Joshua Ray Walker opened a portal to an ethereal, shadow-bruised country music realm with 2019’s Wish You Were Here, introducing a cast of characters dimly lit but lovingly and thoroughly realized. In the summer of 2020, with COVID-19 strangling the planet, Walker revealed that while live performances were certainly endangered, the lights in his dreamland honky tonk were still on and it was far from last call. Glad You Made It maintained the flow of booze, side street stories, and back-alley darlings that originally made Walker’s world so heartbreakingly compelling while also testing the limits of his powers as a songwriter. On October 8th, Joshua Ray Walker is set for one more revolution around the neon sun he breathed into existence. See You Next Time is the last hurrah for that tribe of misfit, barroom heroes, and caps off a trilogy a decade in the making. Walker calls it “the last 10 years of my life all wrapped into three records,” and with this ultimate installment, he wields a voice and ability unlike any other in Americana or country music. Since his 2019 debut, Walker has met critical success, traveled the globe, shared stages with his heroes, and felt the warmth of doing what he loves for a living. But he’s also endured the loss of his father, seen his career threatened by a pandemic, and survived a Texas winter outbreak that almost destroyed his family home. It’s that kind of juxtaposition that makes him so formidable as a creator, and for this commentator, it’s been a privilege to admire and in some ways chronicle* his saga. Joshua Ray Walker pulled off the hat trick. He’s once again delivered an Album of the Year quality collection of songs, and more than that, he’s made a name that’s destined for bigger letters on bigger marquees. Yes, the trilogy is at its end, but Joshua Ray Walker’s story is far, far from finished. Like the song says, “These aren’t goodbyes, they’re see-you-next-times.”
AI- At the time that Wish You Were Here was coming out and your name was really beginning to hit a rise, I know that you wanted to make this trilogy, but were you positive that you were gonna have the opportunity?
JRW- I wasn’t 100% positive that I’d have the opportunity just because State Fair and I had just started working together. We trusted each other, but if a record tanks, then you’re probably not gonna make another record! At least not for a while! I feel really grateful that each record has grown in success and given me the opportunity to release the three records with the plan that I had in place– same artist, same producers, same city, same players, same record label. It’s all one cohesive thing.
The album opens with “Dallas Lights”. I think the first time that I had the album on, I expected the opening to be the low, heart-aching ballad type, and it still is, but you have picked up the pace. It’s almost disarming! And then when I went back through it and was really paying attention to the words of the song, I was like, “No, no, he still hit that darkness that he is becoming known for! He’s just repackaged it a little bit!”
I guess this whole record in general is a lot about death and things ending. The end of the trilogy is the honky tonk closing down. “Dallas Lights” is the beginning of that story and then with the title track, “See You Next Time” at the end, it’s actually the same chords as the first track. You can technically play it in a loop. It sounds like the same song. “See You Next Time” serves as a title track for all three albums because the only lyrics in the song are just the titles of the three records.
You’ve really crafted something special there because kinda like Jerry Jeff Walker– or I guess maybe I should say Gary P. Nunn with the “London Homesick Blues”, you’ve created the perfect curtain dropper, the perfect show closer or encore number with “See You Next Time”.
Yeah, it’s a nice little sendoff!
I could see you doin’ that forever onward to wrap a show, you know?
You daydream about the big shows you play, right? Like one day you’re at Red Rocks or whatever, and I’ve definitely had daydreams playing that song and gettin’ the crowd into it and walking off as the crowd sings you off stage!
I don’t think that’s farfetched at all (laughs)!
(Laughs) Well, that’s good to hear. I’m glad someone else believes in it too!
It’s been out for a few weeks now, “Sexy After Dark”, and I admit that when you played it for me when you were visitin’ here in Macon, I was taken off guard when I first heard those horns, and only because it was so different. But vocally, you absolutely slay that song! Is that the one that you were tellin’ me that you hit your highest note yet?
I think the highest note is actually on a song called “Flash Paper”, which is gonna be comin’ out in a few weeks. So there’s a note even higher! But yeah, that note in “Sexy After Dark” is pretty high. I can hit some high notes in my falsetto. I think “Sexy After Dark” is probably the highest note I hit in my chest voice, like in my real voice. I don’t think of myself as a singer at all. I just became comfortable with singing. I’m a songwriter who can sing. That’s how I look at it. And so that song for me, vocally, was a big undertaking. I’m really excited to play it out live for people.
That surprises me that you say that about your vocal ability because across all three of these albums and with the Lionel Richie cover, “Hello”, I think there’s things that you’ve done that people that consider themselves singers only are not necessarily capable of or wouldn’t consider trying.
(Laughs) I guess that might be true? I lean on my strong suits. You won’t catch me out there at karaoke, but I can write a song for myself that I can sing well. If that makes sense.
You say “Flash Paper” is going to be the next single that comes out?”
That one also has a different sound to it, and it’s that particular guitar tone that runs throughout on the bottom that almost has a metal sound to it. I won’t lie to you, I had somethin’ in my eye the entire time I was listening to it! We were outside, me and my daughter, on the swing set, and I was playing it from my phone and concentratin’ on it. She was like, “Papa, are you all right?” Am I’m like, “Yeah, baby, I’m good! I just got a little somethin’ in my eye!” That one is a heart wrencher!
Well, you said you were expectin’ somethin’ sad at the beginning of the record ’cause that’s where “Canyon” and “Voices” were! “Flash Paper” fits in the same mold as those songs. That’s the big vulnerable, personal song on the record for me. My dad passed back in November. He left me a box of keepsakes, and he also left me a video to watch on my birthday and Christmas. He knew he was gonna be passing soon. He had a lot of very nice stuff to say, and I just wish that I had heard more of it while he was alive, you know? That’s what that song is about. It’s funny, “Canyon” opened so many doors for me on the first record, and that was about him getting sick and us mending our relationship. And now, to have “Flash Paper” on the last record of the trilogy after he’s passed… It’s funny how the timing worked out that that story arc came to an end organically all in the same timeline as the records being made.
You really are wrapping everything up with a big red bow on this album.
I think so. It’s the last 10 years of my life all wrapped into three records. That’s how I look at it. Everything from the first note. There are songs on these records that were written when I could not sing and play at the same time! I was 19 years old and I literally wrote my first song ever, “Fondly”, that’s on my first record. All the way up until songs that I finished literally the night before I recorded them for this album! I mean, “Flash Paper”, I started writing it and I finished it at three or four in the morning. And then I was cutting it at ten in the morning at the studio the next day! It’s my life from age 19 to 30, basically, in three albums.
With that song and with “Sexy After Dark” and various other cuts on See You Next Time, do you think that you are showing a range that you haven’t had on full display until now?
I’d say so. With every album, I get a little more confident and I push myself to take chances in my lyrics, to take chances in what I’m doing vocally. In the studio, you have the opportunity to record something more than once, right? So there’s kind of a fear about doing anything too difficult because then you have to replicate that live. What I like to do in the studio is do something that really pushes me that I do have a hard time doing because then it forces me to be able to do it live by the time the record comes out. ‘Cause you don’t want to go out and play the record and fail! So I like to push myself on the record and then that forces me to elevate my live show.
When we spoke last time off the record, you mentioned to me that you were working on a publishing deal. Or rather, I should say, you were working on the right publishing deal. Can you talk about that? Is that still in the works or have you found a home as a songwriter?
I haven’t found a home. The plan has changed a little bit. I’m goin’ out to Nashville as much as I can and writing with reputable writers and people who understand the business and who have publishing deals. I’m just trying to learn as much as I can so that one day when the time is right, I can make that move. I write a lot, and I think I’m good at writing from other people’s perspectives. I hope one day I find myself in a position where I have a career writing songs for people alongside the career I have performing my own songs.
The song “Fossil Fuel”, I don’t know how much I’m reading into it and what isn’t there, but it seems like an irony versus celebration kind of song. I can see how you could play that for very different audiences and get the exact same response. Does that make sense?
Yeah, I think I understand what you’re sayin’.
I love the Lynyrd Skynyrd-style solo. Is that you playin’ that guitar solo on that song?
No, no, that’s actually my producer John Pedigo! Yeah, he really ripped it up on that one!
Dig into the song for me. What direction are you coming from? You’re a Texas boy, oil is a big thing there, the truck driving industry. We’ve talked about those roughnecks out there that play your albums. So to do a song like that, where you explore the individual within [the oil industry] as opposed to the overall large corporate view…
I hope that people understand when they hear the song, I am pro alternative energy. This isn’t an oil and gas promotion song or something.
Very much a Beat Farmer’s “Gun Sale At The Church” kinda thing?
Right. But right now because of politics, capitalism, we’re not moving quickly towards those [alternative] energy sources. They’re just a lot of people that still have to use [fossil fuels] every day, and those are the people that bring you all the goods that you use daily. They’re the people that make sure that there’s gas in your car so you can get to work, and they’re hardworking people who put a lot of pride in what they do. One of the verses is about a band tryin’ to get to a show. It was just kinda highlighting the different uses of this commodity that we all are chained to because of the culture we live in and the times we live in. The chorus speaks a little bit to the hardheadedness of being as chained to it as we are.
That character, the truck driver, he is a recurring character throughout your albums. You’ve spoken a great deal about these characters that you know and that you dream about. The character in “Three Strikes”, who is obviously struggling with his own mortality in ways, working on his however many DUIs he’s gonna get, and then “Welfare Chet”… Those two characters, are they new or are they evolutions of characters that we met at the very beginning with Wish You Were Here?
They’re evolutions of characters from the other albums. Welfare Chet is the character from “Cupboard”. I think we all know Welfare Chet– the guy who strikes up a conversation when the bar’s about to close, wants to know where the after party is, and then 10 minutes later, he’s talking to you about how there’s a portal in Antarctica to get to hell and that’s where they keep all the government cheese! If you go out to bars much, especially dive bars, you’re gonna meet that guy!
There are some bars in Dallas that back in the day– I don’t think anyone does this anymore– they would cash welfare checks for $2 on the dollar. They would get people who were on welfare, and say they have a $600 check, they would have the person on welfare sign the check over to the bar, and the bar would give them a $1,200 tab for the month. They would keep hot dog rollers behind the bar and these guys would literally stay at the bar all day, eat their meals there, drink there, and then go sleep it off in their truck and then wake up the next day and go hang out in the bar again! I saw that happening when I was like 16, 17 years old, and I was sneaking into dive bars and it’s extremely sad. And borderline predatory on the bar’s part! But it just stuck with me, what a weird existence that would be. A lot of times, those are the guys at the end of the night that are tellin’ some of the best stories. And then all of a sudden their stories don’t make sense anymore!
I think perhaps my favorite song on this album right now is “Dumpster Diving”. Please tell me the story behind that one!
Well, “Dumpster Diving” is the first love song in the entire trilogy…
‘Cause you don’t write “Love Songs” (laughs)!
My granddad was a dumpster diver. He was a picker, he was a junker. And when I was a kid, we used to go around on bulk trash, we’d dig through people’s trash, find things we could fix, fix ’em up and then go sell ’em at a pawn shop– lawnmowers, VCRs, whatever. That’s what he did when he retired. It’s a lot of fun. I still do it sometimes.
Ketch Secor does that too. You should team up with him and go do that.
Oh yeah? That sounds like fun! I understand that lifestyle, I guess, and I just had that chorus poppin’ in my head one day, “Dumpster divin’, and I never met somebody like you.” When I first started writing it, it was kind of a mean-spirited song basically saying this person that you’ve been dating is garbage. I paint a lot of my characters in a negative light, but it’s always supposed to be coming from some form of sympathy. I don’t like to write songs where I’m actually just talking negative about people, so I tried to figure out how to spin it. In a weird way, this song about dumpster diving and finding this woman that was living on the street is now somehow my only sweet, non-ironic love song (laughs)!
It is! It is a sweet love song!
Yeah, I know! I wrote it, and I was like, “This kind of a heartwarming song!” (Laughs) Which is funny ’cause I hadn’t written one– and it comes from such a weird place! But I’m glad you like that song. I gotta say, once we cut it, it’s an earworm! I wouldn’t say it’s one of the best songs on the record or the most well-written, but it does get stuck in your head that’s for sure!
Oh, I told ya, we were sittin’ out on the swing set when I’d gotten the link to listen to it and I probably stopped and played that one again three or four times, man! We had a ball! I was looking at your tour schedule, and you know that old Ron White joke about his tour manager not having a globe? I saw you have back-to-back dates, a Tuesday and a Wednesday where you’re in New York City, and then the next day you gotta be in Hollywood. And I thought, “Man, that’s gonna suck… But I bet it could be fun too!”
I had to fit press days somewhere and that happened to be where they fit! And I’m also coming right off of AmericanaFest! I’m doin’ some dates with Ottoman Turks, my other band where I play lead guitar, and then we’re goin’ out to Americana. I’m doin’ a full week of shows at Americana, sometimes two and three shows a day. I drive home that Sunday, back to Dallas, do some laundry, sleep, and then Monday morning, I fly to New York and then I fly to LA and then I fly back to Dallas.
And then you’re really back out! I think you get a small break, but then you’re back out for the rest of the year!
Basically, I have a week off where I’m doin’ some Ottoman Turks shows and I’m rehearsing my band. October 8th, the record comes out, and pretty much from October 8th through Thanksgiving, I’m gone!
You’ve been doin’ this run of shows that were vaccine required. Being out in the crowd, doing the merch table, wearing your mask– how are people responding to that? Is it a situation of, “We’re just so thankful to have this opportunity,” and people are followin’ through with it? Or are you receiving any sort of backlash for it?
I would say the majority of the backlash from the vax only shows is occurring online from people who actually had no intention of going to the shows. The people who are showing up to the shows are happy that they’re able to see music. Even if they don’t agree with the mandate, they’re glad they’re there. And then there are a ton of people who are very grateful that the shows are being put on that way ’cause there’s an added sense of safety that they’re gonna be able to go see the show and have less of a chance of getting sick. I would say in real life, the majority of the people are pretty positive about it. Online, there’s a ton of backlash from people. And that’s fine. They can not go to the show, you know?
Are you going to continue to require proof of vaccination with the dates that you’ve got coming up?
The majority of the shows, yes. There are a few venues that just aren’t gonna budge.
Macon’s not one of those venues, is it? You’re gonna be able to require vaccination for that show here at Grant’s, aren’t you?
That’s correct. There’ll be vax cards required in Macon or a 48-hour negative test. There’s some venues in Texas that aren’t gonna budge on that, and we’re just rollin’ with the punches. There’s another month or two before the shows happen, so as far as COVID goes, everything is always flexible. Things are always changing. But for right now, if there is a show where it’s not required, I’m gonna be upfront with the audience so they know what they’re gettin’ into, and also, there will be different protocols for my band as well just to keep everybody healthy. ‘Cause it’s a health issue. It’s also a financial security issue. If I go play a show at a venue and they aren’t requiring vaccines and I get sick, well then everything’s derailed for weeks! The whole tour falls apart! And that just can’t happen. I won’t be hangin’ out at the merch table at shows where vax cards aren’t required.
We’ve talked a lot about the trilogy. When you were here in town last, we talked about how this was also, maybe just for the time being, gonna wrap up this particular sound that you have been working with and this cast of characters. You mentioned bluegrass being something that you wanted to explore, potentially, for your next project. I was curious to know if that was still on your mind? Branching out to try different sounds and maybe other collaborations in the future?
These three records definitely have a similar sound. I wanted them to have a timeless honky tonk sound but with a little edge to it just because of the type of music I like. Moving forward, it could stay the same. It could change. It’ll just depend on what I write. But I do love bluegrass music. And you mentioned the production on “Flash Paper” with that droning guitar in the back. That could be one of the directions I go in. That comes from that post-rock world, the kind of Explosions In The Sky, Texas instrumental music. I grew up on that and I really, really love it. I would love to find a way to incorporate that more into my country music. I’m not gonna stop playin’ country music. It just might have a little different flavor to it.