Local country crooner Joshua Ray Walker says he’s been playing in bands since middle school. A Deep Ellum fixture since he was a teenager, Walker played his first gig in the neighborhood in 2003 and hundreds more every year since. He is set to release his first album, Wish You Were Here, on Jan. 25, but the first time he really sang in front of a crowd, he had to force himself to do it.
“I was used to playing in front of people. I just wasn’t used to singing. Really the hardest part was just talking into a mic,” Walker says. “Like when you’re playing guitar you can stand off to the side and do your thing, play a solo here or there, but you’re not what people are focusing on all the time. It was just different, and it was something I had really wanted to do, and when I got the opportunity I just took it.”
Seven years ago that opportunity materialized after Walker was asked to host an open-mic night at The Amsterdam Bar, now Eight Bells Alehouse in Expo Park. He had been too afraid to ask for a chance to finally step out from the corners of the stage, so when the opportunity practically fell in his lap, he says he was unwilling to pass it by. Despite his stage fright, two weeks later he played his first solo show and was performing at three to four open-mic nights a week.
“Looking back, I realize now I was never bad, I just had to get over my fear of playing with people,” he says. “I didn’t know how to do a lot of these things or what the next step should be, so my goal for a long time was just to play as much as I could.”
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It ended up being a pretty productive use of time for Walker, who had only begun to write and sing his own songs. Original tracks like “Canyon” and “Fondly” have already become local favorites, being his most requested song and one of the first songs he ever wrote, respectively. A record release show will be at 7 p.m. that night at Sons of Hermann Hall in Deep Ellum and he’ll play a second show Jan. 26 at Good Records in Lower Greenville. These are shows Walker says he's more excited for rather than nervous, something he’s still getting used to.
“I don’t know any songwriters or musicians who don’t deal with self-doubt or anxiety or depression. I think that’s why my songs have connected with people,” he says. “We all share common experiences and I just kind of, by luck, tapped into some of those feelings in these songs.”
Walker says he played more than 500 shows between 2016 and 2017. He tried to record an EP but never widely released it, only selling copies of it at his live shows. By the time Walker had finished it, he says he knew it wasn’t up to par, but by the end of 2017 he was working on a second EP, with fellow local musician John Pedigo. It wasn’t long after that when Pedigo introduced Walker’s music to State Fair Records founder Trey Johnson, and that EP turned into an album.
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“I just didn’t really know how the business side of it worked,” Walker says. “I didn’t think about pursuing labels or investors or anything like that because I didn’t know that was an option really. I just kept playing shows and writing songs, and you know it all just kind of came together when the time was right, I guess. I’m glad that it took as long as it did because I feel like the album that was made is much more developed. The album’s a lot better than it would’ve been if I had made the album two years ago or three years ago.”
Seven years ago, Walker threw himself onstage and out of his comfort zone, developing his craft and confidence show after show. If that doesn’t tell you enough about his character, Walker’s songs fill in the blanks. Expressing utter despair in gentle slurs and serene hope with a sweet twang, as innocent as Walker’s face. The stories he tells have all the hallmarks of someone wise enough to not simply overcome their struggles but to learn from them as well.
“I don’t want to be famous,” Walker says. “I don’t have any grand ideas of playing arenas or anything like that. I just wanted to write good music and be acknowledged by my peers. And hopefully people who see me will enjoy it.”