Three minutes into his haunting song “Voices,” the singer Joshua Ray Walker summons an astonishing falsetto from somewhere deep within his diaphragm. As his voice rings out, Walker’s face contorts into a grimace, as if reaching these notes takes a little bit out of him, physically, each time. Even fellow musicians aren’t always prepared for the experience of watching Walker perform live. “I just stood in front of the stage, let that voice wash over me, and I thought, ‘Oh my god,’” says Rhett Miller, the lead singer of the Old 97’s, of the first time he saw Walker sing.
The pained look on Walker’s face fits the song’s harrowing lyrics: the narrator describes driving his car into a lake after finishing off a bottle, “so it looks like a mistake.” Walker, 30, has struggled with depression for most of his life. He describes the darkness he sings of in “Voices” as something “you talk about late at night on a back porch, when it’s just you and your friend after a party has died down.”
It took Walker the better part of two decades to learn to sing with both conviction and vulnerability and to find the depth of his voice. But for the past two years, one of the worst-kept secrets in East Dallas and the musical hub Deep Ellum has been that Walker is the city’s next big thing. “A lot of people throw that [term] around, but when you know, you know,” says Alec Spicer, former editor in chief of the Dallas culture website Central Track. “I see Joshua Ray Walker as not just the next big name in Dallas country music, but the next up out of Dallas.”
While his singular voice is often what grabs listeners’ attention, Walker’s songwriting has earned critical acclaim and landed him on Spotify playlists alongside stars including Chris Stapleton, Kurt Vile, and Miranda Lambert. NPR and Rolling Stone praised his first two albums and their character-driven songs, which might have listeners laughing at a funny turn of phrase before realizing he’s singing about poverty, feelings of worthlessness, or suicidal ideation. The chorus of one of his catchiest tracks, “Play You a Song,” asks: “Can I play you a song? It don’t have to be long. Sometimes I feel like I can’t do much else right.”
Walker is poised to have the type of singer-songwriter career that could be sustained by avid vinyl enthusiasts alone; he’s a guy with a guitar who writes songs that critics and musicians alike take seriously. But in addition to his confessional solo music, he lets loose a lighter side of himself as lead guitarist of the Ottoman Turks, an irreverent, raucous rock band founded by his childhood friend, Nathan Mongol Wells. While Ottoman Turks’ songs revolve around East Dallas characters similar to those who populate Walker’s solo work, the band doesn’t take itself very seriously and its delivery is faster-paced. “I have a pretty flamboyant personality and a weird sense of humor, and I’m a probably a pretty strange dude,” Walker said. “I get to put that on full display in the Ottoman Turks.”
Take the music video for the band’s recent single “35 to Life,” off the new album Ottoman Turks II. In it, Walker is fatally stabbed by John F. Kennedy while eating a corn dog. You’re a little more likely to get beer spilled on you at an Ottoman Turks show than at a Walker show. “I like the fact that he’s not afraid to rock when a lot of people in our genre are content to sit on a stool and, well, not rock,” said Miller.
Between his catchy, layered songwriting, his lilting voice, and his electric guitar playing with the Ottoman Turks, Walker is one of the more intriguing musicians in Texas right now. “His talent’s undeniable,” says Charley Crockett, the San Benito–born, Dallas-raised musician who met Walker while the two were playing on street corners in Deep Ellum. “He controls a room in a way that I haven’t seen any other artist capable of doing single-handedly. I mean anybody.”
There’s a world where Walker might have been considered a musical prodigy. Born in 1990, he learned to play tenor banjo at the age of four, moved on to guitar at six, and was out playing shows in Deep Ellum by thirteen. Some parents might have bought a kid like that music lessons and enrolled him in enrichment programs. But that world was not East Dallas’s Casa Linda neighborhood, where he grew up. When Walker and his working-class parents lived there, the area was predominantly Hispanic. He often heard the trumpets and accordions of tejano music blaring from backyards when he rode his bike around the street.
Walker’s grandfather, who occupied the other unit of the duplex where Walker lived, was a junk collector who could fix up anything to sell. He was also a bluegrass enthusiast from Tennessee who showed the young musician his first three guitar chords. Walker took to it immediately and, from there, inhaled his granddad’s record collection, teaching himself how to play by ear. On the guitar, he dabbled in genres from bluegrass and flamenco to Spanish classical, all before hitting puberty. At age eleven, he got an electric guitar and tried his hand at Texas blues, mimicking Stevie Ray Vaughan licks. A few years later, the White Stripes’ 2003 album Elephant injected him with a sharp dose of music from his own era; he often played along to it. That record was “all my teenage angst personified,” he says.
Walker flitted from one band to another starting in middle school. He was less interested in any particular genre than he was in just finding opportunities to play in bands. In early high school, in 2005, “Everybody was piercing their lip and playing emo music,” Walker says. “I was fifteen years old, and I just wanted to play music. So if those were the only guys I could find to play music with, then I was going to learn how to play that sort of music.” Walker met Wells, his future bandmate, while waiting in line for a Blue October album release at Virgin Records in Dallas.
The Great Recession hit as Walker dropped out of Bryan Adams High School, his fourth Dallas high school in four years (he would eventually earn a GED). He remembers seeing many middle-aged Dallasites losing their stable jobs and taking minimum-wage positions at grocery stores or fast-food joints—roles that members of his generation might have occupied. “I grew up in a pretty low-income area to a low-income family, but I’d seen enough people with money to watch what the recession did to people,” Walker said. “I think as an eighteen-year-old, I was like, ‘I either want to be a rich man or I want to have nothing.’”
For most of his twenties, he fell into the latter category. Walker didn’t have a mailing address for almost seven years after high school and mostly lived out of his car or couch-surfed. He played in rock or country bands around Dallas and toured the college campus circuit, playing for people his age in Denton, College Station, Bryan, Austin, and Abilene—as he puts it, “anywhere that had a state school.” He bar-backed or worked the door at the bars where he played, always willing to stay in town for an extra night of work or music. I wanted to learn every part of the music business,” he says. “What I accidentally ended up learning was the bar business.”
By his own estimate, Walker hung out in bars six days a week from the time he was 21 until he was 25 when his grandmother was in hospice and Walker stayed in Dallas to help his mother care for her. He’s fairly blunt about the constant role that bars and alcohol have played in his life. “I have blacked out in every bar in Deep Ellum,” Walker says matter-of-factly. He says he still drinks, but in a less self-destructive way.
Walker doesn’t deliberately aim to glorify dive bars, but he does still find something romantic about them. “I definitely seek out the dirty corners of East Dallas where you can still find people smoking inside,” he says, “with the video poker machine where they’ll actually pay you out in the bar.”
A man of Walker’s large stature with his colorful style—he often dons a cowboy hat and a bright floral shirt—posted up in a bar tends to invite attention. Eventually, the characters who were a barstool or two away from Walker started to become the protagonists in his songs. “I like the people you meet at dive bars,” he says. “I like learning their stories. I like that little spark you get when you’re getting to know someone for the first time.”
In 2012, Walker reconnected with Wells, who had formed the Ottoman Turks with bassist Billy Law and drummer Paul Hinojo a few years earlier. They needed a guitarist, and Walker started filling in. The Ottoman Turks play fast, loud, heavy music that Walker says he’s heard described as “ZZ Top on meth.” John Pedigo, a veteran Dallas musician who eventually produced Walker’s 2019 and 2020 solo albums as well as both Ottoman Turks albums, calls them “the band that ruined the frat party”—their songs often satirize those who give them cursory listens. According to Wells, the band once performed its song “American Male,” whose lyrics mock Southern party boys, at a fraternity event full of drunken bros who happily sang along.
“The whole point of Ottoman Turks is to get people to drink,” Walker explained. “We were a great weekend bar band. We’d make our name doing that, and I’d play residencies during the week as a songwriter.” Those residencies were made up of the type of Dallas bars where the patrons were more concerned with the price of well liquor than with Walker’s musical ambitions. For even the slightest bit of validation, his guitar playing had to be excellent. His voice had to be loud and its range impressive. His songs had to be compelling enough to engage people who might rather be drinking in silence. Eventually, he checked all of those boxes.
“Joshua Ray Walker is doing the real work,” says Crockett. “He’s playing two hundred shows a year. These other cats open a handful of shows for somebody bigger than them and wonder why they’re not already a star.” In 2017, Walker played in 287 shows. By the end of that year, he’d still never been on an airplane, but was grinding out gigs and making fans one bar at a time.
Pedigo had been a fan of the Ottoman Turks, and when he heard that Walker was interested in trying to record some songs that he had written away from the band, he was happy to invite him into the studio in late 2017. “When he started singing and it was like a country voice, honestly, I thought it was a put-on,” Pedigo told me. But then Walker played him “Canyon,” a raw, emotional song that directly addresses his father, who was diagnosed with lung cancer in 2016. “Canyon” became the lead track on his debut album, 2019’s Wish You Were Here. (Walker’s father died in 2020.) When Walker finished singing that first session in 2017, Pedigo was so impressed that he told him that one way or another, they would make a full album. “I saw a true destiny when I heard that song,” Pedigo says.
Pedigo showed the rough cuts they had recorded to the Dallas-based record label State Fair Records in 2018, and the label came out to see Walker play a gig. They signed him almost immediately, and he began recording his first album six weeks later. Five months after that, Walker persuaded the label executives to come to an Ottoman Turks show, and State Fair signed the band to a separate deal.
The strength of Walker’s songs is partly because they are not about country tropes. Instead of tractors or horses, his ballads are filled with vivid portraits of complex, imperfect people from Dallas: sex workers, gamblers, boat show models, boisterous liars. “He’s singing country songs from a place of disparate backgrounds with people who have modern problems,” Pedigo says. Listening to Walker’s first two albums, he says, is not unlike “watching King of the Hill, but it’s not a comedy.”
The songs Wells writes for the Turks carry a similar ethos. “Conspiracy Freak,” off the band’s newest album, is nostalgic for a time before Trump and QAnon, when conspiracy theorists seemed more ridiculous than dangerous. The lyrics include, “Have fun, while you can / I guarantee there’s a master plan, and unless you’re The Man, you’ve got a limited lifespan.” The song finishes with the echoed refrain, “Bush did 9/11,” like Wells and the band are almost daring crowds to chant along.
Then there’s “35 to Life,” a winking nod to the way the JFK assassination haunts every Dallasite’s existence by being the first thing visitors bring up in conversation. In the song, the late president’s zombified corpse comes back to Dallas and terrorizes the city for allowing the assassination to happen there. If not quite a tribute, it’s certainly a comment on the ways that outsiders label Dallas.
Walker insists that he plans to use whatever success his solo career yields to bring the band with him. And fans are definitely taking notice. If Wish You Were Here was quietly well received by national critics and introduced him to people outside of Dallas, his 2020 follow-up, Glad You Made It, put him on the sort of playlists that earned him fans much faster than his previous one-bar-at-a-time approach. Rolling Stone called him “country music’s most fascinating young songwriter” after the album’s release.
This didn’t add up to a whole lot financially in 2020 for Walker, who had his entire tour canceled as a result of COVID-19. “I would have had a massive year,” he told me, noting that he was booked for fifty international shows, as well as a U.S. tour and a South by Southwest showcase. Instead, he spent much of 2020 completing a third album, which will be released this year.
Dallas’s eclectic music scene shaped Walker’s musical sensibilities and style; he’s about as hard to box in as the city itself, and he aspires to show that to the world once things open up again. “I’d love to see artists claim ownership and stay here and build something,” he says. “I’d really like to be at the forefront of making Dallas a music scene.” Rhett Miller, who has written dozens of songs about Dallas, says the “otherness” that musicians can often feel in the shadows of Dallas’s boardrooms shapes a certain kind of songwriting. “Songwriters that have come up in Dallas, and I think Josh really fits into this, have had to sort of fight through being from a place that fetishizes corporate success,” Miller says.
While Walker hopes to tell the rest of the country about the characters he’s met in East Dallas, he has no intentions of moving. He still lives in the duplex that he grew up in—he bought it from his mother. Whatever the future brings for Walker, his song “Bronco Billy’s” opens with a promise: “I hear you’re going to Austin,” he sings. “That ain’t no place for me. But if you want to find me, Dallas is where I’ll be.”