In 2018, Joshua Ray Walker burst onto the country music scene with “Working Girl” and “Canyon;” two singles that have since amassed over 450,000 streams on Spotify. Those two singles were were listeners’ first look into Wish You Were Here, Walker’s debut album that cemented him as one of the prolific storytellers in the Texas country scene, and left listeners chomping at the bit for more.
But how does one follow up that kind of success and avoid the dreaded “sophomore slump?” For Walker, his formula is simple: more of the same, with more “fun” added in. While Wish You Were Here put his songwriting and storytelling on display, his sophomore album, Glad You Made It, set for release on July 10, is tailored towards being a staple in his live show. That sentiment is put on full display with the album’s second single “True Love,” which is currently climbing the charts in Texas.
We chatted with Walker about the success of Wish You Were Here, the pressure he’s feeling to match or surpass it with Glad You Made It, what listeners can expect from his sophomore effort and more!
Pro Country: Who are some of your biggest musical influences that have shaped your sound?
Joshua Ray Walker: I started out listening to a lot of bluegrass. My grandfather grew up in the Knoxville area, and he had a lot of old bluegrass on vinyl that we would listen to when I was a kid. Most days after school, I’d be in his workshop listening to those records. He was an amateur musician, so I grew up around music. I loved the Louvin Brothers and Doc Watson, then got into Tony Rice and Bill Monroe. I didn’t really think about country music very much for about a decade after that. I get into harder stuff like rock, punk and metal in my teens. I wrote a song one day and showed it to a friend, and he said, “Oh cool, it’s a country song.” I didn’t really think about it, but I realized he was right. I wrote a few more songs, and they also came out as country songs. I’ve been playing music forever, but I didn’t start writing until about 10 years ago. When I got back into writing, I had a friend show me some Texas country writers. I fell in love with people like Blaze Foley, Billy Joe Shaver, Guy Clark and Townes Van Zandt, who all had a big impact on my writing.
PC: You mentioned that you’d been involved in music for most of your life. At what point did you realize that you wanted to pursue a career in music?
JRW: I didn’t grow up around anyone that presented music to me as an actual career path, so I always kind of thought that music was a hobby unless you were a giant rock star. Somewhere in my mid-teens, I started taking it more seriously. That was around the time that the recession hit, and I saw a lot of my older friends graduating high and getting degrees that they wouldn’t be able to use, and my grandfather told me that you can make all the right choices and still end up unhappy and broke. He encouraged me to really try to make a living doing music. I had no idea how to do it, and I didn’t figure out how to do it for like a decade [laughs]. I started playing as much as I could. I was playing in as many bands that would have me, and I was doing some session work on guitar and recording drums for different bands, and then eventually, I wrote a song and realized that I could sit on the stage by myself and play for three hours, make tips and get some free beer. I kept doing it, and 10 years later, I was able to put a record out. It was really just a gradual thing, but I really dedicated myself to doing it when I was about 18.
PC: What emotions were you feeling as you were preparing to release music for the first time with your debut single “Working Girl” and debut album Wish You Were Here?
JRW: It was super surreal. I’m really proud of that record. It had about 10 years worth of writing on it. I cherrypicked my favorite songs over that decade of writing. I worked with John Pedigo, and he made the record sound exactly like I heard it in my head. State Fair Records really supported me in making exactly what I wanted to make. The scariest thing about making music is you can make something that you think is great, but that doesn’t mean anybody is going to like it. I was very pleasantly surprised by the reception the record got. I went from playing to 50 people in my hometown to opening for artists like Colter Wall and Shooter Jennings over the course of a few months. It was really crazy to work that hard for a decade, and all of a sudden, have a lot more people know who I am enjoying my music. That was really surreal and awesome!
PC: “Canyon” was your second single, a deeply personal song that has since become one of your most popular songs. What do you think it is about that song that has allowed it to connect with people the way it has?
JRW: I think the appeal of that song is the sincerity in it. I was really open and vulnerable on that song, and people seem to attribute things going on in their life to the song, even if that wasn’t its original intention. I think because of that and the ambiguity of the lyrics, it allows for people to mirror themselves in the song, and people connect with it in that way. That’s why I love music. I love songs like that, so I was really proud and excited that people reacted that way to one of my songs.
PC: You mentioned working for a decade to get to the point of Wish You Were Here. Is there a certain level of validation that came with the success you had with it?
JRW: Definitely. I think all musicians have insecurities. I wouldn’t even tell people I was a singer until about a year or two before that record came out. I felt more comfortable saying that I was a songwriter. To have the record come out and have so many people like it and for it to receive such positive reception, it gave me a lot of self-confidence as a performer, singer, musician and composer.
PC: Are you feeling any pressure to match or surpass the success of Wish You Were Here with its upcoming follow up Glad You Made It?
JRW: Absolutely. Pretty early on after I put Wish You Were Here out, I got asked if I had any good songs left [laughs]. I had gotten to cherrypick songs that I liked that I’d been writing for a long time, so I kind of feel like I have to deliver on the second record to keep the standards up. This record will be coming out about 18 months after the first one, so I definitely wanted to live up to people’s expectations, and I definitely feel that pressure. I think we made another good record. It’s the same crew, the same players, studio and producer because I really like the way the first one turned out. I wanted to fulfill these new songs in the same light. I had quite a few songs left over, so I pulled from some older songs again, and I think I’m growing as a writer, and that shows on the new record. There’s some new material that I’m really proud of, like “Voices” and “True Love.”
PC: You recorded Glad You Made It in a makeshift studio in an Airbnb with a loose, comfortable atmosphere. How important was it for you to capture that atmosphere to you and how do you think it helped the finished product?
JRW: It helped a lot. The rhythm tracks were done in the studio in Dallas where I recorded the first record, but then we took the rhythm tracks and went to Nashville, rented an Airbnb and made it into a makeshift studio. We had beer in the fridge, and we just invited people over. I had an idea of what I wanted the arrangements to be, and no one really knew what they were getting into when they came over. I just told them to bring instruments, and we set up in the living room and sat around while everyone did their takes. It was a group effort to get the lead parts put down on the record, and it turned out really well. I wanted this album to feel more fun than the first one. The first one was really heavy. I wanted to prove myself as a songwriter, so it was a pretty down-tempo record. On Glad You Made It, there’s a lot more numbers that you can dance to. It’s a lot more fun. You can picture yourself on a boat or grilling out, and I wanted it to have that atmosphere. I’ve played a lot of shows since Wish You Were Here came out, and I wanted to add some songs to my live show so we could have a full, fun 90-minute headlining set.
PC: “Voices” is a song that packs a pretty big emotional punch. Was that song hard to write, or something that came out quickly?
JRW: “Voices” kind of came out the same way “Canyon” did. I’ve only had this happen a few times; I sit down and have a hook, and in the next 15 or 20 minutes, I have the whole song and it’s finished. Most of the time, I have to go back in and tweak, and I might write a chorus here or a verse there, but some of these more intimate songs that I’ve written all come out at once. “Voices” was that way for sure. It focuses on some pretty dark subject matter; it talks about suicidal ideation, depression, addiction and loneliness. I’ve had some people come up to me after shows who were worried about my well-being, and I always reassure people that if I’m out there playing the song in front of people, I’ve already worked through the content in the song. Writing the song was the hard part. It was cathartic to write that song.
PC: What went into the decision to release “True Love” as the second single from Glad You Made It?
JRW: I wanted “Voices” to come out first because I was really proud of that song lyrically and I thought it had some of the hard-hitting, emotional stuff that people liked about my first record. I wanted to let people know that there was going to be more of that on the second record. With “True Love,” I wanted to switch it up and come out of left field with this fun, upbeat song. It kind of sets a tone for the rest of the record. I wanted people to hear the serious song, and then I wanted them to have a good time.
PC: “True Love” tells the story of a love that is working at the moment, but won’t last forever. Can you talk about the inspiration behind the song?
JRW: I think everybody I can relate; there’s just as many breakups as there are relationships [laughs]. When I deal with negative subject-matter like that, I like to address it with some tongue-in-cheek humor, because I do believe that people can be in love, and I’m not as cynical as the song sounds. It’s kind of just a jab at all the love songs you hear on the radio, which is one of the reasons I went with the title “True Love;” it tricks people into thinking that it’s a love song.
PC: What information can you give about Glad You Made It? What can listeners expect to hear?
JRW: “Boat Show Girl” got premiered on American Songwriter, and it’s a tale of a girl who wears bikinis at a boat show and tries to sell bass boats to middle-aged men. Glad You Made It is more of the same for me, but just more fun. It’s character-driven writing; I write from fictional characters’ perspectives a lot, so there’s more of that on this record. I think the instrumentation is more interesting. There’s some really great lead work on this record. I think the musicianship is better, and I personally think it’s a more well-rounded record. I can’t wait for people to hear it. I’m doing a couple hundred limited edition colored vinyl. The artwork is amazing. My friend Josh David Jordan, who also did the music video for “Voices,” helped bring that to life. It has this big wraparound photo, and all the characters from the songs are on the record cover. I’m so excited to have another record out. It’s always fun to put out new music. I’m going to try my best to get a tour put together as soon as it’s safe and comfortable to make that happen. I just can’t believe I’m doing a record release cycle again [laughs].
PC: You’ve talked a few times about writing from the perspective of fictional characters. How much of yourself do you still see in those characters and try to inject into them?
JRW: A lot. I realized after years of writing, I use these characters to examine something about myself. In “Boat Show Girl,” it focuses on sales. That girl selling the bass boat has to give that wink and a nod and do the dance to sell the boat, and I feel like sometimes being on stage is kind of the same thing. Not that it’s insincere, but part of my job is to sell beer. I definitely like to poke fun at the characters in the songs and make fun of parts of myself at the same time. There’s a little bit of me and all of the tracks. Some are more personal than others, but I’m definitely always examining something about myself in these characters.
PC: You typically tour more than 250 dates annually. With most, if not all shows being cancelled, how are you spending your time and staying busy? Of the things that are your plans for the rest of the year along with the release of Glad You Made It?
JRW: That’s a great question [laughs]. I’m not any less busy somehow. I’m just taking tally of my inventory, trying to create new products, and trying to figure out how to make a decent looking and sounding live stream. I’m going to be live streaming more leading up to the record release. We’re still in the process of mixing and Ottoman Turks record, a band I play lead in. We put out our first record in August, and we’re working on our second one. I’ve written the whole third solo record already, and I’m probably going to go back in the studio before the second one’s even out to cut some demos on it.
I launched a clothing brand called High Wide & Handsome. It’s a big and tall store; it’s just t-shirts right now with Texas centered designs that have to do with the Texas music scene with sizes all the way up to a 6XL. I have a lot of guys ask for shirts at my shows, and they’re always happy that I carry larger sizes. I saw a hole in the market, and it’s something that I’ve been wanting to do for over a year, and finally, this gave me the time to work on it. I partnered up with the guys and Travel by Gravel and we launched this in about two weeks from concept to launch. It’s been going great; we’ve got some cool designs up, and people are buying the shirts. It’s cool to see something come to fruition so quickly.
I’m definitely staying busy and trying to figure out the future of live music. I think everyone who plays music full-time is scrambling right now to figure out what’s next.
PC: Is there anything you’d like to add?
JRW: I want to thank everybody for listening to my first record. I can’t believe I’m at a point in my career where people want to actually interview me, listen to my music and talk about it. When it’s safe for me to get back on the road again, I can’t wait to see everyone again and hang out at a show!
*Images courtesy of Joshua Ray Walker Facebook page*
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