By Caleb S. Cage
“Any of you ever blacked out and then stayed out long enough to black back in?” Joshua Ray Walker asked his laughing audience. “That’s the time travel that I am referencing in my song.” Walker was talking about the song he just played, “Cupboard,” but his question could have been about where he was in his career or even the current state of traditional country music.
Walker and his band, the Texas Strangers, played in Reno on Sunday, June 5, to a packed house at the Matador Lounge. Whether the fans had followed Walker’s career for years or had just recently heard of the singer from his performance of his single, “Sexy After Dark,” on the Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon, it didn’t seem to matter. There was a hungry energy in the room, an energy that Walker built on with humor, confidence and incredible music – all of which combined for a warmth and welcoming that Walker seemed eager to cultivate as a part of his show experience.
He and his band even barbecued for anyone who was interested in a small parking spot next to the venue.
The show’s openers helped build the mood of honkytonk accessibility, too. Buffalo Moses and Chris King each played mostly solo sets, showing influences ranging from Marty Robbins to Hank Williams, Sr., and trying their own techniques to connect with the audience. Both were unique and interesting, even showing some remarkable skill with hard country music, but Joshua Ray Walker has been touring dive bars for 15 years and he was the headliner for a very clear reason.
Walker played songs from all three of his albums. The albums, which are recorded as a suite set in a dive bar like the ones he knows well, are named “Wish You Were Here,” “Glad You Made It,” and “See You Next Time.”
While concept albums can be lost to gimmickry, Walker’s concept truly works, mostly because of the strength of the writing and the arrangements. But they also work because Walker’s characters are extremely compelling, made up of the working people, unqualified losers and qualified winners, and those in prolonged anguish or temporary love, that are so typical of hard country music.
In person, though, Walker showed that he is anything but a typical country musician. In his 21-song set in Reno, he played honkytonk, ballads, swing, country bangers, and flat out rock and roll.
Taking few breaks between songs, he spent most of his time belting out his songs like a lonely bluesman, and yodeling, drawling, growling and cry-breaking like a country legend. His singing was so strong it would be easy to forget how powerful and versatile his guitar playing was too, but on a small stage in the corner of the Matador Lounge, his Fender was easily as important and impressive as every instrument in the rest of the band.
Beyond singing about fascinating characters in a honkytonk, seeing Walker live also made clear that he is really singing about the real and complex issues of life. In Reno, he sang about everything from the loss of his father, to poverty, blacking out and the societal emptiness caused by consumption. This gave depth and texture to the traditional characters in country music, and the humorous, self-effacing nature of many of the characters allowed the meaning of the characters not to be too heavy handed. The balance was remarkable, and not something that is often achieved.
Even for those there who were well-acquainted with Joshua Ray Walker’s music, the live experience was truly special. His recordings are clear and crisp, allowing him to tell his stories of people and place without distraction. But live, his singularity surfaces. You see a man in his early thirties who has somehow seen all the different sides of life enough to sing about them. And he sings about them with such authenticity, too, which was clearly evident on that small stage in that small barroom.
It’s clear that this tension between traditional country music and popular modern country music is ever present in Walker’s style too. It’s hard to imagine Joshua Ray Walker without generations of outlaw country, alt-country and other variations of outsider hard country that preceded him. But unlike many who stick to the purities of those genres, it’s also hard to imagine Walker’s music today without Alan Jackson, George Strait, Dwight Yoakam and other popular country singers.
Walker’s love for the best parts of all types of country music are representative of his own unwillingness to be forced into anything beyond the broadest of categories. He plays traditional country music, he has said in interviews, and that is more about a type of people and a type of life than it is about being from Bakersfield, Lubbock, Nashville, Austin or any of the other birthplaces of certain sounds in country music’s past and present. His style borrows from all of these, clearly, and it is unique to him in a way that truly works.
Joshua Ray Walker brought that uniqueness to Reno on June 5. His beautiful singing and playing, his funny and gut-wrenching lyrics, and his confident authenticity were only a part of what made it special, though. Watching him play came with the feeling that we could be watching a talent at the very beginning of its trajectory.
Though Walker has spent 15 years playing small shows in small bars, it’s not hard to believe that he might only be playing for a much larger audience soon. It’s almost as though his brand of hard country music has blacked out for a long time now and he is helping it black back in.
- Loving County
- Bronco Billy
- Dumpster Diving
- Dallas Lights
- True Love
- Lot Lizard
- Hello (Lionel Richie Cover)
- Working Girl
- Boat Show Girl
- Last Call
- Fossil Fuel
- Sexy After Dark
- Three Strikes
- D.B. Cooper
- Burn It