but this place is just right.
Any emerging country musician who wants to be worth a damn needs the approval of a train conductor living out in the West Virginia sticks. When W.B. Walker isn’t hauling tons of transport up and down mountainsides, he enjoys listening to country records and discovering up-and-coming artists, most of whom come from backgrounds similar to his own — folks from regions that are technically modernized and connected to the wider world, but still wholly remote in most senses of the word. It can be hard for such musicians, who tend to be light on industry connections even if they’re heavy on talent, to stick out in the crowded field of label-backed contenders. That’s where his podcast W.B. Walker’s Old Soul Radio Show comes in, providing an unlikely conduit between heartland artists and the wider world.
Many of underground country’s newest sensations, like Colter Wall, Ian Noe, Tyler Childers, and Sarah Shook & the Disarmers, have all earned a seat next to W.B. in the “Barn and Grill,” the backyard shed-turned-studio where the Old Soul Radio Show records. I use the word “earned” because, no offense to W.B., but there’s not a whole lot else that would have them drive all the way out to Dingess, West Virginia, an unincorporated municipality nestled between the crook of Virginia, Kentucky, and his home state.
Over the phone, Walker told me that his brother and both grandfathers worked in the area’s coal mines, but as he put it mildly to me over the phone, “it just wasn’t real appealing… to want to be that far underground.” He continued, “Unless you go to college, I mean, there isn't a lot of options. The railroad was something that, growing up, I always heard, ‘Man, them guys make really good money,’ and this and that.”
For the past 13 years, Walker has driven freightlines as far north as the New York-Canada border and out west towards St. Louis. It’s not uncommon for conductors like himself to log 90-hour workweeks, but the money’s good enough to support both his family and hobby back in Dingess. A brief stint working at a radio station in the early 2000’s taught him production basics, and back in 2012, Walker got the idea to start his own program online from his living room. Seven years later, and OSRS has become one of the most respected indie and outlaw country podcasts in the world, with listeners as far-flung as Hanoi tuning in each week as Walker curates a freshman class of American troubadours.
Artists like Colter Wall and Tyler Childers — both of whose names W.B. usually prefaces with “Ol’ Brother” — don’t drive out to Mungo County for the amenities. They do so because they’re longtime friends of Walker hoping to shoot the shit and drink some beers together while listening to their favorite records. Never mind that Colter’s now at leading the cowboy country revival’s vanguard, and Tyler’s late-night talk show performances are briefly on hiatus as prepares for a major co-headlining tour with avant-country superstar Sturgill Simpson early next year.
Walker’s affiliation with, and knack for discovering, the hottest up-and-coming underground country artists is the biggest factor in OSRS’s consistently growing fanbase. Colter Wall’s much-lauded self-titled 2017 LP features an intermission in which Walker praises the Saskatchewan wunderkind, saying, “From my understanding, you all enjoy Colter Wall’s music pretty damn good.” Walker was also one of the first to recognize Childers’s talents, attending his early gigs and highlighting his music on his show, with no real end goal in mind other than turning more people onto the Kentuckian’s work.
“When I first started playing [Childers], it maybe didn’t help us as much, because nobody really knew who he was,” Walker said. But even as Childers’ own career began to take off, he still made (and continues to make) semi-regular pilgrimages at the Barn and Grill, taking time out from runs of sold-out shows to play W.B.-curated events at The V Club about 70 miles away in Huntington, WV.
Fittingly for a radio show whose name includes the phrase “old soul,” the official website for Walker’s show is, shall we say, “old-timey” and prone to causing browser crashes. The internet is only recently old enough to possess a multigenerational history, with digital aesthetic trends that can now be charted much like our previous, more tangible cultural eras. The site is a rudimentary dotcom page resembling a late-’90s or early 2000’s Geocities site, including antique wallpaper and a low-resolution banner image overseeing the stiff, stop-and-start scroll of Walker’s archived episodes.
Each episode — there are roughly 180 at this point — generally lasts between an hour and an hour-and-a-half, focusing on three or so artists’ work instead of a curated playlist of singles. Occasionally, W.B.’s West Virginia drawl drifts through speakers to recount a fond memory of a musician friend, or to recount the West Virginia weather. Walker’s audience continues to grow steadily not from clever advertising gimmicks or savvy branding, but because it all so clearly comes from a human being, passing along the music that resonates with him.
Walker is someone who works his ass off during the week to be able to make time for his show on the weekend. He’s under no pressure to highlight any specific artist or release. There are no no distribution deals with labels or a need to read off an ad for an online mattress retailer, and Walker funnels what little money he generates from OSRS back into the project. If anything, Walker said, the show would be less fulfilling for him if he made more money from it, or made OSRS his full-time gig. “It wouldn’t probably be as fun. I’m kinda happy with the way it is,” he said.