Concept albums have, unfortunately, become largely a thing of the past in country music. Yet that’s exactly how Joshua Ray Walker chose to start his career. His third full-length, See You Next Time, completes a trilogy that began with his 2019 debut, Wish You Were Here.
It’s only fitting that Walker’s approach is unconventional. He is, in many ways, a man out of time — and, for much of his life, out of place. With his 6XL frame, eyeglasses, and long, bleached mullet, he doesn’t fit the part of Nashville’s bland, bearded leading men. Throughout his youth in the poor Casa Linda neighborhood of Dallas, he moved schools frequently due to bullying and never graduated. He started playing gigs as a teenager but didn’t release an album until he was almost 30.
Through those years of constant gigging, Walker spent many a late night chatting up local barflies in Texas dives and dance halls, soaking up their stories and absorbing them into song. Tales of boat show queens with spray tans covering up bruises or suicidal drunks contemplating how to make their deaths look accidental are darker and denser than what comes out of mainstream Music City — and they’re told in a rich, often humorous vernacular to boot. It hasn’t gone unnoticed: his sophomore release, Glad You Made It, placed No. 5 on Rolling Stone‘s 2020 list of best country albums.
In most cases, it’s difficult to imagine anyone but Walker singing his songs. With a voice that ranges from deep, barreling drawl to eerie, wailing falsetto, he breaks into frequent yawps, yelps, and yodels that cut to the emotional core of a song in ways even the sharpest wordplay never could. But See You Next Time is also a rollicking, old-school dance record. There are familiar fiddles and steel pedal coloring songs like opener “Dallas Lights” and unexpected Memphis-style horns on lead single “Sexy After Dark,” a track that makes self-loathing feel fun and frisky.
Truth be told, until Walker heard Hayes Carll’s “She Left Me for Jesus” on a local country station, he didn’t have much use for the genre. “When I heard that song, it all kind of made sense,” he explains. “These country tropes 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 there’s humor in there. I’d just never taken the time to listen hard enough to do that.”
Listening to Guy Clark’s devastating “Dublin Blues” provided further education. “The way he painted a picture so vividly and quickly really struck me,” Walker recalls. “And that just sent me down a rabbit hole for about a year, digging through all the texts of songwriter music I could find.” Walker became a student of other Texas greats: Billy Joe Shaver, Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson, Blaze Foley and more. Dissecting the critical components of a song story changed the way Walker listened to — and wrote — music.
“I didn’t set out to write songs,” he begins. “But by the time I was 19, my grandfather, who taught me how to play, passed away, somewhat unexpectedly. And I wrote a song in the parking lot of the hospital. It just kind of came to me — and I went home and finished it.”
“Fondly,” the song that started it all, made its way on 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 Walker’s pre-plotted trilogy of concept albums, released over a three-year period. “I didn’t want to have that stigma of a concept album on my first releases,” Walker admits. The idea, revolving around a fictional honky-tonk’s last night in business, was part of his initial pitch when he signed to his label, State Fair Records, in early 2018. They agreed not to publicize the concept until he released See You Next Time, the final album in the trilogy. “We thought it would be met with backlash or put the albums in a certain context,” he explains. “We wanted each one to be weighed on its own merit.”
The past 18 months have been full of setbacks and disappointment for Walker. Already deprived of his income because of the pandemic, and unable to capitalize on the buzz that followed his first two records, he lived nearly 12 months in an extended-stay hotel after a pipe burst in his house and destroyed his possessions. He only recently returned home, but getting back on the road can’t come soon enough.
“Everything that could go wrong went wrong last year — but at that point, it almost became funny,” Walker says, sounding not unlike one of the hard-luck characters from his songs. “It was like, ‘Okay, I gotta get back to work. It’ll be over eventually. I can’t be displaced forever.’”
Besides finishing the narrative arc of his three-album cycle, See You Next Time closes another chapter with a tribute to Walker’s long-haul trucker father, who died of cancer last November. “Canyons,” from his debut album, was written after the initial diagnosis; “Flash Paper” is the follow-up, inspired by a heartfelt video message his dad recorded before his death. “I felt grateful that he said those nice things,” Walker says, “but at the same time it was like, ‘Man, that’s all I wanted to hear while you were here. Why couldn’t you have done that?’”
“I’ve lost a lot of people over the years and throughout the 10 years of writing these songs,” he says, reflecting on his trilogy. “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.”