From “Wallpaper” To Unmistakable, Joshua Ray Walker Makes Country Fans Glad He Made It
Glad You Made It, the sophomore album by Dallas singer-songwriter Joshua Ray Walker, starts in a subdued tone, as the song “Voices” introduces us to a guy who’s not glad to be anywhere. He’s contemplating suicide and maybe even taking steps to make it look like an accident. This all feels disorienting for an opening track, until about halfway in, Walker grounds us by sculpting the line “Lord give me peace” into a long, lonesome falsetto that breaks your heart in half. This guy can really sing.
That voice gets more dynamic and propulsive on track two, the brisk and twanging “True Love,” where the artist pushes the emotion to the boundaries of desperation, with breaks and demi-yodels that intimates why some critics compare him to Dwight Yoakam. Walker’s country singing has an unabashed quality that also calls to mind Roy Acuff. But he’d never be the one to talk about it in those terms.
“I didn’t think of myself as a singer until the last few years. I was really uncomfortable with my voice,” Walker says in Episode 139 of The String. “I thought that it lacked character. I could always carry a tune and sing on pitch. I was a good member of the choir, but I was never a soloist.” This, he says, was compounded by years of anxiety about performing at all. “I would shake on stage. You could hear it in my voice. My hands would shake. So when I first started singing out in like 2012, I was going to three or four open mic nights a week, just trying to get the nerves to go away.”
It’s funny. Most people sing in public because it’s the thing they most love to do. But some force themselves to do it in spite of how it makes them feel in the short term, suggesting a deeper hunger. Fortunately, Walker, who’s now 29 years old, broke through that obstacle and others over a grinding decade until he was able to make and release a debut album. The project, Wish You Were Here produced by Dallas stalwart John Pedigo and released on State Fair Records, became a rookie of the year moment in 2019. The national press lit up over both the recording and Walker’s live sets, heralding the newest in a distinguished line of Texas songwriters who rock your soul while engaging your brain. Here was a boyish looking, plus-sized cat in full western wear who spent years playing what he calls “wallpaper” gigs, feeling invisible. Then suddenly he was impossible to ignore.
“No one was listening,” he says with a laugh about the middle 2010s when he played in the realm of 250 bar sets a year. “When the first record came out and I started to get this national recognition, it was so funny just thinking (that) those were the same songs that I’d been playing over and over to the same bartenders. Or a lot of times to nobody. And there are 100 of me all over Dallas doing the same thing. So it was really funny when I started to get recognition for the record. It felt really surreal that people would care about these songs that I’d been pounding on for years in these small bars.”
Walker’s musical world opened up with the guitar and as a kid in East Dallas, inspired by his amateur picker grandfather who lived next door. Josh practiced his way through bluegrass, blues and rock and roll. He joined and is still in a working honky tonk rock and roll band called Ottoman Turks. He negotiated the world as an instrumentalist. Then a drummer friend got him unalienated from country music with recordings of Hayes Carll and Guy Clark. That opened the floodgates to a lot more listening, a mindset for storytelling and a life of writing.
On his debut, the song that caught people’s attention was “Canyon,” written as a bridge to his father with whom he’d had a rocky relationship and who was given a dire lung cancer diagnosis (he is, four years later ill but still living). For me, the showpiece of Glad You Made It is “Boat Show Girl,” an empathetic monologue about one of those smiling Texas women working the trade show circuit in a bikini and smiling for a paycheck all to sell redneck luxury in a heedlessly capitalist modern America. Our heroine is cloaked in dignity by Walker’s words, even as she’s nearly naked under fluorescent lighting. It’s Texas songwriting in the noblest tradition.
“I try to bring characters who are mostly unseen in the world to light and to paint them in a realistic way and to make them as human as possible,” he says in our interview. “I want people to relate to boat show girls and truck stop prostitutes and drug addicts and people who are generally overlooked.”
As the titles and the sneakily crafted tableaux album covers of Wish You Were Here and Glad You Made It suggest, the albums are part of a three-volume vision, conceived from the beginning with characters who subtly weave in and out of the stories he tells. Album three is written and ready for the studio, he says. Also on Walker’s agenda during these static months is development of his new clothing line High, Wide & Handsome (“The ‘Big and Y’all’ Brand for the Texas Sized Man!”). It’s a savvy and timely stream of income that also asserts his confidence about being a big guy in a body-questioning world.
“Floral pattern shirts are kind of my thing,” he said, wearing a floral pattern shirt on our Zoom interview. “There’s something about plus-size clothing lines where they want to make clothing as neutral as possible, because they think they’re going to somehow trick people into thinking we’re blending in. There’s no blending in at my size. So, like I said I’ve always had a pretty flamboyant sense of style and personality, and it’s been frustrating to not be able to find anything with any character in my size. So that’s kind of one of the things I want to work on.”