Joshua Ray Walker’s unique brand of country music is ‘distinctly Dallas’

“I’ve always enjoyed the dark, gritty parts of the city, the back alleys and the dive bars.”

By Michael Marks & Caroline CovingtonNovember 22, 2021 12:44 pm, ,

Joshua Ray Walker‘s songs would sound right at home on the classic country charts. At the same time, his sound is unmistakably his own. The artist, who wrote a trilogy of albums about the last night at a honky tonk – well-worn songwriting territory for the country genre – is an original. And now, he’s released this third album for Dallas’ State Fair Records, “See You Next Time.”

Walker joined Texas Standard to talk about his career and what he thinks was the turning point, when dive bar audiences started to pay attention to his songwriting. Listen to the interview in the audio player above or read the transcript below.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

Texas Standard: You’re often introduced as an up-and-coming artist, but you’ve been at this for quite a while. How and when did you get started playing music? 

Joshua Ray Walker: I’ve been playing these songs out for about 10 years after I started writing music. And then before that, I was playing lead guitar for other bands since junior high. I started playing guitar and banjo when I was about 6; I’m 30 now, so it’s all I’ve done as an adult. My whole adult life, I’ve been a working musician, so, long time.

Is the attention now because you’ve just been on the road so long that people are starting to recognize who you are? Or do you think that there was a breakout moment for you?

I can kind of pinpoint when things started to shift for me. I’d been playing a lot of those three- and four-hour dive bar type of gigs, and I wrote a song called “Canyon” for my dad. It ended up being on the first record. And it took me a long, long time to get comfortable performing and, you know, just being myself. And that song is a real vulnerable song.

My dad was diagnosed with cancer and I wrote a song about our relationship. And when I played that out, I noticed that people really perked up and we’re actually paying attention. A light bulb just kind of came on for me and I realized that people did want to hear what I actually had to say. Even though that seems the farthest thing from the truth when you’re playing songs in a bar and people are talking over you, yelling or drinking beer or whatever. Since then, I put the first record out, people have taken notice and I’m really grateful for it.

I hear you live in the same house you grew up in in Dallas. Is that true? 

Yeah. When my grandmother passed away, I took over the note on the house and have been there about five years now.

There’s a song on this newest record called “Dallas Lights,” where the chorus is about making sure the narrator can always see the city. Are there other ways Dallas seeps into your songwriting? Do you write from a place in your head? 

Definitely. On the trilogy of records is this fictional honky-tonk and that honky-tonk did exist in Dallas. It was called Bronco Billy’s. I never got to go there. It closed when I was really, really young. But I found a pin in my granddad’s drawer after he passed and it said, “I rode the bull at Bronco Billy’s.” It just got me to thinking about it. That’s where a lot of these songs came from.

I’ve always enjoyed the dark, gritty parts of the city, the back alleys and the dive bars and that sort of thing. So I would say that they are distinctly Dallas because a lot of my life experiences come from there.

How did you get into music in the first place? Were your parents musicians or did your grandparents play any instruments? 

My mom’s dad, the grandparents I grew up next to, was a novice musician and he had some instruments lying around his workshop. And so when I was about 4, I picked up the tenor banjo and tried to play along to the Everly Brothers and the Louvin Brothers records. And then when I was 6, he gave me a small guitar and I started learning chords on the guitar and I just never put it down. I’ve always stuck with it.

That’s so interesting – the first instrument to be a banjo; that’s not exactly the easiest instrument to try to play. 

You know, the tenor banjo is what I was playing. It’s a little easier; it’s got four strings and it’s an open G [tuning]. So when you’re a little kid, you can kind of figure it out.

It seems like on each of the albums you’ve released so far, there will be a moment where you let yourself hit a high note; it’s almost like a yodel. When did you realize you could that? 

Same place: in my granddad’s workshop. I used to listen to Slim Whitman records and some old cattle call records, and I would imitate that. I call them yips, more than a yodel. I guess it was five or six years ago, I was covering a Hank Williams song and someone said: “Hey, you’re pretty good at that.” And I remembered, oh yeah, I used to do that when I was a kid.

Earlier when we were talking, you said you didn’t feel particularly comfortable performing until “Canyon.” Why was that? Why did you feel less than comfortable about performing?

I think most people have stage fright. I was always a guitar player and I felt comfortable in that position. I never really thought of myself as a singer. So it just took me a long time to get used to it, and I did have a terrible stage fright. I used to go to open mics three or four or five times a week when I was first getting started just to get used to being on a stage and singing into a microphone. But I mean, I still get nervous before every show. I’m never not nervous before a performance.

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