About 10 years ago, Bradley Walker was spending his weekends singing in a traditional country band around his hometown of Athens, Ala. Late one Saturday night, when the gig was over, one of his bandmates said he had something in his truck that Walker ought to hear.
It turned out to be the album that changed everything.
"The first CD he put in was Rounder 0044," Walker recalls, "and hardcore bluegrass fans will know that is J.D. Crowe & the New South with Tony Rice, Ricky Skaggs, Jerry Douglas and J.D. Crowe. And that is the bluegrass album. To many bluegrass fans that's the record right there. When I heard those harmonies and that music, I thought, 'Man! This is it!'"
The next week, Walker borrowed another album, which led to further digging into the bluegrass repertoire. Before long, he was attending bluegrass festivals and meeting his new heroes face to face. When he finally got the chance (and the nerve) to sing bluegrass professionally, his admirers took note of his expressive baritone and the traditional country timbre that still showed up in his vocals. When the timing was right, the same musicians he befriended at the festivals lined up to help introduce him to the world.
A decade after discovering bluegrass, 28-year-old Walker has issued his debut album, Highway of Dreams, with harmonies provided by bluegrass heavyweights such as Cia Cherryholmes, Larry Cordle, Vince Gill, Sonya Isaacs, Alecia Nugent, Jerry Salley, Rhonda Vincent and IIIrd Tyme Out's Russell Moore. Many of the genre's most accomplished musicians joined him in the studio, as well, including Ron Block, Aubrey Haynie, Clay Hess, Rob Ickes, Randy Kohrs, Adam Steffey and Jim Van Cleve. Grammy-winning producer Carl Jackson helmed the project released in September on Rounder Records.
Many of these artists (plus Crowe himself) celebrated the album release with a three-hour concert at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville prior to the International Bluegrass Music Association's (IBMA) World of Bluegrass Week -- a night that Walker remembers as "unbelievable" and "something that I'll never forget as long as I live."
At the show, the front rows of the Ryman were mostly filled with family and friends from the Athens, Ala., area where Walker still lives. He was born with muscular dystrophy and has been in a wheelchair his whole life. But he's been in love with music for his whole life, too. When he was 10, he sang with the Oak Ridge Boys at their fan club concert. In turn, they invited him to sing with them on the Nashville Now television show. That appearance led to a spot on the Jerry Lewis MDA telethon in 1989 and 1990.
In the ensuing years, Walker kept on singing. In 1999, he was spotted by a former member of Sawyer Brown at a bluegrass festival and invited to Nashville to record demos. A year later, Jackson heard Walker singing at the IBMA convention, which led to a friendship and ultimately a working relationship. Even with his bluegrass connections, Walker believes the songs could fit just as easily into the country format.
"I've always incorporated traditional country music with acoustic instruments," he says. "Doing something like 'Today I Started Loving You Again' with a banjo, guitar, fiddle and mandolin, you can do those songs acoustically and they sound pretty good. And nine times out of 10, most of your bluegrass fans are also going to be fans of traditional country music because they're a lot alike. I think there's room for both styles and a mesh of both styles in one. That's what I wanted to do with this record, to show my love for traditional bluegrass -- the straight-ahead, pure bluegrass stuff -- but also go along the lines of traditional country and showcase the two together."
Certainly Highway of Dreams boasts some of the saddest songs on any country or bluegrass albums this year. You can tell just by reading the titles -- "Love's Tombstone," "He Carried Her Memory" and "Lost at Sea." He also covers Lefty Frizzell's classic "I Never Go Around Mirrors," a song about a disheveled man who drinks too much and cries a lot. And while "Price of Admission" has a lively melody, the topic is dramatic -- a musician who has a kid from a long ago affair that his wife doesn't know about.
"Country music was built on sad songs," he says. "You go back and listen to classics that I love -- George Jones and Merle Haggard -- and it's all sad songs. We all like happy songs and we all don't want to be sad all the time, but the kind of music that I am drawn to is sad songs."
Not that he's sitting home depressed all the time. Walker has a manual wheelchair to make his festival dates easier to manage. For the recording sessions, he drove himself to Nashville in a customized van. He also works full time as a materials analyst at Browns Ferry nuclear plant and designed his own home to suit his needs. Because of his "physical challenges" -- a phrase he prefers over "disability" -- some people may consider Walker's accomplishments even more impressive. Grateful for the encouragement and unfailingly polite in person, he prefers the emphasis to remain on his music.
"The word 'inspiration' is used a lot, and I hate to even say that myself," Walker says. "I do what I do. I'm a singer. In the process of doing what I do, if I can touch a life or change somebody or make a difference in somebody's life along the way, then that's an added bonus to me. I don't set out to try to say 'OK, I'm in a wheelchair, so I need to go out and show people that I can do this.' That's not my main focus. My focus is always on the music."