LifeNotes: Multi-Talented Guitarist Billy Joe Walker Jr. Passes

Billy Walker Jr.

The Nashville music community lost one of its most gifted and diverse contributors with the death of Billy Joe Walker Jr. this week.

Walker was one of the most prolific session musicians in Music City. He was a hit songwriter. He was an acclaimed recording artist. He produced records for more than a dozen stars.

Among the artists whose recordings he guided are Travis Tritt, Collin Raye, Mark Chesnutt, Billy Ray Cyrus, Tracy Byrd and Pam Tillis.

He discovered, as well as produced, Bryan White.

More than 100 of Walker’s songs have been recorded, including such major hits as “I Wanna Dance With You” (1984) and “B-B- B Burning Up With Love” (1986), both sung and co-written by Eddie Rabbitt. Others who have recorded Billy Joe Walker Jr.’s songs include Trisha Yearwood, Jerrod Niemann, Van Zandt, Tanya Tucker, Billy Currington, Chet Atkins and John Anderson.

It would be easier to cite Nashville artists he has not backed in the studio, rather than the voluminous list of those he has.

Just a sampling of the stars he has accompanied on records includes Ray Charles, Merle Haggard, The Dixie Chicks, Tom Jones, Hank Williams Jr., Bryan Adams, George Jones and Randy Travis.

Billy Joe Walker Jr. also achieved notoriety via a series of major-label, star-guitar records in a smooth-jazz style that was sometimes described as “new age.”

He was a native of Midland, Texas, who became a self-taught guitarist at age 6. A local radio station gave him his own 30-minute program, “The Little Billy Walker Show,” when he was 9. As a teenager, he worked regularly in Texas nightclubs.
When he was 17, he moved to Los Angeles to seek his fortune.

Within two years, he was playing sessions. In addition to backing stars such as Glen Campbell and The Beach Boys, he played for TV soundtracks, commercial jingles and film scores, including movies starring Clint Eastwood, Anthony Quinn and Burt Reynolds.

Producer Jimmy Bowen first brought him to Nashville in 1980. Walker was soon backing Kenny Rogers, Waylon Jennings, Crystal Gayle, Mickey Gilley, Steve Wariner, Reba McEntire, Vince Gill and dozens more. After several years of commuting, he moved to Music City in 1985.

Billy Joe Walker Jr.’s solo recording career began in 1987. Signed to MCA Records, he issued Treehouse, so named because he recorded it in his home studio of that name. Painting Music and Universal Language followed as solo LPs in 1989 and 1990, respectively.

Walker next signed as a pop instrumentalist with Geffen Records in L.A. His solo CDs The Walk (1992) and Untitled (1993) ensued. Several of his albums during this period became jazz-chart successes and earned rave reviews.

His next two albums were recorded for Bowen’s Liberty Records imprint in Nashville. These were 1993’s Warm Front and 1994’s Life Is Good.

Walker brought Bryan White to fame beginning in 1994. He produced White’s breakthrough hits “Someone Else’s Star,” “Rebecca Lynn,” “I’m Not Supposed to Love You Anymore,” “So Much for Pretending” and “Sittin’ on Go.”

His solo instrumental CDs continued with Children Play in 1996 and Defeated Creek in 1997. As a session musician, he now backed Martina McBride, Rodney Crowell, George Strait and others.

He also continued producing records. “All the Good Ones Are Gone,” which he produced for Pam Tillis, earned a CMA Single of the Year nomination in 1997. Travis Tritt’s Down the Road I Go, produced by Walker in 2000, became a Platinum Record.

The Walker productions “Just Let Me Be in Love” and “Ten Rounds With Jose Cuervo” revived Tracy Byrd’s career in 2001-02. The CD The Other Side, which Walker produced for Billy Ray Cyrus, was nominated for a 2003 Dove Award by the gospel industry.

Byrd’s CD The Truth About Men, which Walker produced, earned an ACM nomination in 2003. Walker also worked with new artists such as Brad Martin, Drew Smith and Shelley Skidmore.

In 2009, Billy Joe Walker Jr. launched a new website. He signed a new personal management contract with The Consortium in 2011.

But he had been in declining health in recent years. Billy Joe Walker Jr. passed away at age 64 in Kerrville, Texas on Tuesday (July 25).

Walker is survived by son, Dr. Shane Walker, of Naples, Florida, and by daughter Katelyn Walker, of Nashville. Funeral arrangements have not been announced. A memorial service will be held in Nashville.


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Category: Artist, Featured, Obituary

About the Author

Robert K. Oermann is a longtime contributor to MusicRow. He is a respected music critic, author and historian.

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