What’s on the Facebook page of JB Walker, frontman for “the World’s Most Famous Biker Band”?Ivy League credentials?! Yep, there it is: “Studied marketing & business law at Cornell University.” This from the guy who once again has set up camp at the Iron Horse Saloon in Ormond Beach, where JB Walker and the Cheap Whiskey Band will be playing each and every day during this 73rd annual Bike Week. It’s the 26th straight year the Georgia native and his crew have played the event. As for that Ivy League stuff, that’s just you spinning a tall tale, right JB? “No — it was an extension but I actually went there for Winn-Dixie,” Walker says with an impish laugh. “I was a master meat cutter for Winn-Dixie for 10 years. I was in the management training program. “You’d go to the warehouse and they had courses you could take there with people from Cornell University. So that’s no exaggeration.”
That tag that’s often slapped on Walker and his mates — “the World’s Most Famous Biker Band” — may be no exaggeration either. While the group’s website, cheapwhiskeyband.com, makes no such claim, the tag crops up in various mentions across the Internet, and the band has the stats to back it up. The Cheap Whiskey lads have played biker gatherings “with literally a light bulb hanging down over us, and we’ve played the biggest concerts in the world for bikers, with more than 75,000 people,” Walker says.
His gravelly voice sounds as if his vocal cords have been pickled in a brew of gasoline and, well, cheap whiskey. It’s not the sort of voice you’d want singing opera, but it’s just the sort of voice you’d want belting out such original biker anthems as “Iron Horses and Wild Women” and “Everybody Dies.” Walker and crew have played at “one-percenter parties, with probably every one you’ve ever heard of,” he says, referring to the so-called “outlaw” motorcycle clubs. (He declines to be specific: “You hate to name names on that kind of stuff.”) And the Cheap Whiskey Band has performed its mix of blues, rock and country at every Bike Week since 1988, with most of their gigs at the Iron Horse. When the Iron Horse relocated to Ormond Beach from Daytona in the mid-1980s, “there really wasn’t anything going on for Bike Week in that area,” says Iron Horse co-owner Sally Stevens. “JB was one of our first bands. They would play hours and hours on end, the poor guys. It was ridiculous. “They’ve faithfully hung in there right from the beginning. You can’t duplicate that kind of loyalty after all these years. He’s grass roots, that’s for sure.”
But it takes more than performing at biker events to make a group of musicians a “biker band,” Walker says: “It’s the attitude — you gotta have the attitude of a biker. Most of the songs I write are written towards bikers, like ‘Iron Horses and Wild Women’ and ‘Mad as Hell.’ “JB is an original,” says his friend Reuben Morgan, a Daytona-area singer-guitarist who’s logged many a Bike Week gig himself. “Even the cover tunes JB does, he makes them his own. It wouldn’t be the Horse without JB.” Yes, Walker rides, of course. He named his Harley “Sweet Marie” after a line from the Bob Dylan song “Absolutely Sweet Marie.”
“Where are you tonight, sweet Marie?” Walker sings before breaking into a hearty laugh. The name fits his bike, the Mableton, Ga., resident explains, “because when I feel like riding, there ain’t no telling where I’ll go.” Walker had no idea the road would lead to a music career back in the early 1980s. He was 27 and working as a meat cutter at that Winn-Dixie, getting the lowdown on management from those Cornell folks. He didn’t even own or play a guitar. Then a comment from his daughter jolted him same as finding a rattler coiled up in a bike’s saddlebag. “I have handicapped children, and I always told my kids they could do anything they wanted to do in life regardless of their handicaps,” Walker says. “I would hang out with (outlaw country star and friend) David Allan Coe and a bunch of guys like that when they would come to Atlanta. And my daughter said, ‘Daddy, we can do what we wanna do. Why can’t you do what you wanna do and be a singer?’ “So I quit my job the next day, bought a guitar and that’s how it started.”
He saw how Coe performed for bikers and connected with them, and so Walker decided he “wanted to do a band that specializes in music for bikers.” He’s witnessed “outrageous stuff I wouldn’t want to tell anybody about” at biker gigs over the decades, Walker says. But, he adds. “Biker crowds are the best crowds. I’ve probably seen only two fights from the stage. Especially at the Iron Horse during Bike Week, we have a family atmosphere there.” Walker wrote “Iron Horses and Wild Women” during his first Bike Week back in ’88, and he still performs it “every day — it’s a staple.” Morgan mentions a rumor that Walker might be retiring one day soon, but Walker dismisses any such thoughts.
Indeed, at an Iron Horse performance earlier this week, Walker seemed to be having too much fun to want to stop: smiling perpetually, clenching a cig in his left fist as he fretted his acoustic guitar, shouting his “Roll hard” mantra to his fans, tweaking the lyrics of Johnny Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues” and the Allman Brothers’ “Midnight Rider” with references to the Horse, Bike Week and Daytona. Away from the stage, Walker mentions the time many years ago when he landed a record deal in Nashville with an independent label. “We put out four records and they told me I couldn’t play for bikers anymore — that was a bad image,” he says. “So I quit them (laughs). I told them I didn’t quit my job at the grocery store to have somebody tell me what to do.”