In 2019, Joshua Ray Walker opened his debut album with the haunting “Canyon,” a track that brought him admiration from fellow musicians like Colter Wall and American Aquarium’s BJ Barham, and one that set him apart from his younger peers as a songwriting wunderkind of sorts. The rest of Wish You Were Here lived up to the gut-wrenching hype of “Canyon,” creating the seemingly impossible task of Walker one day following up his first full-length record with an equally, or even better, sophomore effort.
A little more than a year later, Walker has done just that with Glad You Made It.
As if recognizing the stature of “Canyon” and wanting to prove everyone wrong, including himself, Walker opens his new LP with a similar, though slightly more raucous, tune. While “Canyon” found Walker pouring his heart out on behalf of his father who was diagnosed with Stage IV lung cancer, “Voices” is a darker, more introspective look at his, or someone’s, life; it only takes a few lines before he toys around with the idea of suicide, singing, “I might put this truck in neutral / Let it roll into the lake / First, I’ll finish off this bottle / So it looks like a mistake.” The chorus continues to lift up this pain as Walker raises his voice, hoping his lament lands on the ears of some divine being: “A holy name strengthens the beast / Oh Lord, please give me peace.”
The whole of Glad You Made It isn’t as grim or heavy as “Voices.” Walker finds the bright side of riding a mechanical bull on “Bronco Billy’s,” shares a self-deprecating loser’s anthem on “One Trick Pony,” declares that love is meant to fade away on the instant-classic “True Love,” and somehow makes addiction seem almost endearing on “User” as he sings, “Some say I’m addicted, but what do they know / It’s not a struggle if you don’t fight, I just wanna have a good night / I think I’m gonna use again / It’s gonna be just fine.”
Walker’s songwriting gift shines on “Boat Show Girl,” as he crafts a song that, on the surface, seems like a silly story about falling in love with the title character. But as he does on every track, he takes even the potentially silly and makes it deeply personal. As he shares his admiration for the woman who “sparkles like a diamond,” he also peels away the layers of a heartbreaking reality for this particular boat show girl: “Your mascara’s running, it wins the foot race every time / You’re good at what you’re doing, you can stop ’em on a dime / Bathed in sequins, a beacon of when Daddy did you wrong / Yeah, fake tan covers bruises, but it doesn’t last that long.”
As much as Walker’s songwriting has grown and matured even in the span of a year, his musicianship — and the band that he surrounds himself with — has risen to a whole new level, too. Once again joined by producer John Pedigo, the band tracked the album at Audio Dallas, recording straight to two-inch tape.
The height of this musicianship is found loud and clear on closing track “D.B. Cooper,” where every single member of the band cranks their efforts way past 11. Drummer Trey Pendergrass, bassist Billy Bones, guitarist Nathan Mongol Wells, and organist Chad Stockslager forge a sound that can only be described as a blend of Crazy Horse and Led Zeppelin, with a tinge of Black Sabbath, thanks in part to Pedigo’s eerie, subtle background vocals.
Though Walker is terrified of flying, he seems quite comfortable singing about one of the most infamous crimes to ever take place in the sky. And while “D.B. Cooper” doesn’t immediately seem like it has much of a connection to Walker’s own life, the final verse can’t help but be heard in light of all that came before it on Glad You Made It. “I have ate well, see these summer-bleached bones,” Walker sings, “I made it through the dry season alone / But I cannot hide from moisture in the sky / The thunderstorm comes.”
With each release, Walker raises the bar a little higher. From the opening despair of “Voices” to the closing strength of “D.B. Cooper,” Walker has written and recorded an album that outshines expectations for what country music can, and should, sound like.