Joshua Ray Walker has been playing for as long as he can remember. Under the influence of his maternal grandfather—a novice Bluegrass musician and enthusiast who lived next door—the now 30-year-old artist had access to an impressive inventory of records from a young age. For much of his rearing, Walker considered himself a musician. High school introduced him to the heavy, angsty teen music he played in high school bands, gigging around his East Dallas home since age 13.
It was Hayes Carll’s “She Left Me For Jesus” that uncovered the wonder of lyricism in his late teens.
Until that point, it had been a foundation of Bluegrass and 90s country, but he always considered the country his parents’ and grandparents’ music. “So my drummer at the time got me listening to a local country station,” Walker tells American Songwriter over the phone in a recent interview. “And when I heard that song, it all kind of made sense. These country tropes that I always thought were cheesy, a lot of times the songwriter’s in on the joke. They’re just as aware that it’s cheesy and you have to dig past the surface level to understand that there’s actually some humor in there; I’d just never taken the time to listen hard enough to do that.”
This experience was heightened when he first heard Guy Clark’s devastating classic, “Dublin Blues.” He says, “The way he painted a picture so vividly and quickly, just really struck me. And that just sent me down a rabbit hole for about a year of just digging through all the texts of songwriter music I could find.”
With wide-open eyes, Walker became a student of the greats: Carll, Clark, Billy Joe Shaver, Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson, Blaze Foley, and beyond. Dissecting the critical components of a song story changed the way Walker listened to music. Distilling his childhood soundtrack through both Lonestar musical traditions and more modern influences serves as a well-suited backdrop of his artistry. But at this point in his music career, Walker’s nearly virtuoso instrumental aptitude bolsters his veteran-level lyricism.
I didn’t set out to write songs,” he begins. “But by the time I was 19, my grandfather that taught me how to play passed away, somewhat unexpectedly. And I wrote a song in the parking lot in the hospital, as I was leaving. It just kind of came to me. And I went home and finished the song.”
“Fondly,” the song that started it all, made its way to his 2019 debut, Wish You Were Here, nearly a decade later. “So I had 10 years of writing and growing,” he continues. “At the time, I couldn’t even sing and play guitar at the same time. But pretty much from that point forward, I was able to write songs. I don’t really know what happened or what clicked, but it did.”
Wish You Were Here was the beginning of a pre-plotted trilogy of concept collections. In a three-year period, the breakthrough artist released part two Glad You Made It in 2020, and finally, the final chapter, See You Next Time via October 8 via State Fair Records.
Sitting at his paternal grandfather’s desk one day after he had passed, Walker pulled out the drawer and picked up a peculiar pen that read: “I Rode the Bull at Bronco Billy’s.” He held onto it as a keepsake for years and pulled it out one day to examine the one-liner etched along the side. “I was looking at it and I started to think about what that place might have been,” says Walkers. “So I Googled it and it was a kind of a rowdy Honky Tonk on the South-side of Dallas throughout the ‘70s and ‘80s. And after the Urban Cowboy boom, it closed down. I was just thinking about who would have been there that night—who were the regulars, the barflies, down and outers that would have been at this place on its last leg? And it inspired a couple of songs. Then I realized it was a thread throughout my music, there were a couple of other songs I’ve already written that could tie into this idea.”
He became entrenched in this fictional world, building characters from the daydream scene of his mind where his storyboard begins. Each song begins as a visual, like a movie reel playing in his head. Watching carefully, Walker begins to write about what he sees.
The three album titles lend to the story arc he carefully crafted throughout the collection. Wish You Were Here aches with uncertainty in the face of unwanted change. Lyrically, he leans into feelings of longing as he introduces the “barflies and wannabe cowboys, bleary-eyed dreamers and hopelessly lost souls” that inhabit the realistically imagined establishment on the brink of collapse. After developing each of the unwieldy characters, Glad You Made It is a poignant portrayal of the going away party, zooming in on hectic scenes from the “last hoorah.”
On October 8, Walker unveiled the final chapter—the big goodbye. Steeped with overcoming sentiment, See You Next Time ties up the loose ends of a story that nearly every listener could find pieces of themselves within. Walker admits that as a songwriter, “writing from a character’s perspective lets me examine things about myself without ever feeling too self-conscious about it.”
“Sexy After Dark” was shaped by a “deep history of sexy-crooner country songs played by dudes who were pretty unsexy by all accounts but still had so much swagger.” This shimmering track marks Walker’s attempt at writing a song like that, one he wanted to “crank up and party to.”
But walking through the storyline with Walker, he points to a motif of grief that spilled over into his songwriting. “I’ve lost a lot of people over the years and throughout the 10 years of writing these songs,” he explains. “I’ve had quite a few major losses, illnesses, that sort of thing, so the whole grieving process is in there from start to finish as well.”
On a lonely barstool between fictitious patrons, Walker etched himself into the sorrow-tinged scene. Looking over the spanning collection, the artist identifies a personal story arc that was not intentional from the start. Wish You Were Here-opener “Canyon,” divulges complications within his relationship with his father, who was diagnosed with lung cancer in 2016. Bookending his trilogy, “Flash Paper” was the final addition he made to See You Next Time after his father lost his battle in November 2020.
His father left him a cigar box full of souvenirs like notes, cards, and even a ribbon from a reading competition from when he was in elementary school. Among the trinkets, Walker found a flash drive with a note attached that indicated he should not plug it in to watch until Christmas.
“My dad was from East Texas and kind of a good-old-boy type, and the video was really vulnerable for him. Some of it was similar to things he’d said over the years, as he dealt with his illness and the two of us grew closer, but that song’s mostly about me wishing I’d heard more of those things while he was still here,” says Walker. He adds, “It’s kind of serendipitous that it would correlate on the same timeline of making these records.”
Admittedly bold for a debut effort, Walker intentionally split up the collections as to not deter anyone from giving it a fair listen. He had many of the songs and all of the artwork plotted out for the entire project by the time he released Wish You Were Here. “I just wasn’t ready to let people know because it seems like people have opinions about concept albums,” says Walker. “And so I figured they would definitely have opinions about a concept trilogy when it’s your first.”
After keeping it under wraps for so many years, the artist is anxious for listeners to draw the connections between characters and understand the series of artwork as See You Next Time completes all the intricate story arcs of what played out to be a fateful night at a beloved, make-believe landmark.
Photo Courtesy of REK Room