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Joshua Ray Walker’s Scenes From a Honky-Tonk

On October 12, 2021

Every week we tell you about an album we think you need to spend time with. This week’s album is See You Next Time, the new album from Joshua Ray Walker, one of country’s best young stars.

If you’ve spent any time on TikTok in the last six weeks (and god bless you if you’ve been able to avoid it), or were near a radio playing country music in 1992-1994 , you’ve heard [Brooks and Dunn’s “Neon Moon,” one of maybe the five most played country songs ever. I’ve been thinking a lot about the protagonist of “Neon Moon” lately, but not just because of doom-scrolling on TikTok: because Joshua Ray Walker’s stellar third LP, See You Next Time, feels like it was written by the guy trying to ignore the jukebox and the neon signs and all the things that reminded him of someone. See You Next Time largely takes place in a honky-tonk close to closing time. The characters of the album don’t only lament loves lost, but also the lives of their loved ones, the opportunities that never came and the paths not taken. It’s revivalist country sound — it’s heavy on the pedal steel and horn arrangements — also speaks to that same era of country, where the songs were often sad, even if you could dance to them.

See You Next Time comes two years after Walker’s Wish You Were Here, his first album of straight country, and comes after his 2020 breakthrough, Glad You Made It. This is being presented as the end of a trilogy, but in practice, it feels more like the third step on some proverbial staircase to artistic realization, as it refines and perfects the great spots of Walker’s two previous albums, forming his most fully realized album to date.

Opening with “Dallas Lights” — a song about wanting to be buried not in a cemetery, but somewhere where he can see the lights of his hometown — and closing with the whistling shout-along “See You Next Time,” in between he covers all the corners of the honky-tonk, in both place and musical style. He struts and preens like the most slap-happy bar-room seducer on the Stax-horned “Sexy After Dark,” and turns dumpster diving to make a living into a metaphor for finding love on the jocular “Dumpster Diving.” On “Cowboy,” he takes to task men of his generation who adhere to some old form of masculinity with little regard for how they behave, and compares the resilience of some characters to the shitty flowers you can buy in gas stations in middle America (“Gas Station Roses”).

Walker makes his bid for one of the best young songwriters working now with the album’s centerpiece, “Flash Paper.” Walker lost his father after a long battle with cancer last year, and Walker spent a lot of time reading his dad’s letters and notes to friends, and looking at the photos he left behind, trying to grapple with who his dad was and what he could carry on with him. It’s a song about loss, and about trying to pick up the pieces, and about emotionally distant fathers who could never say how they felt, and what it’s like when they die. It’s a song that will leave anyone with boomer parents with a tight chest and wet eyes; it captures so much in its few verses and choruses.

“Flash Paper,” in microcosm, captures so much of what makes Walker special, and why a growing subset of country fans look to the guy as a new hope. It’s telling a simple, devastating story, and does it so directly it’s impossible to not paint yourself into it, on his canvas. The rest of See You Next Time is like that, too.

Profile Picture of Andrew Winistorfer
Andrew Winistorfer

Andrew Winistorfer is Senior Director of Music and Editorial at Vinyl Me, Please, and a writer and editor of their books, 100 Albums You Need in Your Collection and The Best Record Stores in the United States. He’s written Listening Notes for more than 30 VMP releases, co-produced multiple VMP Anthologies, and executive produced the VMP Anthologies The Story of Vanguard, The Story of Willie Nelson, Miles Davis: The Electric Years and The Story of Waylon Jennings. He lives in Saint Paul, Minnesota.

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