Joshua Ray Walker did it again. He went and made the year’s best album.
In January of 2019, JRW’s Wish You Were Here struck listeners with visceral stories and characters from somewhere just left of the honky tonk. The big Texan’s songs were delivered in a voice as sweet and strong as it was haunted. It was without a doubt my favorite album of ’19, and it’s still got plenty of tread left on the tires. On his sophomore effort, Glad You Made It, Walker returns sounding even more powerful. And the songs? They punch you right in the teeth and plant a boot square to the solar plexus. Walker’s characters– the drinkers, the thinkers, the lovers, and the lizards– are back in varying shades, scarred and weary, but utterly compelling. Walker’s world is still spinning, howling, and ready to welcome you back.
It’s been right at 18 months since last we spoke, and I want to tell you how awesome it’s been watchin’ your career progress and all the things that you’ve been doin’, man. The brand new album sounds fantastic, and I’ve been lookin’ forward to bein’ able to catch up with you about it.
Yeah, man, this last 18 months has been totally insane. The first record just did astronomically better than I thought it would. It took me all sorts of places I didn’t think it could. So I’m just ready to follow it up with some more new music.
Well, as I mentioned, I knew that you had more songs written and possibly even more recorded. So I’ve been anticipatin’ Glad You Made. Musically, it’s a lot more upbeat overall, but lyrically you’re still swingin’ a mean hook. I expected it to have a harder edge and it does. How much of it was conceived since the release of Wish You Were Here?
About half the record was from the last 10 years of writing and then four or five of the tracks were written… We went into the studio in June of last year. So they were all written about a year ago or more.
I was glad to see “Bronco Billy’s” made it onto the record. Was that a new version recorded for this one?
Yeah. Everything was tracked at Audio Dallas back in June. That song, I had actually recorded a version of that for an EP I put out back in 2016 or ’17. I started playing it differently live, and I wanted everything to be cohesive, so we recorded everything at the same time.
You’re talkin’ about recordin’ there in Dallas, but I saw in the liner notes– and actually just got done reading a couple of stories that came out today– you guys had actually rented an Airbnb over in East Nashville and did some recording there. What led to that happening?
We had cut all the rhythm tracks to 2-inch tape at Audio Dallas and laid down scratch vocals, and most of the structure of the record was done in Dallas. Then we took those tracks to East Nashville and laid down a lot of the lead and a lot of the backing vocals. We did it at an Airbnb because me and my producer, John Pedigo, we already had a trip planned to go do some writing sessions in Nashville. We were going out there about every six weeks to do that. I’ve been going out there for a few years now. Not for my stuff as much as trying to write for other people, writing with some of John’s buddies out there that have publishing deals.
And since we already had the trip set up and I knew quite a few musicians in Nashville that I wanted to have play on the record… We were gonna fly in those parts. Instead, we just took a mobile rig with us and rented an Airbnb larger than we needed. We took all the spare mattresses out of the bedrooms and made a makeshift studio and tracked a lot of the lead, all the pedal steel, dobro, banjo, all the female backing vocals… All the lead guitar that I didn’t play was recorded there. Wade Cofer played on a few tunes… We just made a party of it, and I think that’s why the record has more of a fun, kind of honky tonk atmosphere.
You talk about going up there to do co-writes and write for other people. What’s that experience been like? Who have you been writin’ with and what’s been comin’ out of it so far?
Nothing’s been placed yet, but I write with guys like Arliss Albritton. And Mando Saenz is a friend of mine. We haven’t gotten to write together yet, but that one’s set up. I write with a guy named Blue Foley– him and I and Pedigo actually co-wrote one of the songs on my record called “One Trick Pony”. That’s my first co-write. I’d never tried to co-write songs for myself. I like writin’ my own stuff. So that’s actually the first song that I ever took out of a writing session and actually cut.
It’s a different thing. I talk to people about it all the time and some people are like, “Ah, I don’t really care for it.” And other people are like, “Oh yeah, I love it. I want to write with more people!” How are you feelin’ about it?
I really like doing it a lot. Personally, for the music that I want to cut, my writing process is really long. It takes me years to finish a song. I’ll write a chorus and sit on it for six months and then I’ll write a verse and sit on that for six months. When you do the writing sessions, you’re in and out in three hours. You walk in with an idea– not even an idea sometimes– and then at the end of the three hours, you walk out with a finished song. It’s really cool and it’s definitely made me a better songwriter. It’s a great songwriting exercise to force yourself to finish a song and work with other people and meld ideas together. So I really enjoy doing it now, but for the songs that I record, I typically write myself.
You did bring up the honky tonkier, more dance hall style that’s on a lot of the songs on this album. I wanted to ask you specifically about your trip to Europe last year, which as I understand was not only your first plane ride but that you were surprised that there were so many people dancing to your songs.
I was surprised of the knowledge that Scandinavia had of country music in general. I mean, I had people comin’ up and quizzing me about Guy Clark albums and Townes Van Zandt songs and Blaze Foley… And they were disappointed when I knew less about it than they did! I love those writers, but they memorized who played on every record and who the producer was and what label they were workin’ for at that time and where the studios were… They’re just really invested in Texas music. And I just like listening to it (laughs)!
It was funny. We’d try to talk about that sort of stuff and I kinda fell flat. But yeah, they just love Texas music and I was blown away by what a big part American country music plays in their pop culture. They have a chain there, pretty much there only burger chain– it’s kinda like McDonald’s– called MAX Burger. I was in Sweden sitting in one– in the dining room while we were eating– and then the next song was the Allman Brothers and then the next was Tom T. Hall! Imagine being at a McDonald’s in the U.S. anywhere and hearing three country deep cuts! That just doesn’t happen. It was a really surreal experience to have that happen at a fast food joint in Sweden. I was in Norway about a week after that. I played my show and then they had a late-night open mic. I stayed around to listen to some of the local songwriters. One guy got up and played the Old Crow [Medicine Show] version of “Wagon Wheel. And the whole bar was singin’ along to “Wagon Wheel” in the middle of nowhere in Norway!
I actually got to talk to Ketch [Secor] one time and I asked him how he felt, knowing that somewhere in the world, there was somebody singin’ that song right then and there.
That’s funny. Yeah, well, they are! I was in the Arctic circle. I played a show in Tromso, Norway– all the way to the Northern tip of Norway inside the Arctic Circle. I was at a bar and “Copperhead Road” came on. I was just blown away, you know what I mean? I know music goes everywhere, but I just don’t think of country music being as universal as it is.
Well, I mean, it’s got such universal themes. There’s heartbreak and there’s loss and then there’s hope and there’s family and all of those things. And speaking of heartbreak, one of the lead singles off of Glad You Made It, “True Love”, one of those upbeat yet gut-wrenching type songs… How much of that one is observational and how much of it is autobiographical?
It’s both. I think everyone’s lost love before and has felt jaded. I guess I kind of have a theme in my music. I don’t really write many love songs. I even have a song about it on my first album called “Love Songs”, and the chorus line is, “I don’t write love songs.” There are just a ton of love songs out in the world and a lot of great ones have been written. If you look at all the songs that have ever been written in the world, half of them are probably about love, right?
I’d say half is a very conservative number.
I just try to avoid the subject in my writing and write about other stuff that I find interesting. So “True Love” is just an observation about that.
When “Voices” came out and it was accompanied by that really David Lynch-esque music video. A lot of that was directly your concept, things that you had come up with. I was curious to know, as out there as it was, what didn’t make it into the video?
We had to shoot that all in about eight hours, and that could have been a 45-minute video. But the cuts are pretty quick. We got a lot of the visuals that I wanted. Unfortunately, there were more videos coming in that series for other songs on the record, and the shooting for that got cut short because of COVID. There were some other pieces that we’re going to link in with those characters. All the characters in the video are the different characters in the songs from the album.
Oh, I see! Do you still hope that you’re gonna be able to do that at some point?
I hope so. Someday. Right now things are closing up in Texas again. Our numbers have been really bad.
Yeah, I’ve been following that. Several of the artists I’ve talked to lately are right there in Texas. And they’re just like, “Man, we don’t know. We don’t know.”
I live in Dallas proper. We’re one of the worst counties right now. We’re just tryin’ to be safe and we don’t want to put anyone at risk. We’re holding off on any live performances or video shooting, anything that requires being in close quarters and not being able to wear a mask around each other. So that’s on hold for the moment, but at some point, yeah, I think there will be more videos coming out. It’s the same idea I had for the first record. If you watch the “Canyon” video from Wish You Were Here, all the characters from that album were in that video as well. Those are all the characters on the album cover for both records. Some of the characters carry over.
I was really pleased to see that you continued that theme with Glad You Made It, and I didn’t realize– I read this today– that you’ve actually got this planned out. There will be a third installment to complete this trilogy that started with Wish You Were Here.
Yeah. I’ve always had the idea to make it a three-part thing. Glad You Made It picks up where Wish You Were Here left off and you’ll probably see some of the same characters on the third record as well. I had so many backlogged songs ’cause I’d been writing for about 10 years before I got to put a record out. I wanted to release what I had been writing in a similar light. ‘Cause all those characters live in the same world in my mind and I couldn’t fit it all on one record. So I broke it into pieces.
I saw your post on Facebook talkin’ about releasing this album and that it’s a different world than you had imagined. We’re suffering from the pandemic– it’s brutally hit your home state of Texas. We’ve got marches and rallies coast to coast for racial justice and amid all of that, we’re watchin’ the country struggle to find leadership all over the place. It feels foolish of me to ask you about this on the eve of a brand new album release, but are you writing about this new world now?
I’m sure a track or two will make its way out at some point. A lot of people say, “Just shut up and play.” That’s the message that musicians get a lot. People want to separate the art from the person.
I’ll interject there, like one of BJ’s new songs [“A Better South”] on the American Aquarium album [Lamentations], he tackles that exact sentiment by saying, “I’m going to do it anyway.”
Right. And I think that that’s such a timely record. Every song on that record because of when it came out– and he would have had no way of knowing this– but just by chance is just really poignant. I’ve been listening to that record a lot during this. But, yeah, I’m sure some of that’s going to end up in my writing. I observe people and social situations, so I’m sure it’ll work its way in. I have a feeling it won’t be blatant. I touch on a lot of things in my songs and I don’t write about specifics very much, but it’s definitely gonna affect my writing.
I am a thoughtful person when it comes to social issues and political issues, but I just don’t find that voicing all of my opinions hold that much weight. I don’t have time to research and have enough knowledge on a subject to make my opinion public on a lot of issues. I wish I had time to learn more and I spend as much time as I can learning and trying to pursue what’s actually true and right– and then live that way. I just don’t feel like I have the authority to speak on a lot of the issues at hand. That’s one reason I just haven’t been super vocal during this time– but that’s why I write. Those sort of things? When I have time to think about it, they do end up in my songs. I’m sure that it will affect my writing moving forward.
Another venture that you’ve been involved with is your High Wide & Handsome clothing line. I remember seein’ something immediate about it and then it kinda went away. So I was curious to know if that’s something that you’re still working on.
Yeah! I launched it and it’s been running on its own. We’re still selling shirts every day. It’s going well. But I had to focus my attention on the record. High Wide & Handsome is my plus size clothing line and it’s been going great. Eventually, there’ll be other items, but right now it’s t-shirts. I’d launched it during the pandemic, so we went from concept to launch in about 16 days. I’ve just been focusing on the album, and eventually, there’ll be other clothing items added. I get asked all the time at shows where I find my clothes. I’m a big guy. I wear a 6XL and a size 14 boot and size 7 3/4 Stetson. I wear a size 15 ring. It’s really hard to find anything that fits. I feel like for someone my size, I think about what I wear quite a bit and it’s always been difficult to find anything stylish. I have other big dudes come up to me at shows and ask where I find this stuff, so I’ve had this idea of starting a line for about two years now. And then during the pandemic, I had enough free time to actually get it off the ground.
Where are the clothes coming from?
Right now, since it’s just shirts, there’s a graphic design and t-shirt company in Dallas called Travel By Gravel and I partnered with them to start the line. We sourced the best high quality, non-shrink plus size shirts we could find and tried ’em out. And they look great! They color match to the lower sizes. There is no price increase going from small sizes to the largest size. A lot of times, plus size shirts cost more than the smaller sizes. There’s no penalty there for ordering a larger shirt. They come right out of Dallas and I’m looking forward to expanding the line this summer. After this record comes out, we’re gonna add some more designs to the roster.
One of the other things I’ve been gettin’ into– and somehow it escaped me when it came out– but I’ve been diggin’ into that Ottoman Turks album, who of course you play lead guitar for, and I’m thoroughly enjoying it! How are things goin’ on that front?
Great! During the pandemic, we actually were able to record and finish the second record. It’s being mixed right now, and we’re looking for a release in early 2021. So yeah, there’s another Ottoman Turks record on the way. That’s really the only creative thing I’ve gotten to do with those guys since the pandemic started. I mean, we haven’t seen each other in months now. It’s crazy.
I was happy to see that your father is still keeping up the good fight. You had everybody wishin’ him happy birthday [on Facebook]. I was pleased to see that.
Yeah, he’s still kickin’! But every, every birthday is more and more special ever since his [lung cancer] diagnosis. He’s hangin’ in there for now. I was trying to figure out how to wish him a happy birthday and let him know people are thinking about him, and that was really sweet. He had hundreds and hundreds of people tell him happy birthday from all over the world! That was really cool. He loved it! He hasn’t been able to leave the house, you know, he’s immunocompromised because he’s got cancer. It’s been rough. I mean, we’ve all been staying in, but he’s really had to stay in.
Now I did see that you’d been doing some session work recently. Who have you been playin’ with?
There’s a kid from Dallas named Ryan Glenn. John Pedigo, my producer, was working with him. I think they’re just doing singles right now, but I came in and recorded some [guitar]. He’s really rockabilly, rock n’ roll… He was really good. Pedigo has got his own band called Pedigo’s Magic Pilsner and I’ve been doing some work with him on that and finishing up the Ottoman Turks record. I’m going in to do a session soon with some other Texas writers– Matt Hillyer and Pedigo, myself and Cole Risner are thinkin’ about cuttin’ somethin’ new. We’re all just tryin’ to stay busy. But yeah, I’ve been doing guitar work, so if anybody needs it, hit me up!