We’re not even a month into ‘19, and I’ve already made my pick for Album of the Year. Too soon? Too much? Aww, maybe? But then again…
Before I walked out of the Creek studios for the long New Year’s weekend, I noticed Joshua Ray Walker’s album, Wish You Were Here, on the lobby table. I can’t tell you why I picked it up, but the big, bespectacled cowboy on the cover seemed to dare me to listen– and defy me not to be impressed. Was I? Well, you’re readin’ this.
With the opening salvo of Texas poetry, “Canyon” invited me in to sit down, crack open a Lonestar, and get to know Joshua Ray Walker. I enjoyed the album so much, I immediately tracked him down. He’s 28-years-old, and he grew up in East Dallas. He’s easy-going and eager to talk about his debut and the prospect of touring. Joshua’s excited, and frankly, he should be. He’s made a helluva record.
The songs on Wish You Were Here are polished smooth. Lyrically, there’s nothing to trim, every word that shapes every line is right in time. Joshua’s voice is strong and sweet. It echoes like a miner’s wail, and there’s no mistaking a particular and moving pain that threads throughout the album’s ten tracks. His songs all tell a story and range from bittersweet craft to Waylon-waltzin’ honky tonkers, gritty tales to wry observations. Wish You Were Here is as much fun as Charlie Robison’s Life Of The Party and as honest as Chris Knight’s first full-length– and like those debuts, it smacks of prophecy.
If you’re a fan of Tyler Childers, Colter Wall, Joshua Hedley, Sarah Shook & The Disarmers, or Zephaniah Ohora, I encourage you to pick up a copy of Wish You Were Here when it becomes available on January 25th. I’m not in the business of making guarantees, but kids, you’re gonna dig this one! In the meantime, let me introduce you to Joshua Ray Walker…
AI- I read that you started performing early at the age of 13. What got you started doing that then? And what kind of music were you playing at the time?
JRW-I grew up playing bluegrass and traditional country with my grandpa. He was from Knoxville, Tennessee and I started playing guitar and banjo when I was around five. I started playing in rock bands in junior high around 12 or 13 and started gigging at little clubs in the music district here in Dallas called Deep Ellum, and you know, church battle of the bands and things like that.
I want to talk about this new record coming out, Wish You Were Here. I picked it up, I’ve been listening to it a lot. I think it’s fantastic. It’s coming out on State Fair Records, January the 25th. Tell me about how it all came together because you’ve been recording music for a little while. Have you been hanging onto these songs for a little bit or did you write them all especially for this project? And how did John Pedigo get at the helm of it?
I’ve been playing my music out five or six years now, I guess maybe close to seven. I tried recording a few times and it just… By the time the project was done, I just wouldn’t be happy enough with it to release it. I got a couple albums worth of material now– but this record is really kind of like a snapshot of everything that I’ve been writing since I started up until now. There’s a song that was finished in the studio that ended up on the record called “Love Songs” and there’s also the first song I ever wrote called “Fondly” on the album. It’s just kinda a little bit of everything from the last almost 10 years that I’ve been writing. John Pedigo is a big part of the Dallas music scene. I’ve seen him play shows for years, and we met playing in bands. We ended up on the same bill. I play in a rock band called the Ottoman Turks, and we were on a bill with John Pedigo’s band, The O’s. We met, and I asked him to record an EP, and we started recording. That was around the end of 2017. He thought the songs were good, and he was working on his solo record at State Fair Records at the time and passed the songs along to Trey Johnson at the label. We started talking and he liked the songs and we started making a record. That’s kinda how it all happened. It all just kind of came together naturally.
You’ve got the Ottoman Turks, I guess, on this album as your backing band?
No, just one member, Nathan Mongol Wells. He’s one of my best friends. We’ve been playing music together for a long time. He plays rhythm electric on the album, and he’s actually my bass player when I go out on the road live. I’ve been playing lead guitar on all of his projects for about six or seven years now.
Stylistically, I could say to folks that Wish You Were Here is a “Texas” record and they’d know exactly what I meant. Your songs have elements of everything from Townes Van Zandt to George Strait, the Old 97s– and I’d even say you’ve managed to fit a little bit of Bakersfield in there as well. But there is a darkness running underneath all of that. It’s kind of reminiscent of another, I guess you’d call Texas legend, Blaze Foley. Do you find that country music lends itself or rock’n’roll lends itself better to that darkness?
I’d say for me, country music lends itself better to that sort of thing. It’s one of the things I latched onto when I got back into country music. I realized you can write about something really sad and poke fun at yourself at the same time and that sort of satire and tongue in cheek humor is what drew me back into writing country music. It’s easy to be transparent and sincere and kind of make fun of yourself at the same time– and feel a little bit better about what you’re writing about, you know?
Speaking of transparent and sincere, you lay the whole thing out on the table with that first track, “Canyon”. I wanted to ask you who you’re talking to on that track?
That song is about my relationship with my dad. He was diagnosed with stage four lung cancer about two years ago, and I wrote that song about a lot of things. Just, you know, what he might be leaving behind for me, what I’d be leaving behind, and my future. Just, you know, what your legacy is as a person and what that means to the people around you. You know, all the complicated things that come in a father-son relationship.
Is he still fighting the good fight?
He is, he’s still with us and he still comes out to a show here and there. I try to get lunch with him as much as I can. And, yep, he’s still kickin’.
Has he heard the album?
He has! Yeah, he’s a big fan of the album.
So talking about what you do… To label it traditional country, which I think works great for artists like Zephaniah Ohora even Joshua Headley– but I think saying straight traditional country for what you do kind of takes away some of the personality. Wish You Were Here has the heartbreakers, it’s got some dance numbers, and it’s got those hardcore I-think-I’ll-just-sit-here-and-drink songs. What do you call it?
I just call it country music. I think a lot of people are probably going to label it Americana because a lot of good country music’s being labeled Americana right now, and I would be happy to take the title as well.
Well, I was going to ask you– how do you feel about potentially being embraced by the Americana market, the Americana listeners?
If people are listening, (laughs) I don’t really care what people call me, but yeah, I wouldn’t say the album’s straight traditional country. That’s just something that inspires the music I write. We’ve definitely pushed some of the songs about as weird as they could go while still being listened to by a traditional audience, I think. I don’t think anything strays too far from country that it can’t be listened to by most people’s grandparents, you know? But also, it’s got just a little bit of weird sprinkled in there, certain guitar tones are kind of strange and vocal effects and that sort of thing. John Pedigo really let me try pretty much anything I wanted to, and we would decide together whether or not it was a good idea once we tried it. It was just a really fun experience making the record that way.
I think it’s got an audience that’s definitely going to be bigger than Texas, and it’s going to bring you a great deal of attention. What are your expectations for that release? Where do you want to see it go?
(Laughs) I’d like to see it go to the top of any chart that’ll have it! But really just making the record and the final product we ended up with is– I say product, but our final piece of art, final product, whatever you want to call it– has already exceeded my expectations. I was just playing in the corner of small bars and honky tonks a year ago and to anybody that would listen. I got to open for Colter Wall at two large theaters at the end of 2018 and play Cain’s Ballroom with American Aquarium. This album’s already taken me farther than I expected to go. So really anywhere it ends up is just icing on the cake at this point.