Big Joe Walker
I Am Big Joe Walker
Sometimes a debut drops and just catches you flat-footed, somewhere between surprised by what you just heard and pissed that you didn’t know about it sooner. Big Joe Walker’s been making the rounds in north Texas for a while now, but he just hadn’t been on my radar. He was on the bill recently for one of the all-day music showcases that tend to happen with wonderful regularity down in the Fort Worth Stockyards, though, and boy howdy did that make for an introduction. It was an acoustic song-swap kind of thing, and around these parts it’s fairly common to enjoy those thoroughly without being just blown away by an individual. Not because the talent isn’t there; in fact, the exact opposite applies. It’s absolutely standard hereabouts to watch three or four songwriters trade tunes for hours and leave everyone both astounded and deeply, deeply satisfied. But when you leave one of those shindigs, generally speaking, the artists were so accomplished and fed off of each other so well that it winds up being the experience you remember later. Just something special that happens when artists get together and use their own distinct catalogs and experience to build something infinite out of whatever the composite whole might be that day.
The day I saw him, Big Joe Walker broke that mold. Just no way the room could contain his persona, or the power and soul and volume under firm command that his vocals unleashed. As pure singers go, this guy has both chart mainstays and big vocal extravaganza reality show contestants outclassed. Outfuckingclassed. And write this down: Ain’t no AutoTune in a Stockyards beer joint. Talk about a revelation of the utterly unexpected kind.
Got in touch with Joe a couple days later and asked for a copy of his first EP, I Am Big Joe Walker, which had just recently dropped. Have listened to it regularly since it first hit the mailslot. There’s something indefinable here which even now writing this review I’m frankly struggling to capture a sense of in order to pass it along to you. Just a current running through this thing that’s electric and charged with invitation. Not what you’d expect from a first studio effort. But then again, maybe it should be. The guy’s been playing around Texas for a decade or so, working with bands and learning from the guys at the mic. He’s obviously been paying attention, and polishing his own evolving writing voice and vocal style in the process. Take a look at the players involved here and who they’ve worked with and you’ll learn something real quick about the respect Joe’s garnered along the way.
There are some things I’d quibble with. Some of the songs seem more anthemic in nature by design, and are likely just targeted for radio. Maybe future releases will forego a cliché here and there in favor of something a bit more profound. But then again, even on the cuts here that cover ground already well traveled, well, that voice. There’s something in it that makes you believe. “Friday Night In Texas” is probably the best example of this. It’s easy to picture this song on the Top 40 country charts. The rhythms and phrasings are familiar in that sense. And the talking points in the party weekend it portrays are familiar as can be. But you can’t get through the song without finding your mood improve. Not just improve, either; Joe makes you feel the crackle of magic riding in on the winds. Whether it’s hope under Friday night lights, magnetic energy humming in the neon smoke, or friends around a fire, this makes you believe. Music Row’s pap can’t accomplish that last little feat, and it’s a material distinction. Hmmm.
But just then, when your polished radio ready fare hatin’ heart is pondering slipping into overdrive, the incredibly intricate and just flat out stupidly good “I Want All Of You” kicks in. Easy to get lost in the instrumentation and the beat backing this track; easy to pass it off as more sweet ear candy and roll the windows down. If you listen, though… damn. Ever caught yourself loving someone who found it hard to love his or her own self? Even if just in that one critical moment of weakness where all of us at some point either jump off the cliff to insanity or step away from the ledge and ride for redemption. Every single one of us has been on that precipice. Every one of us, in that moment, wanted desperately for just one damned soul to not only see the best in us but to also accept all of the worst. And if you’ve ever been that one other soul calling out to the wounded contemplating their jump, then you know fully the desperation that comes with offering redemption as well. This song will make a lot of sense to you if you’ve walked in either set of shoes.
Track list closes out with “The Other Side.” It’s much more simply arranged than anything else on the EP. Slips into minor keys. Walker’s powerful vocal here gets deep down inside of you where the dark things live, becomes a visceral thing that won’t die. Takes a singer, I mean a by-God real singer, to do what Joe does here. The tale is full of allegory and metaphor, powerful and gut wrenching, mournful yet brimming with hope. You can’t get away from it, and every detail snaps starkly into view as Joe’s magnificent, soulful, and here quietly undeniable voice tells the tale. It is a thing of wonder. Don’t know how else to describe it.
Much like Jamie Richards earlier this year, Joe Walker has forced me to stop and think about how I listen to music. Both men have reminded me that it is more than possible to compose and arrange songs that radio will accept and even love while telling stories and writing lyrics that hearts can’t ignore. The ways that a PD at a radio station and a guy at a website like this one you’re reading listen to music are, by nature, quite different. One’s got to find that which will appeal to the masses, the other only gives a damn about what speaks to a soul. Far too often, the result is that music fans tend to fall into one camp or the other. The radio folks stick with what they know, what’s become familiar on the airwaves. The rest sort of pooh-pooh radio stars and look for the people who can’t get airplay because they have too much substance. There’s a measure of legitimacy to that mindset, no doubt. But the line is never completely cut and dry. Big Joe Walker did a masterful job reminding me of that truth, and this record is one that’ll stay in the truck. It’s fine stuff, and frankly I’m intrigued and want more. Wonder what’s next for Joe. Can’t hardly wait to hear it. Voices and souls like this one don’t just waltz down Main Street every day.
Dave Pilot lives in north Texas with his first good wife (don’t ask about the other one), seven horses, and five dogs. When his wife’s not looking, he tries to figure out ways to feed the 987 or so cats to the coyotes out behind the fenceline. When he’s not trying to raise his kids to turn out better than he did, he’s hitting historical sites on his way to honky-tonks from Denton to Port Aransas. Visit Dave Pilot on Facebook.
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