It's the Saturday night before Martin Luther King Day and Bradley Walker is on stage at the National Heritage Museum, singing with the Grammy-nominated, Nashville-based bluegrass band, the Grascals. On the following Tuesday, Mr. Walker will rise at 5 a.m. and travel to Browns Ferry Nuclear Plant in Athens, Ala., where he's a materials analyst. He's worked there five years.
One thing remains constant in these very different worlds: Walker, a handsome 28-year-old who has had muscular dystrophy (MD) since birth, will be in an Action Arrow Storm Series wheelchair, a four-wheel rig he's driven for about 13 years now.
Walker – whose heroes include Merle Haggard, Keith Whitley, George Jones, Vern Gosdin, and Jimmy Martin – is both a humble man and a rising presence in the bluegrass/country scene, having released his debut album, "Highway of Dreams," last fall. (Vince Gill and Alecia Nugent are two of the many guest singers on it.)
"He's an incredible talent, one of the best new singers to hit Nashville in a long time," says Terry Eldredge, Grascals singer-guitarist. "He has heart and soul. Obviously, Bradley has lived through some tough times, and he lets that show in his singing. He's an inspiration to all people, not just disabled or handicapped people. He's an inspiration to me and all the guys in the band."
Walker says his disease "really doesn't have any impact on my music. I'm very blessed. I have a form of MD that's nonprogressive, so it doesn't get worse over time, and I thank the Lord for that. It affects the initial reaction people get when they see somebody come out on stage in a wheelchair – 'What's this guy gonna do?' I always hope that when the music starts and I start to sing, the wheelchair just fades away. There are challenges, but I'm used to that. I've had challenges my whole life."
Challenges pop up in the songs Walker and producer Carl Jackson chose for the album – songs like "When I'm Hurtin'," "Payin' Your Dues," and "Lost at Sea." The latter is about the difficult search for love, and Walker laughs gently and says he's "looking for love all the time."
He lives alone in a house custom-built for him; he drives a specially designed car. An only child, he's close to his father, Tom Walker, and his stepfather and mother, Jimmy and Sheri Putnam.
"I'm surrounded by great people," Walker says. "My family is so supportive. But I know where those blessings come from. I'm a Christian all the way. I was raised Southern Baptist."
Walker sang nationally on the Jerry Lewis MDA Telethon for the first time in 1989, with backing from The Oak Ridge Boys. (This was before his voice changed into the pure and supple baritone it is now.) He says he's been singing as long as he can recall, picking up $50 a night at clubs. The high praise he's received from No Depression magazine, USA Today, and NPR, among others, doesn't guarantee success, of course. Even though his friends at the nuclear plant thought he'd quit his day job when he hooked up with Rounder Records in 2005, Walker says no. "I do enjoy it. I'm real lucky to be there," he says. "They're very understanding and have given me great support. My bosses let me work 14-hour days to make a 40-hour week to get extra time off. It doesn't take away from the fact that I'd love to do the music full time, but 'til you get to that point you've got to have something to fall back on."
At the show in Massachusetts, Walker effortlessly signed two-handed autographs between sets out in the lobby, genuinely engaged with his fans. He earned a standing ovation after his second-set stint with the Grascals, the sold-out audience relishing the songs of heartache, perseverance, and faith – and the passion Walker put into them. "A Little Change" is a song Walker calls "genius," adding that it has that ineffable "chill factor." Key line: "Don't let me take for granted all the blessings of my life." That seems unlikely.
If you were lucky enough to hear "On the Other Hand," by a prestardom Randy Travis, you'll know how it feels to hear Bradley Walker's debut CD, "Highway of Dreams" (Rounder Records). Walker – who uses a wheelchair – is a true country/bluegrass singer, a man possessed with a rich baritone and an appreciation of the genres' genuine heroes, from Merle Haggard to Jimmy Martin. Put it this way: Walker is not a big cowboy hat-wearing guy who favors bells and whistles. He and producer Carl Jackson keep it real with banjos, mandolins, and fiddles on tear-jerking ballads, upbeat toe-tappers, and the requisite "train" song. The themes of temptation, loss, and redemption cycle through the 12-song effort. You can get a perceptive take on Walker's attitude during the refrain of the first song, "Life or Love": "I'm hanging tough/ Ain't had enough/ Ain't givin' up/ On life or love.'' Jesus is there at the end, during "We Know Where He Is." Walker covers Lefty Frizzell's "I Never Go Around Mirrors," where the "mirrors" inevitably show the singer's lingering "heartache." It may seem mawkish, but it brings chills. Walker is not a writer, but he inhabits these characters with unerring compassion.