TLR Interview: Joshua Ray Walker on his UK debut

In the first of a series of interviews from The Long Road festival, Paul Sammon chatted to Joshua Ray Walker:

Joshua Ray Walker at The Long Road
Joshua Ray Walker attracted a crowd for his Saturday afternoon set on The Front Porch. Photo credit: The Long Road 2023 – Chloe Hashemi

By the time I caught up with Joshua Ray Walker he had already wowed The Front Porch audience with a stunning yet laid back performance of some of his songs. Here’s what he had to say about coming to the UK…

SSC: What did you think to The Front Porch?

JRW: It was great. That was my first set in the UK, ever. I was pleasantly surprised by the size of the crowd. It was a good turn out and then I was told it was a fairly large number for a 2pm set. Some people were singing along, they knew the words so that was cool. They were really attentive; everyone listened. I got a little standing ovation at the end. It really was great.

SSC: You didn’t perform anything from your latest album What Is It Even?.

JRW: I didn’t. I was going to do Linger at the end, but I ran out of time. Because it was my first time playing here and the set was kinda short I really wanted to showcase my original music.

SSC: Ah yes, Linger. What was it like working with Kyle Gass? [One half of comedy rock duo, Tenacious D]

JRW: How that all came about was, you know Outlaw Country? It’s a SiriusXM station. They host an Outlaw Country Cruise every year, which is a seven-day cruise that goes out of Miami and they have about 70 bands, 3,000 fans. Steve Earle, Lucinda Williams, The Mavericks all these great acts are on there. I was one of the rookies this year. Within the first 30 minutes of being on the boat, my bassist, Billy Kuykendall, who’s a huge Tenacious D fan happened to be on an elevator with Kyle Gass. They hit it off and now they text every day. He and my pedal steel player, Ditch Kurtz who’s also a fan, they were hanging out with him a lot on the cruise.

So, anyway, I was kinda yodelling this whistly, high part on the end of Linger when we were recording and basically Billy was like, “That sounds like a flute solo. We should get Kyle Gass to do it.” So, he sent him a message and four days later Kyle sent over his recorder part. So that was pretty exciting. I’ve been watching Tenacious D since they had the HBO show in the 90s and I was not supposed to watch it.

SSC: You remind me a little of Dwight Yoakam in your musical style, your story telling, your voice. It’s interesting that you’re also doing an album of covers since he’s done loads over the years. What inspired you to cover only female artists on this project?

JRW: I knew that I wanted to put out some music that wasn’t original and I wanted it to be unique. I didn’t want to do just an album of country cover songs. So, we’d been tossing round a couple of different ideas and concepts. Y’know, I get this idea in my head of how I want to hear a song and the only way to experience that is to go make it. And there were a few songs I was like, “I need to hear those this way.” The first one was a Whitney Houston track. [I Wanna Dance With Somebody] My drummer was joking around, and there’s this beat I’ve trying to get him to play for years on a song that just never works out. I told him I was thinking about doing this song and he started patting that beat out on his lap. I was like, “That’s it.” And he was, “No I’m joking. I don’t actually wanna do it.”

That was kinda the catalyst that jump started going down that track. At first it was like, 80s and 90s cover songs and then I realised most of the list was female. So, I was like, “What if we did just all female songs?”

SSC: It’s uncanny with the timing that one is the Sinead O’Connor song. [Nothing Compares 2 U] Will that be released as a single?

JRW: It’s not a single but it was the focus track when the album came out.

Joshua Ray Walker’s latest album – What Is It Even?

SSC: Now I read about how the name of the album came about, which was all pretty awful, let’s be honest. You were misgendered as a trans woman when you sang the National Anthem at a Formula 1 event in 2021 and one of the online comments was “What is it even?” But you’ve really leaned into this, and I must say I couldn’t wait to meet you. I’ve been listening to your back catalogue; Canyon, Working Girl, which you were asked to play just then. It must be quite exciting to come to another country and have requests?

JRW: Yeah, a couple people sent me messages and I try to check them every morning. Some of it is actually important *laughs* Now, that song is from my first album and wasn’t even really like a popular song, but I thought, y’know, since people had asked for it, I should probably do it.

SSC: I’ve discovered that Sexy After Dark is on karaoke, so I’ll be learning that.

JRW: Is it? Here in the UK? I hope I’m getting royalties for that. I hear there’s a karaoke at this festival? My go to song is Man I Feel Like A Woman. We just felt that was too on the nose to put on the album. I think the Vandoliers did it. I saw a couple Vandoliers shirts in the crowd today. They’re also East Dallas boys too.

SSC: I see you have no plans to leave Texas. It’s home, I guess? Do you record there, or do you travel for that?

JRW: It is home. Every record I’ve made has been made in Dallas. My band is from Dallas except my pedal steel player. My extended, big studio band, which is sometimes like 12 or 13 people, they’re all from Dallas except one guy. My producer, also Dallas; the guy I collaborate with on my videos, we’re not just Dallas, but East Dallas; a specific neighbourhood. So, it makes me really happy to create something that I think most people would assume I have to outsource parts of what I do to find that quality, y’know? But, no. It’s all five minutes from my porch. And I love showcasing Dallas. It’s nice when I can head five minutes away and cut demos in my producer’s living room. He’s one of my best friends so we go eat enchiladas every Wednesday.

SSC: You really are living the dream, aren’t you?

JRW: Yeah, it’s great. The only way it would get better is if I actually start making some money. I’ll have to look into that karaoke royalty thing. I made the stupid decision at 17 years old that I was only gonna work in the music industry until I made it. My Grandfather, who was a huge inspiration to me, got me interested in music. He passed away when I was 18 and the family only knew he was sick for his last 11 days. One of the last things he said to me was, “You can do everything you think or what you’re told you’re supposed to do and still end up unhappy and broke. So, you might as well do what you wanna do.” So, I did. I went back to High School cz I dropped out to pursue music at 15 which doesn’t work cz no-one will hire you. I went back to school, finished up then hit the road. I started playing in bands that were touring at 17. I’ve worked door, I’ve been a sound engineer, a promoter, a booker, a bartender. As long as it was in a music venue, I felt like I was doing something that was moving in the right direction. It’s been 15 years now and I’ve spent plenty of night living in my car y’know, just trying to make it work.

SSC: So how did Long Road come about?

JRW: Well, I have a booking agent here in Europe, Sedate Bookings. A lot of this tour that I’m on right now, which is five weeks long, was originally booked for 2020 and kept getting moved. So, a lot of the dates I’m just filling back in from before Covid. But we were able to add a few new festivals like this one. It’s wild to play a five-week European tour.

SSC: Final question with the time we have. What differences do you see between American and, well, European audiences?

JRW: So one of my favourite things about playing shows is watching the crowds. I’m a people watcher anyway. I don’t make set lists. I try to play to suit whatever the mood is in the room. What I’ve learned about all of Europe so far is you guys really listen. I could never get that many people at 2pm to sit quietly and actually listen to lyrics at a festival in the US. It feels really special that people wanna listen. I’ve been to Europe a few times now and I really lean into it. It really freaked me out at first. Growing up playing dive bars in Texas you get really used to people who are listening but most of the people aren’t and there’s a comfort there. Whereas, here, all of the focus is on you, and it took me a while to get used to it. But now I banter with the crowds a lot in the UK and it’s been incredible.

SSC: You looked like you were enjoying it and it sounded so good. Thanks for letting us speak with you.

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