Joshua Ray Walker has been called “country’s most fascinating young songwriter” by Rolling Stone and “one of country’s most exciting storytellers” by Spin. After releasing his first three albums, a trilogy of sorts that No Depression calls “the country music equivalent of the great American novel,” Walker has decided it is now time to just have some fun. The result is ‘What Is It Even?’, a tribute to some of Walker’s favourite female singers and songwriters, out August 4th 2023 via Soundly Music.
The catalyst of ‘What Is It Even?’ was sparked on the patio of the Tulsa, Oklahoma music venue and dive bar Mercury Lounge, a fitting origin story for any country record. But this is far from an ordinary country record. It was on that Tulsa patio, deep into tour, when Walker and drummer Trey Pendergrass were half joking about what their gospel jump blues version of Whitney Houston’s ‘I Wanna Dance With Somebody’ would sound like, wondering “what if the Blues Brothers covered a Whitney Houston song?”
“I just wanted to make something that was fun,” Walker says. “I realized how influential female pop records and artists have been on me as a person, even more than in a creative sense.”
While his audience had grown and he was reaching the sort of success he’d hoped would result from his first three albums, it had been a difficult few years for Walker. His father lost a long battle with lung cancer, and a trusted advisor and musical mentor died unexpectedly. Coming out of COVID-19 lockdown, the country artist was also dealing with the flooding of his home. Beyond just lost memories, the flood made the house unlivable for months on end, meaning that Walker, who spent 200 days a year touring, would return home only to live in an extended stay hotel, as if he were still on the road. Career success wasn’t an immediate conduit to happiness, as many artists have learned. Walker wanted to get in the studio and have fun and record the sort of songs that are familiar salves to millions of people. The kind of music that can cheer you up. Welcome to ‘What is it Even?’
Walker tackles a mix of iconic and more modern songs on this album with a confidence and touch that is both audacious and rewarding. The album opens with perhaps it’s bravest moment as Walker covers Lizzo’s ‘Cuz I Love You’. This was the last song recorded for the project as he didn’t think that he could pull it off but, boy, is he wrong. This version captures the big band and ‘showtime-adjacent’ feels that the original has – right down to the big, elongated finish. Walker doesn’t try to ‘country-fi’ the song too much, opting for a more New Orleans, voodoo vibe over a Texan or Nashville sheen and it works perfectly.
Other covers that work include the absolute blast that is ‘I Wanna Dance With Somebody’, a take on Cher’s monster hit ‘Believe’ and a fiddle driven, hoedown romp in Beyonce’s ‘Halo’. When you cover Whitney Houston you have to get it right and Walker is spot on with ‘I Wanna Dance With Somebody’. In his hands the song morphs into a drum-driven banger replete with very appropriate 80’s saxophones mixed with those Texan guitars. It’s an infectious, joy-filled romp that will be real fun to see live on Walker’s upcoming UK tour and Long Road festival date. ‘Believe’, meanwhile, is changed into something a little more low-fi and nuanced. The twangy guitars and honky tonk pianos drive the song towards its instantly recognisable chorus but the way it gets there feels both fresh and original. Perhaps the biggest left turn on ‘What is it Even?’ comes in the form of ‘Halo’. Here it is a fiddle-driven hoedown number with guitars and drums front and centre as it romps towards it’s hardwood floor-leaning chorus.
Elsewhere, Dolly Parton’s classic (debut number one) story song, ‘Joshua’ is transformed from it’s jolly original into something a little darker as Walker steps into (almost) murder ballad territory, perhaps befitting of a song with a tricky storyline in 2023 as an orphan girls shacks up with a mean recluse in the middle of the Appalachian mountains! The yodelling is kept in but Walker’s version is altogether more brooding and ominous, despite it still being a love song.
A cover of LeAnn Rimes’ iconic song, ‘Blue’ is played fairly straight and narrow and the whole ‘so lonesome I could cry’ vibe is kept in, which suits the tone of Walker’s vocals really well. ‘Nothing Compares 2 U’ is also played relatively straight down the line. The melody and cadence of Sinead O’Connor’s original is instantly recognisable in Walker’s hands although his version is a little less haunting and a little more ‘bar room’ grimey. The Texan guitars and tasteful organ and keys bring a feel of ‘Nights in White Satin’ to proceedings here that suits the cover well.
Perhaps the two most interesting songs are a cover of Sia’s ‘Cheap Thrills’ and album-closer ‘Samson’, originally recorded by Regina Spektor. The former was the debut number one from Australian singer Sia back in 2016 and Walker takes the Pop production and nightclub feel of the song and twists it into something resembling the title track of a Sergio Leone Spaghetti Western! It’s an audacious and ambitious move: part Tarantino, part frontier town bar song, ‘Cheap Thrills’ is one of the standout moments on ‘What is it Even?’. ‘Samson’, meanwhile, recorded multiple times by Regina Spektor, tells the famous biblical story from Delilah’s point of view in a clever and original way. Coming across as something akin to Norah Jones jamming with Alanis and Ben Folds, ‘Samson’ retains the pianos in Walker’s version but they are richer, bluesier in tone. Walker’s vocals really shine on this track and his Texan accent brings an earthiness and authenticity to the song that is hard to achieve.
‘What is it Even’ is a superb collection of covers and re-imagings that pay tribute to Joshua Ray Walker’s musical heroines. He hasn’t tried to Country-fi everything, it isn’t an over-the-top pastiche. Walker has brought his own style to some classic songs and has handled everything with a deft and reverential touch. Where a song needs some twang, it’s there but where it needs a piano, some space or even a brief yodel – it’s there too. This is a fascinating and engaging project that has been handled with a huge amount of grace and care. It will be a real treat to see Walker play some of these songs at the Long Road festival in August as he brings his tour to the UK for multiple shows.
Track list: 1. ‘Cuz I Love You’ (Lizzo) 2. ‘Linger’ feat Kyle Gass of Tenacious D (The Cranberries) 3. ‘I Wanna Dance With Somebody’ (Whitney Houston) 4. ‘Believe’ (Cher) 5. ‘Cheap Thrills’ (Sia) 6. ‘Blue’ (LeAnn Rimes) 7. ‘Goodbye Horses’ (Q Lazarus) 8. ‘Nothing Compares 2 U’ (Sinead O’Connor) 9. ‘Joshua’ (Dolly Parton) 10. ‘Halo’ (Beyonce)11. ‘Samson’ (Regina Spektor) Release Date: August 4th Record Label: Soundly Records Buy ‘What is it Even?’ now