Last year wasn’t just kind to Joshua Ray Walker, it bowed to his every move.
Walker’s debut album, Wish You Were Here, became an unabashed favorite among critics in 2019, and the country artist swept the ballot at the Dallas Observer Music Awards.
The artist took his first plane ride and never stopped, touring incessantly with hundreds of shows and selling out venues in Europe. The budding country star is a homegrown Dallas music industry staple, and he flaunts his roots.
This year’s events won’t stop him. Walker's follow-up album, Glad You Made It, premieres Friday.
“I mean, it was really surreal... I wasn't expecting like Rolling Stone articles and stuff from a debut record you know,” he says of his success. “It was in the top 40 for Americana albums in the country for like 12 weeks."
The musician says he feels pressure to live up to the first record's hype.
“I kind of felt like I had something to prove on this album,” he says, “just kind of letting people know that, you know, I didn't use all the good material, and I'm still writing good songs.”
The new album includes “Cupboard” and “Boat Show Girl,” continuing Walker’s observance of forlorn honesty and sublime storytelling. Walker has a novelist’s gift for character writing and weaves his cowboy truths through fictional lives that exist only in his lyrics.
For all his critical success, Walker says the pandemic has greatly affected his livelihood. He played his last show Feb. 29.
“I was on the road really heavy; I played a ton last year,” he says of the bygone, pre-COVID days. “I opened for everyone like Shooter Jennings, Charley Crockett and played all the way from New York City through the desert.”
In early March, Walker released the video for the single “Voices” and planned to release his sophomore follow-up in May. He had big plans for the South by Southwest festival, where he was to play as a featured guest at Luck Reunion at Willie Nelson’s ranch, and he also had tours planned with his band, Ottoman Turks.
“So everything was really on the rise, and then, you know, it all just totally came to a halt,” he says of the pandemic.
Walker is a compulsive songwriter and has amassed endless material in a decade. Last year, he began putting together a collection of songs from his unearthed archives to catalog them into one meaningful work.
“I like cohesive albums,” he says of the new record, “where it's not really an assortment of songs but more like one kind of picture that's being painted by the whole album. I was able to kind of go through my songs and find a common thread and put a narrative together in that way.
"I picked the songs that have these kind of distinct characters that I'm writing about, and then I see how they all fit together in the same world."
The album was largely recorded last August at an Airbnb in Nashville, where he and producer John Pedigo put up mattresses to create a makeshift studio. The album was completed before the end of last year, and it wasn't just the pandemic that changed Walker's plans: He also wanted to let civil rights protestors do the talking in the last few months, as he says he's "100%" in support of the cause.
"We're all getting hit really hard," he says of the music industry. "So trying to balance that and then realizing how
that personal struggle doesn't really compare to the systemic issues that have had the spotlight recently, and trying to manage how much I should really even be talking about my career through all that has been pretty difficult," he says.
"I think that art can definitely give a voice to social movements," he adds. "But I don't know if my voice is the voice that needs to be heard right now. I just wanted to, I don't know, leave room for other voices."
Walker says much of his success was prompted by his longstanding presence in the scene, and people's excitement that he was finally putting out music of his own after playing for 17 years, since the age of 13.
Despite the pressure, Walker says he's pleased with the finished product.
"In a lot of ways I think that my writing has progressed, and the songs are actually written a little better than the first one," he says. "I definitely think that it's a more well-rounded record. The first one had a lot of downtempo stuff, and this record feels a little bit more cohesive to me. It flows more like a set would flow at a live show."
A few years ago, Walker bought his childhood home in East Dallas' Casa Linda neighborhood, where he was "born and bred." For this reason particularly, he's excited for his upcoming album release, which will be a drive-thru event outside of Good Records' new location on Garland Road.
He had originally planned a grand affair at the Kessler Theater. As the number of COVID cases increased, the singer thought he might have to push the release until 2021.
"The landscape of the music industry is totally on its head right now," Walker says of having to strategize a new game plan. "Most of the money made from the music industry comes from live performance, and we can't do that right now, so everyone is scrambling to try to figure it out."
The grass remains bluer on Walker’s side of the fence, and this Saturday he'll be greeting fans who can drive by for the signing while the album plays on speakers. Glad You Made It will be available on CD, as well as a limited-release on vinyl.
Walker says he's happy to sit for eight hours in a mask and under the sun to show supporters his appreciation.
He's using his break from tour life wisely, he says, doing work for his label State Fair Records, live streaming, doing guitar session work and collaborating with Pedigo. He's also already finished writing his third album.
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