Retired academic returns to music 40 years down the road

Author and UW–Madison retiree Timothy Walsh has released a new album with his band, 'Penelope's Thrill.'
Musicians Timothy Walsh and Akmaral "Mergen" Zykayeva sit on a bench in Kazakhstan next to a sculpture of someone playing a guitar, with two additional standing sculpture people behind them..
Courtesy of Timothy Walsh.
Musicians Timothy Walsh and Akmaral "Mergen" Zykayeva in Kazakhstan.

This story travels all the way from Kazakhstan to a hauntingly beautiful stretch of Wisconsin backroads between Monticello and Belleville.

But it starts with Edgar Allan Poe.

It was 1998 — my second year as a daily newspaper columnist — when a writer named John Evangelist Walsh published a book on Poe that purported to solve the mystery around the death of “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” author.

Walsh’s book, “Midnight Dreary: The Mysterious Death of Edgar Allan Poe,” got the author some laudatory reviews and an appearance on CBS’s “Sunday Morning.”

Because Walsh was living in Monroe, I reached out and we had an enjoyable conversation about his writing career. He’d published numerous books on subjects as varied as Emily Dickinson and Abraham Lincoln.

Walsh and his wife, Dorothy, came to Wisconsin from the New York City area around 1990 to be near their son, Timothy, who was working at the University of Wisconsin–Madison.

When John Walsh died at 87 in March 2015, I got a note from Tim Walsh.

“Growing up with him as a father,” he wrote, “provided a thoroughly magical childhood for me and my siblings. Whether it was living in England for a year while he wrote his book on Francis Thompson, playing hide-and-seek in Emily Dickinson’s bedroom when he researched his first book on her, or getting a private tour of the U.S.S. Constitution when he researched his book on John Paul Jones.”

I heard from Tim Walsh again recently, with news from his own creative world.

Walsh is himself an accomplished author, with a book of literary criticism and several volumes of poetry to his credit.

He came to Madison for graduate school in the early 1980s on the advice of several of his professors at Boston College who’d earned graduate degrees from UW–Madison.

“I’d never been west of Philadelphia,” Walsh says.

He was born in New York and grew up in New Jersey, where he played guitar in a succession of garage bands. Later he wrote a poem, “Garage Band, 1974,” recalling the “delirious guitars, the flowing embers of the amps, those pounding drums.”

The poem concluded: “While outside, the rooftop sweetgums danced and swayed, our neighbors scowled, our parents prayed.”

Walsh kept those garage band guitars but fell away from making music. His distinguished UW–Madison career spanned three decades as a pioneering student advisor on campus. He spent 18 years as director of the Cross-College Advising Service.

In 2014, Walsh traveled to Kazakhstan, in Central Asia — where UW–Madison has a collaborative agreement with Nazarbayev University – to consult on student advisory services. Over the next few years, he made several trips.

Walsh met some musicians who played the dombra, a precursor of the guitar. Most important, he met a Kazakh avant-garde pop star named Akmaral Zykayeva, who records under the name Mergen. She was looking to do her first album with English lyrics. Might they collaborate? Walsh helped with the concept and lyrics for her album “Tales of Mergen.”

As he approached retirement from UW–Madison, Walsh was thinking more about music. His son, Andrew, was pushing him to pick up the guitar again, even sending him recording equipment.

Walsh began playing, and writing, and then in 2019, shortly after Walsh’s UW–Madison retirement, Bob Hoot, front man for the Madison band Tent Show Troubadours, heard some of Walsh’s music and asked him to play guitar for the band.

“I hadn’t been on stage in 30 years,” Walsh says.

He had a ball. They played Summerfest and Lambeau Field before a Packers preseason game. “We had a great time,” Walsh says.

In fall 2019, Walsh decided to write and record an album of his own. When the pandemic soon descended, he found himself regularly making the drive from Madison to Monroe, helping with supplies for his elderly mother.

Driving back as the sun went down, he’d detour off the main highway.

“Once I hit Monticello, I’d swing off to the backroads,” Walsh says. “One night it was such a beautiful sunset I actually stopped the car, put the flashers on and walked along Tunnel Road.”

That walk brought the first whispers of what became a concept album, “Twilight on Tunnel Road,” that is now available. It tells the story of Lonnie and Chloe, children of the Driftless Region, who find music and their way in the world as the interconnected songs progress.

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“Twilight on Tunnel Road” album by Timothy Walsh and Penelope’s Thrill.

Walsh recorded it in his home studio with his band Penelope’s Thrill, musician friends who have never actually played as a band but made their contributions remotely. The Madison musicians included Ben Lokuta (drums) of Distant Cuzins; and Wendy Lynn Staats (violin) and Ben Jaeger (tuba) from the band Sunspot. Amanda Sanderson contributed vocals from England, and Akmaral Zykayeva violin from Kazakhstan.

“Akmaral is a professional recording engineer,” Walsh says. “I would send her mixes and she would incisively tell me what I should adjust on it.”

Triple M radio in Madison has been playing the album. I haven’t heard it in its entirety, but I listened to the title track on YouTube and loved it.

It’s easy to imagine Tim Walsh out there somewhere on Tunnel Road, smiling.

“This is kind of what I dreamed of doing when I was 18 or 20,” he says. “But it never really happened.”

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