Before he got his recording contract, Bradley Walker had already performed on the Grand Ole Opry, appeared on national television and sung at some of America’s leading bluegrass festivals. One listen to Highway of Dreams, his stunning Rounder Records debut, explains why: Bradley Walker is simply one of the greatest young country singers alive. He belongs to a tradition that includes such outstanding stylists as Vern Gosdin, Merle Haggard, Mel Street, Gene Watson, George Jones, Lefty Frizzell, and Keith Whitley, all of whom he cites as influences. “It’s not like I’m on any kind of campaign to bring back traditional country music,” says Walker. “It’s just that this is the kind of music I love, the kind of music that makes me happiest. I’ve been singing this way all my life.”
Backed by some of Music City’s greatest acoustic players, under the direction of producer, singer, multi-instrumentalist and songwriter Carl Jackson, Walker turns in one breath-taking performance after another on what is easily the finest country-bluegrass disc debut of the year. The message song “A Little Change,” alone, is enough to alert you that you’re in the presence of a master vocalist. The twin-fiddle waltz “He Carried Her Memory” is utterly heartbreaking, while the yearning “Lost At Sea,” the classic-sounding weeper “Love’s Tombstone,” the bluegrass rampage “I Shoulda Took That Train,” and the moving gospel outing “We Know Where He Is” are so assured, so emotionally complex and beautifully phrased, that they sound as if they come from a seasoned veteran rather than a newcomer. Walker's soulful, mature style was immediately embraced by the bluegrass community, and he was named Male Vocalist of the Year at the 2007 International Bluegrass Music Association awards -- a rare feat for an emerging artist.
“He really is one amazing singer,” says producer Jackson, who has worked with everyone from Emmylou Harris to Glen Campbell. The GrammyTM award-winning Jackson’s resume includes sessions with Ricky Skaggs, Jim & Jesse, Garth Brooks, Vince Gill and many other greats. But he reserves extra praise for this new stylist. “Bradley is a special person, as well as a talent,” Jackson continues.
1. Life or Love 2:27
2. When I'm Hurtin' 3:58
3. Love's Tombstone 3:36
4. Payin' Your Dues 3:43
5. If I Hadn't Reached for the Stars 3:36
6. Price of Admission 3:07
7. He Carried Her Memory 3:51
8. A Little Change 2:52
9. Lost at Sea 4:21
10. Shoulda Took That Train 3:19
11. I Never Go Around Mirrors 3:54
12. We Know Where He Is 3:30
Produced by Carl Jackson.
Recorded by Luke Wooten and John "Hip-Hop" Caldwell at Station West, Nashville, TN.
Mixed and mastered by Luke Wooten at Station West, Nashville, TN.
Photography by Rick Olivier.
Notes by Robert K. Oermann.
Visit Bradley Walker online at www.bradleywalker.com
Cia Cherryholmes appears courtesy of Skaggs Family Records
Randy Kohrs appears courtesy of Left of Center Records
Sonya Isaacs appears courtesy of Gaither Music Group
Russell Moore appears courtesy of Chateau Music Group
Vince Gill appears courtesy of MCA Nashville, a Division of UMG Recordings, Inc.
Jim Van Cleve appears courtesy of Rural Rhythm Records
There are so many people who've played a part in the making of this project, where do I begin? To Ken Irwin and everyone at Rounder, thank you for giving me a chance and for believing in me enough to make this dream a reality. To my producer and dear friend, Carl Jackson, words could never express my appreciation for all your hard work, the long hours, and your amazing talent for making this record something we can both be so very proud of. You've made my job so easy, and your friendship alone means the world to me. Love ya, buddy! To Luke, Hip-Hop, and everyone at Station West, y'all are the best! Thanks Luke for working so hard through a rough time…you are the man! To the songwriters, thank you for songs with a message and a meaning. Thanks to all my friends – Clay, Carl, Tony, Kevin, Adam, Ron B., Rob, Randy, Ron S., Jimmy, Andy, and Aubrey, for adding your own unique sound to this record. To Alecia, Carl, Rhonda, Cord, Brandon, Russell, Jerry, Sonya, Cia, and Vince – thanks a million – it is such an honor to sing with all of you. To Ann Taormina, thanks for pushing "Stars" – I owe you! To Brandon, Ann, and Alecia, thanks for a friendship that's always seemed more like family from day one. Love ya! A special thank you to Darrel and Phyllis Adkins and Lynn and Brenda Butler – y'all have been a big part of this project from the very beginning. Thanks for your continuous support, the all-night jams, and your special friendship – love y'all! A big thanks to my co-workers at Browns Ferry for standing behind me and picking up the slack so that I could have this opportunity. Thanks especially to Mama and Putt, Aunt Carolyn, Daddy and Susan, and my entire family for always being there. Your strong support and encouragement is what's brought me this far, and you'll never know how much I love you. Most importantly, thanks to the Good Lord for more blessings than I've ever deserved, and for Your gift of music. May You always be the one leading me down this Highway of Dreams.
The music I love comes to me in many ways, but often it begins with a tip from another music fanatic.
About six months ago, I answered the phone. "Are you an Alecia Nugent fan?" inquired my friend Dan. "Major," I replied. "Have you listened to her new album yet?" he continued. "No, I just got the advance copy from Rounder a couple of days ago," I said. "Put it on and check out the duet with this guy Bradley Walker," said Dan. "It's called 'When It Comes Down to Us,' the seventh track. He's a really amazing singer. I'm positive you'll like him." And to make sure I got the message, he sent me another copy of the album with the song highlighted in orange.
I put it on and listened. Dan was right. Bradley has one of the best hard-country voices I've heard in years.
Next, I got a review copy of an all-star bluegrass collection called Celebration of Life, a benefit record for St. Jude's Hospital. And there was that name again, Bradley Walker, singing Bill Monroe's "Sugar Coated Love." This time, he was solo, and he was equally striking as a vocalist.
So I was already a fan when Rounder's Ken Irwin asked me about writing liner notes for this debut CD. But all I knew about the singer was that I loved his voice. Before meeting Bradley, I decided to do a little research. It turned out that I probably had heard him before. My wife and I listen to the Grand Ole Opry on our kitchen radio while making dinner every Saturday night. To my surprise, I learned that Bradley had already been a guest on the Opry four times. He'd also been featured in Bluegrass Unlimited, but never having heard his amazing voice at the time, I probably didn't pay much attention to the article. Now that I did, Bradley Walker became a revelation.
You see, he's not only one of the greatest country singers of his generation, he is an inspiration. The fact that Bradley Walker traveled alone from his hometown of Athens, Alabama to Nashville for these recording sessions is itself a wonder. He was born with Muscular Dystrophy and has been in a wheelchair his entire life. But this young man is as fiercely independent as he is musically gifted. He built his own home in Alabama, designing it for maximum mobility and comfort. He is also completely at ease in his customized van. He has been working full-time ever since his high-school graduation, plus singing and traveling to festivals regularly.
I couldn't wait to meet him. He greeted me at the door to his Nashville motel room with a smile and a spin of his chair's wheels. Later that afternoon, he gave me a tour of his ingenious Dodge van.
"My whole outlook on life is that if you're able to get out and work, then do it," he said cheerfully. "My parents always encouraged me to be able to do things on my own. My mother pushed for me to be able to attend a normal school, to graduate from a regular high school, and she figured out what you have to do to get a van equipped so that I could learn to drive. They knew that I wanted to move out on my own. I wouldn't be where I am today if it hadn't been for them."
Bradley Walker was born in 1978 and was singing not long afterward. When he was 3 years old, his folks took him to a local Oak Ridge Boys concert. Backstage, the tot sang "Elvira" to the quartet, beginning a friendship that lasts to this day.
"Everyone in town knew that I sang, even as a very young child," Walker reports. "From the age of about 7 or 8 onwards, I would sing in talent contests, in dance halls, at churches, just anywhere."
Trips to Nashville were common. When he was 10, his family brought him to the Oak Ridge Boys' fan club party. This time, he sang "Elvira" with the quartet. The group was so impressed that the following year he was invited to appear on the national cable show Nashville Now with the Oaks.
"We did that Nashville Now show in March of 1989, and the folks at the Muscular Dystrophy Association somehow caught wind of that appearance. They contacted us and wanted to know if we could recreate what we had done on the Jerry Lewis MDA Telethon that September in Las Vegas. The following year, MDA sent a camera crew to my home, spent three days with us, filmed my story and aired a Biography-type profile on the Telethon."
There was never any question about him being self-sufficient. Bradley Walker went right to work after his high-school graduation in 1996. After working in technical support for an Internet provider for several years, he joined his stepfather, Jimmy Putman, at the Browns Ferry Nuclear Plant in northern Alabama. He is a material analyst there, supporting warehouse inventory and purchasing. But music has never been far from his thoughts.
The start of his working life coincided with the beginning of his musical career. He started performing in dance halls following his graduation. And it was around this same time that he began to study the bluegrass records of Flatt & Scruggs, Bill Monroe, J.D. Crowe & The New South, Jimmy Martin, Lou Reid, Terry Baucom and Carolina and other artists.
"That was a time when country music was really starting to change and to move away from traditional sounds," he explains. "So I fell in love with bluegrass."
Within two years, he'd joined his first bluegrass band. Banjo player Ray Edwards and brothers Tim, Scotty and Kirk Terry – the nephews of fiddler Gordon Terry – were his partners in The Trinity Mountain Boys. The band debuted at a bluegrass festival staged in Pulaski, Tennessee in 1998.
"One of the songs I sang was 'Long Black Limousine,' which is interesting because I think Gordon Terry was the first to record that. We were just what they call 'Weekend Warriors.' We did it just for the love of the music, and if we could make enough money to cover gas and expenses, well so much the better."
Former Sawyer Brown member Bobby Randall spotted him at a bluegrass festival and asked him to come to Nashville to sing song "demos." This was Bradley Walker's introduction to the recording studio. In 1999, The Trinity Mountain Boys self-produced their album Breaking New Ground.
The bluegrass community enthralled the young performer. Walker was soon traveling farther and farther from home to be near the music he loved. At the 2000 IBMA convention in Louisville, while singing in a jam session with several friends, he met fellow bluegrass newcomer Alecia Nugent. The two bonded instantly, which eventually led to the recording of their duet.
The Atlanta-based bluegrass group Lost Horizon invited Bradley Walker to become its lead singer in 2001, so he began commuting to Georgia for rehearsals. The group took second place at the SPBGMA convention in Nashville that year, and then Lost Horizon was invited to Los Angeles to appear on the Jerry Lewis Telethon. Walker believes his performance of The Osborne Brothers chestnut "Big Spike Hammer" was the first time bluegrass music was presented on the long-running annual telecast.
His circle of musical friends widened to include IIIrd Tyme Out, Larry Cordle & Lonesome Standard Time, Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver, The Lonesome River Band and other bluegrass headliners. In 2002, the members of IIIrd Tyme Out invited him to appear with them at the Grand Ole Opry. After he motored his wheelchair out to center stage, Walker took his foot off its pedal to rub it on the legendary circle of wood from the Ryman Auditorium. Then he sang the Freddie Hart/Jimmy Martin favorite "Drink Up and Go Home" and drew a standing ovation. He has since been on the Opry as the guest of Alecia Nugent, and stars such as Vince Gill and Mark Wills.
In September 2005 Bluegrass Unlimited magazine published its Bradley Walker feature story headlining him as "The Next Great Voice of Bluegrass Music." The Nashville Scene hailed him as "the best singer in bluegrass today not yet signed to a record deal." That would soon change. Contracted to Rounder, he commuted more than 100 miles each way for recording sessions in Nashville last spring.
Bradley Walker came over to the house the other day. I recognized that one-of-a-kind van at once. He wanted to hand deliver his completed Highway of Dreams to me and to thank me for working with him.
Now that I've listened to it, I want to thank him. Thank him for his inspirational performance of "Life or Love." Thank him for the flowing audio tapestry that is "Price of Admission." Thank him for the splendid bluegrass romps "Payin' Your Dues" and "Shoulda Took That Train." Thank him for the philosophical "A Little Change," the lovely weeper "Love's Tombstone," the stately gospel outing "We Know Where He Is" and the sweetly hurting "Lost at Sea."
It has been many years since I have been moved by a debut album the way I am moved by Highway of Dreams. Bradley Walker's reading of the Lefty Frizzell/Keith Whitley classic "I Never Go Around Mirrors" is honky-tonk perfection. His phrasing on "When I'm Hurtin'" is simply masterful. I'm a sucker for a twin-fiddle waltz, and "He Carried Her Memory" has the added slugs of a dynamite story and a supremely mournful vocal. By the time Bradley Walker had finished singing the beautiful, heart-tugging "If I Hadn't Reached for the Stars," I swear tears were rolling down my cheeks. He's that good.
Bradley Walker belongs to a tradition that includes such outstanding stylists as Vern Gosdin, Merle Haggard, Mel Street, Gene Watson and George Jones, all of whom he cites as influences. On Highway of Dreams he is surrounded by a heavenly host of like-minded contemporaries.
"It's not like I'm on any kind of campaign to bring back traditional country music," says the new stylist. "It's just that this is the kind of music I love, the kind of music that makes me happiest. I've been singing this way all my life.
"I guess it's just starting to hit me about the caliber of people I am working with. I had no idea that anything like this record deal would ever come along. All I know is, I'm really blessed to have made so many friends in bluegrass music."
Well, that's the story of how I came to know Bradley Walker and his astonishingly soulful voice. If you love country music, real country music, you'll savor the triumph that he and his dream team have created here. After you do, call up your fellow music fanatics and give them a tip.
Robert K. Oermann