Album Review – Joshua Ray Walker’s “Wish You Were Here”

His name is Joshua Ray Walker, and he’s from Dallas, TX. And with his debut album he’s slinging out the deep and ugly gut bucket country blues with enough brokenhearted bad times and broke bad regrets to get you curled up in a fetal position and sobbing like a little girl on the cold, hard, sawdust floor in that good kind of country music way you crave.

This is music that sounds like it’s oozing out of a grease-stained 70’s truck stop every time a lot lizard or gear jammer opens and shuts the door. This is music that makes you palpably feel the raw emotions of run down life and ragged dreams with no perfumes or filters to soften the pain, yet underneath the dirt and stink are these sad poetic notions that speak to the wisdom behind a life hard lived.

From the under-heralded honky tonk scene in Dallas where performers and their fans scrunch into tiny venues like the rundown Double Wide on Commerce St. to partake in their weekly beer chugging rituals, Joshua Ray Walker has been working over the crowds of regulars for the last couple of years, while slithering into opportunities to share the stage with the likes of Colter Wall, American Aquarium, and and others when they come rolling through town, or with fellow Dallas-based bands such as the Old 97’s and Vandoliers.

Joshua Ray’s debut album Wish You Were Here is his opportunity to step into the spotlight, and prove his songs are worthy of an audience beyond Big D, and he pulls it off by penning tunes beyond his years, matching them up with a mournful sound worthy of the sorrow-soaked sentiments, and at times surprising you with the strong and powerful yodel.

The opening song “Canyon” is country, but it’s good enough to earn distinction with the singers and songwriters of Americana. It gets a lot more gritty from there, like with “Working Girl” about a prostitute who started walking the streets at 13, and “Lot Lizard” about well…you know…truck driving. The album hits its lowest depths of self-estimation on “Keep,” with the line folks are already thumbing as one of the most depressing of 2019: “I laid in the bed for an hour today, trying to die of natural causes. I guess the Lord forgot to take me in my sleep.”

It’s easy to paint Joshua Ray Walker as the country fried version of John Moreland, but that’s probably not fair to either performer. This is definitely country though, just broken down, and Walker leaves no question about this when he pulls out his pure and strong yodel on “Lot Lizard,” and then follows it up on the classic rocking roadhouse blues of “Burn It.” Joshua isn’t afraid to put a backbeat behind some of these songs, or to play a slow one for the dancers like “Trouble.” But one thing you’ll never hear out of Joshua Ray Walker, at least not on this installment, is a sunny disposition.

The rough-hewn nature of these songs and recordings is one of the greatest assets and most endearing qualities of Wish You Were Here, but it’s also the album’s anchor in moments. Sometimes the production suite they bring to songs is well-meaning, but not exactly right, like the Tejano tinges of “Love Songs” that turns a heartbreaker into a fiesta, or the cymbal wash during the bridge of Working Girl.” A song like “Pale Hands” shows that Walker’s writing skills still have some upside potential—still have the opportunity to to be refined from an already-impressive starting point.

Wish You Were Here is one of those albums you feel like you’ll be looking back on years from now as a grand and auspicious start, and may even pine for the days when Walker was more hungry, raw, and real than after the rest of the world caught on. You hear how he’s got his best days ahead of him, and he’s an artist you’ll be enjoying a decade from now. He’s a ruby in the rough, which is almost just as rewarding to come upon as a polished stone, if not more, because you found him before he was cool, and you feel ownership as someone becomes popularized and refined.

You should be hearing and seeing a lot about Joshua Ray Walker in the years to come, and you should start with Wish You Were Here.

1 3/4 Guns Up (8/10)

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