When Bradley Walker’s name rang out inside the Ryman Auditorium in October, the entire audience rose in a standing ovation. On the strength of his first solo album, Walker had just won the Male Vocalist of the Year honor at the International Bluegrass Music Association Awards in Nashville, Tenn.
As the crowd whooped and cheered, the only person not on his feet was the winner. Instead, Walker rolled himself from the wings of the stage. Born with muscular dystrophy, he’s spent his life in a wheelchair. But the now-award-winning singer has always wanted people to look beyond his limitations and recognize him for his talent.
“Every singer dreams of getting an award like this, but no one dreams of getting it on their first record,” Walker says. “I never thought it could ever happen this fast.”
A native of Athens, Ala. (pop. 18,967), Walker, 29, lives in a home he designed in nearby East Limestone, not far from the Browns Ferry Nuclear Plant, where he works as a materials analyst. He drives himself to work in a customized van and also frequently drives the 100 miles to Nashville by himself. He made the trip frequently while recording his debut album, Highway of Dreams, between the four 10-hour shifts he works each week at the plant.
“The way I was raised, you don’t focus on your limitations,” Walker says. “You focus on finding ways to get things done. Everyone faces challenges in getting where they want to go. I believe you just have to go out there, work hard and prove yourself.”
Although Walker’s album is his first solo effort, he’s been working his way up through the musical ranks since childhood. By age 7, he drew applause singing in talent contests. At age 10, he was invited onstage to sing “Elvira” with the Oak Ridge Boys. His first national television appearances came as a guest of the Oak Ridge Boys when he sang with them, at age 11, on The Nashville Network’s Nashville Now and, later the same year, with the quartet on the Jerry Lewis MDA Telethon.
He formed the band The Trinity Mountain Boys in 1998 and began appearing at bluegrass festivals. His deep, resonant vocals, which have been compared to those of country stalwarts Merle Haggard and Vern Gosdin, drew the attention of other artists, and by 2001 he’d joined the Atlanta-based group Lost Horizon as lead singer. In 2002, he made his first appearance on the Grand Ole Opry when he accepted an invitation to sing with the bluegrass group IIIrd Tyme Out.
“He knows how to deliver a song as well as anyone I know,” says bluegrass singer Alecia Nugent, another artist who has invited Walker to duet with her on the Opry. “I remember the first time I heard his voice, I was walking by a hotel room and I could hear him singing. I had to go in and see who it was. I immediately started singing harmony with him, and we’ve been like brother and sister ever since.”
Those two qualities—his distinctive voice and his friendly personality—come up constantly among Walker’s supporters. “There’s a timbre to his voice that seems so genuine and real, and it captures the emotion of every song he sings,” says Dan Hays, executive director of the International Bluegrass Music Association. “He’s also just a wonderfully likable guy. I don’t know anybody who’s been around Bradley who hasn’t become an instant friend. That’s just his personality.”
Walker, meanwhile, is just happy to be doing what he loves. “I’ve never questioned the hand I was dealt,” he says. “If I hadn’t been dealt this hand, I might not have been given the gift of music that I love so much, and I wouldn’t be singing bluegrass to people. So I wouldn’t change a thing.”