If there’s anyone who deserves the national attention from music critics he’s received over the past couple of months, it’s Joshua Ray Walker. The Dallas-born singer-songwriter first picked up a guitar at the age of twelve, began his career gigging with bands in high school, and started writing his first country songs at the age of 19. In the years following, Walker has toiled as one of the city’s hardest-working musicians, getting his start in Deep Ellum clubs like Adair’s and The Free Man. Now, Walker is on a trajectory that could make him one of the most powerful voices in Americana music.
On January 25, Walker will release his debut solo album Wish You Were Here on Dallas record label State Fair Records. Over the course of the record’s 13 tracks, Walker digs deep to carve out exquisite, wise-beyond-his-28-years lyrics that wrangle with themes of anxiety, loss, self-doubt, and loneliness, brought to life by his vulnerable, emotional vocals. Sonically, the album is a veritable melting pot of genres, expertly blending classic country melodies, Tejano-inspired horns, hard-driving guitars, and twangy acoustic picking. It’s the product of more than a decade of songwriting and musicianship honed in the tight-knit Dallas music scene.
Even though it’s likely the album that will make Joshua Ray Walker a household name in Americana music, Wish You Were Here is thoroughly Dallas from start to finish, recorded at Audio Dallas in Garland, formerly known as Autumn Sound Studios, where country icon Willie Nelson recorded his magnum opus Red Headed Stranger in 1975. John Pedigo, of The O’s, produced Wish You Were Here, and parts of the record were overdubbed at Modern Electric Sound Recorders, the home of famed backing band The Texas Gentlemen. In fact, the album probably would have never happened if Pedigo hadn’t introduced Walker to State Fair Records co-founder Trey Johnson.
When Walker began working with Pedigo, he’d just wrapped up an EP that he wasn’t completely happy with. Working on the new EP with Pedigo, Walker was introduced to Johnson, who decided to sign him. “They heard some of my songs and liked them, and decided to expand the EP to an album,” Walker says. “I just made some demos and we picked some songs that told a story and that’s kind of it.” It’s a stunning debut, built on a foundation of incredible vulnerability and introspection that makes Walker’s songwriting equal parts deeply earnest and emotionally compelling.
To tell those stories, Walker creates characters that serve as a sort of reflection pool for processing his own issues. “In general, I start songs during emotional times in my life, and that ends up in the final product,” Walker says. “There’s a little bit of me in all of the characters on this album, whether it’s a truck stop prostitute or a bar fight at a honky-tonk, I’m analyzing little parts of myself in these characters. I think that I’ve realized that I write from a different character’s perspective a lot because it’s easy to process things about yourself when you project them onto someone else.”
Just as often, though, Walker’s songwriting veers into intensely personal territory. At the end of 2018, Walker released “Canyon,” the album’s lead track. On this tear-jerking, gut-punch of a tune, Walker mines the relationship he has with his father, who he describes as a “Bass Pro Shops wearing, fishing every weekend, truck driving, East Texas type of guy.”
“Getting your typical American father to appreciate what you’re doing in life, especially if you’re pursuing something creative, can be tough,” Walker says. “A lot of people don’t have an outlet to write about any of the frustrations that they feel in their relationships with their dads, but musicians do. If he shows up to one of your shows, he gets to hear about all that in person, and it’s pretty interesting.”
Two years ago, Walker’s father was diagnosed with stage four lung cancer. It was an arresting moment, one that forced him to look take a deeper look at both the man who raised him and himself. “I was thinking a lot about what he was going to be leaving behind, what that meant for me, what that meant for him, and what that meant for me when it was time for me to leave my own legacy,” he says. “‘Canyon’ is mostly a question — what are you leaving behind when you’re gone?”
In a particularly poignant moment on “Canyon,” Walker asks a question of his father that pretty much any adult has sweated over at one point or another: “Are you proud of me? Are you proud of what I do?” In the months following his father’s diagnosis, Walker says that the answer to that question became abundantly clear. “I do think he’s proud of me,” he says. “That’s maybe something I didn’t know growing up, but since he’s been sick, we’ve become a lot closer. His way of showing pride and acceptance is just different than mine. It’s a different generation, he’s a more conservative person. He’s not the best at communicating, and it’s something I had to learn.”
As is expected, songwriting of this caliber has earned Walker a great deal of national attention over the past several months, so much that he frequently finds himself making the ten hour drive to Nashville to play gigs, work with songwriters, and network with music industry professionals. He’s been out on the road with major Americana acts like Colter Wall and American Aquarium’s BJ Barham, and has big plans for 2019. But unlike a number of local artists who have moved to New York, Los Angeles, or Nashville in hopes of hitting the big time, Walker is planning to stick around Dallas for the long haul.
“I’ve thought about making the move to Nashville, but I think I would actually miss out on some opportunities. I don’t think drinking with the same people four days a week will necessarily make or break anything big for me. I’m available to travel pretty readily. I’m going to go wherever the opportunities are,” he says. “I really just like Dallas. I still live in East Dallas, and I want to see the scene grow. I know so many great artists and writers here, I’d really like to stick it out and see what the scene becomes.”