Joshua Ray Walker| Photos courtesy of Courtney Wright | State Fair Records
By David Fletcher
Joshua Ray Walker, the Dallas Outlaw Country singer-songwriter, has been doing it his way since he was a teenager, and he is not going to compromise his craft so that it fits in nicely with what’s climbing up the charts.
Walker is doing just fine on his slow rise with his new album, Wish You Were Here, garnering more and more attention from larger acts and venues at home, nationally, and abroad.
“I’ve never played shows this size before,” he says of the daunting tour in front of him. “A lot of the venues I’ll be playing will be 300 to 1500 capacity. On my own, I was playing alone in the corner in bars.”
After years of booking his own shows through the South and Southwest, Walker’s tour schedule is about to ramp up as he sets out on the road for a busy spring and summer with the Old 97’s, Rhett Miller, Charley Crockett, and Wade Bowen that will take him through the Midwest, Chicago, Detroit, the Carolinas, Oklahoma, Kansas and Alabama.
“I’m also announcing a Scandinavian tour,” he says. “I’ll be in Scandinavia through October for about five weeks…There’s country music all over the place.”
“People like Texas country wherever you go,” Walker explains, “because of the affiliation with so many good songwriters that are from here like Townes Van Zandt and Guy Clark. When I go other places, I’m credited some sort of authenticity that I didn’t really earn because I was born in Texas.”
Scandinavia, he explains, “has a very healthy market for Country and Americana and Roots music. For years now, Texas artists have been able to go over there and make a living. Shows are promoted well and people show up for acts that they don’t even know that well. People are hungry for this sort of music there, so there’s this scene, and they just kind of show up.”
“I hear that they’re very attentive audiences,” he continues. “They pay attention, and they like to support artists by buying a lot of merchandise.”
Before the critically-acclaimed album, international tours, and opening for widely-recognized artists, it took Walker some time to really find himself as a Country singer.
“I grew up playing Bluegrass with my grandfather,” he says, “so I’ve always liked the sound of traditional country music. My parents listened to a lot of 90s Country like Keith Whitley, George Strait, Tracy Lawrence, so I heard country music in the house a lot.”
“I’ve been playing music since I was five or six,” he continues. “When I was in junior high, I was playing rock and blues and punk and whatever, but one of my good friends that I was in a band with for a long time got me into Country music listening to the local country radio station, The Range.”
“I never use to pay attention to lyrics in any music,” he says, but all that changed when he heard Hayes Carll’s “She Left Me for Jesus” while listening to the radio in his friend’s truck one day.
“It finally made sense,” he explains. “These guys are in on the joke. They can laugh at themselves and write about hard, emotional things and make light of the situation. That’s what drew me in. That was when I wrote my first Country song”—“Fondly” which appears on the new album.
Photos courtesy of Courtney Wright | State Fair Records | Joshua Ray Walker
But even with a refreshed outlook on Country music, Walker had a rough time starting out in Dallas at a time when the local music scene had all but died.
“When I started playing my own stuff,” he explains, “Dallas had kind of seen a decline in live music. There weren’t really that many places to play, and it was really hard to get paid.”
“I kind of had to convince places to let me play,” he continues. “I hosted a lot of residencies. I would go into a bar and ask if I could host a songwriter night, and I would set up my own PA and invite my friends out who wrote songs. That’s how I made my living for a while.”
Double Wide, Single Wide, Adair’s, Magnolia Motor Lounge, and All Good Café were all instrumental in shaping Walker’s artistic perspective.
Walker’s first release, a five-song EP called I Rode the Bull at Bronco Billy’s, came next, each song being a story about a different kind of person you might find on night the 70s-Dallas honkytonk, Bronco Billy’s, shut its doors for good.
“I write about characters a lot,” he says, “and that’s kind of the world that my characters live in—this kind of permanent 70s, Texas aesthetic.”
It took Walker three years to finish the EP, but because the vocal takes did not meet all of the singer’s expectations, the album was only released in a physical format at shows and on Walker’s website. However, “Lot Lizard” and “Last Call” did find their way onto the artist’s first full length on State Fair Records.
Walker says Wish You Were Here “is the first thing I’ve ever made that I’m truly, truly proud of. We put so much time and effort into it. There’s so many good players. [Producer and engineer] John Pedigo and I spent hundreds of hours mixing, and the studios were great. I got to record at Audio Dallas, which used to be Autumn Sound where Willie Nelson recorded Red Headed Stranger.”
Joshua Ray Walker | Photos courtesy of Courtney Wright | State Fair Records
It’s not that he wouldn’t like the chance, but Walker is not trying to be the next big thing to fly up Billboard’s list of Hot Country Songs.
“It’s be nice to have a crossover hit,” he says, “but I’m not that worried about it. It’s not really what I’m making. That’s a totally different scene to break into.”
“There’s still some good mainstream country music being made,” he continues, naming Chris Stapleton, Sturgill Simpson, and Jason Isbell as defenders of a more traditional country sound built on songwriting and storytelling.
“It’ll come back around,” he says confidently about the current state of Country music. “There’s a resurgence of Underground Country, Outlaw Country, or whatever you want to call it. People are wanting music with some sincerity.”
“Or not,” he laughs after a short pause.
It makes sense that Walker would be unphased if he never made it on the charts. His future is looking bright enough without them.