Joshua Ray Walker’s role model for “Sexy After Dark” was not Tim McGraw, Billy Ray Cyrus or Keith Urban. It was Conway Twitty.
Twitty, Walker said in a phone interview with BandWagon, was sort of a goofy guy who managed to sing some of the most romantic songs in country music. It’s not like Twitty belonged on the cast of Hee Haw, but he wasn’t Elvis. One of the intentions of “Sexy After Dark,” Walker said, was to pay a backhanded but lighthearted tribute to all the people like Twitty.
“There’s a history of country crooners who aren’t sexy – putting out sexy songs,” Walker said. “‘Slow Hand’ is one of my favorites. Twitty is so goofy-looking, but he sold it. He really sold it.”
The other intent, Walker said, was to poke fun at himself. He knows he’s also not Elvis. He’s confident about himself, but he doesn’t like to take himself too seriously, and he acknowledges that his appearance may necessitate that: he feels sexy after dark, he said, after he’s had a few drinks in a dark corner of the bar, like many of us.
“I am confident,” he said about his persona, “but I wouldn’t say I’m sexual. I tried to imagine myself in that situation, and that was a hard role to play.”
He does play it, though, not only on his new album See You Next Time, but in his increasingly common live appearances in major venues. He struggled a bit to throw in a wink at the end of his recent performance on The Tonight Show. But he did it. Everyone feels a little sexy inside, he said, and the song is about bringing it out, even if it is after dark.
That “sexy gent” may be an act of sorts, one in which Walker plays the main character for once. Walker’s catalog is stuffed with songs about characters he’s come across in his 31 years, and in many of them, he plays at least a supporting role. One of his favorite things to do is hang out in bars, he said — he even snuck into them as a teenager — and the people he met in them make up the bulk of a trilogy of conceptual albums, released annually over the last three years.
“I really did live that life,” Walker said. “I spent most of my nights in bars around people who were kind of forgotten: sex workers and addicts and drug peddlers. I surrounded myself with those people because they have interesting lives and are underrepresented in our culture. Some are even pushed aside. I entertained those people for years. I found a lot of myself in those people.”
“…You can take the boy out of the country …“
Walker’s music sounds like country, though he doesn’t try to push his music in any one direction. His voice does that for him.
“Whatever I write sounds like country once we record it,” he said. “That’s just my voice. This is just how it sounds when I sing.”
It’s his meal ticket now and a big reason why he’s found success, but he was ashamed of it at one point in his life. Kids teased him about his thick East Texas drawl when he was in junior high. He didn’t find much help at home either. He compares his dad’s voice to Boomhauer from King of the Hill.
“I purposely tried to lose it because I sounded stupid,” Walker said of his accent. Still, the drawl is there. But it’s not nearly as pronounced as it is when he sings. He’s not ashamed of it anymore, though it definitely sounds country, even when he pushes the envelope on his albums.
“There’s some classic country, some 90s country, some rock, some distorted guitars — I love Jack White — and some Tom Petty vibes,” he said. “I’m happy to sound like Conway Twitty, but I’d be just as happy to sound like Lizzo (‘Good As Hell’). She’s one of my favorites.”
Indeed, “Sexy After Dark” sounds like soul à la The Nightsweats until Walker’s voice comes in, with a horn section and slight 70s vibe.
He said he heard the horns in it once he fleshed out the song a bit. The classic country artists had horns at times, he said, like Merle and Conway and Kenny: You just don’t hear that much anymore.
Walker doesn’t shy away from classic country, even as the genre has veered towards pop since the early 90s, and his voice sounds as classic as it gets. But he also doesn’t feel restrained by it.
“It’s important for me to give credit where it’s due,” he said. “It took me a long time to figure out what I sound like, and once I found it and found the band that could create that sound, everything came together.”
Walker’s trio of albums, inspired by and filled with the honky-tonk misfits and forgotten barflies he encountered at his hangouts, took 10 years to write but only three years to release. They are all fictional, but there’s some truth in every character he writes about.
His new album, See You Next Time, is the final installment and follows up Glad You Made It.
“The whole idea with the trilogy was to use the honky-tonk as a setting where all these different characters could interact with each other,” Walker said in a press release.
He has some ideas for the next record already, but first, he may allow himself a little downtime, in one of his favorite bars, where things might get a little sexy once the sun goes down.
BandWagon presents Joshua Ray Walker in concert Wednesday, April 20 at the Moxi Theater in Greeley and Friday, April 22 at LuLu’s Downstairs in Manitou Springs. Tickets available now at BandWagonPresents.com