County police, mooning the school bus. I was never mean; I was just dumb.”
Though he eventually graduated and married his girlfriend, April, those years growing up in Beech Island were hard.
“I was 17 years old with a baby on the way,” he said. “I didn’t have my high school diploma. I needed a job. I messed myself up as much as I possibly could. That’s when I told April, we’ve done everything wrong we possibly can. Let’s try to do it right from here on out.”
Walker rededicated his life to God and April became a Christian. “God really moved,” he said. “We had been going to church through all of this.”
Walker was, in fact, the pastor’s son. His father, Mark Canipe, leads Heights Church in Beech Island today. It was where Walker got his start in music, playing drums in the church worship band. He recalls one summer when a worship leader invited him to sing Grace Like Rain, and as Walker recalls, “It was terrible.”
Nonetheless, he learned to play a little guitar and started singing and writing songs of his own.
Years later, Walker’s grace-themed Southern rock caught the attention of Provident Label Group, who signed the Rhett Walker Band to Essential Records. They will perform July 8 at a concert and CD release party for the band’s debut studio album, Come to the River, at the USC Aiken Convocation Center.
“This feels like a homecoming for us,” said Walker, who now lives in Nashville. “The best thing is coming back there. It’s like a second family to us.”
The album, due out July 10, was largely inspired by Walker’s experiences growing up in South Carolina.
“I felt like I had a story to tell,” said Walker, now 25. “Especially the grace I received and the love that I don’t deserve, but God freely gives. I want to write about what I’ve seen, where I’ve been.”
The album features Kenny Davis on drums and Joe Kane on guitar.
“We’re a Southern rock band,” Walker said. “From start to finish, it just kind of tells a story and at the end of the day, it’s going to be all right because of who Christ is.”
On Thursday, the trio opened for the Newsboys at Lady Antebellum Pavilion. This fall, they go on a national tour with Kutless and Fireflight.
Their early success still surprises Walker. “How is this happening?” he said. “The single just broke into the Top 20. We don’t know what to expect or where this is going. I’m taking it day by day. When I set out to write this record, I didn’t set out to write a hit record. All I did was set pen to paper.”
Walker said he’s grateful for the people who have supported him along the way.
“The folks at Heights Church, they were there. When I was 17 and my wife was 18 and we had the baby on the way, they were the people who saw it all unfold.
“They’re the same people who helped us throw a wedding at Heights and helped throw baby showers. To two young kids that were dumb and made mistakes, they wanted to show us love and act like the body of Christ,” he said. “I’m glad to be a part of this. I think this is more than the Rhett Walker Band coming to put out a CD. I think, for me, this is a huge family reunion.”