Native Mobilian Walker Hayes has come a long way since his first gig at the Mobile Yacht Club. After attending St. Paul’s Episcopal School, Hayes made his way to Nashville to take his chances in country music. After 13 years, a wife (Laney) and six children (with another on the way), Hayes’ determination is paying off through last month’s release of “Boom” and its hit single, “You Broke Up With Me.”
Hayes has been lauded by critics, from Rolling Stone to NPR. However, he is not without his critics. This rising country star has a fun and infectious style that at times reaches into the realms of rock, pop and hip-hop.
Even so, Hayes is reaping the rewards of his hard work. His fan base is increasing, and he is preparing for his first headlining tour. Lagniappe spoke with Hayes about his time in Nashville as well as his progressive country style.
Stephen Centanni: Your time in Nashville has definitely been eventful, but paying your dues seems to have paid off for you. How would you describe your time in Music City?
Walker Hayes: Shoot, man, the first word that comes to mind is “long.” I heard people call it a “five-year town” or a “10-year-town,” but it was right around 12 years when things started looking the other way for me. Even when they started looking the other way, there wasn’t a whole lot of promise of a future career.
That’s what’s cool about things going on now. I can see myself doing this for five or 10 years and taking care of my family with music. It’s been a grind. We always laugh, because there’s not a lot of middle ground for people trying to make it in country music. You’re either starving and can’t get a break, or you get a break and hit it huge. Everywhere you go, people are giving you free stuff, and you’re like, “Where was all this free stuff when I needed it?”
It’s been an adventure. The thing is that no matter how long you spend in Nashville, you get to live your dream a little bit. You get to write and have the Nashville experience. It’s unfortunate, because you have to pay your bills until you get your break. I’m fortunate. There are a lot of people in Nashville who are more talented than me who are on their way back home today or [have] just given up, because it has to do with timing and luck.
Centanni: With “Boom” catching on, how does it feel to see your hard work paying off?
Hayes: I have yet to find the words or write a song about it. I guess after all these years, Laney [Hayes] and I find ourselves in this dumbfounded conversation that usually goes like, “Is this really happening? Are you kidding me?” We went into a Wal-Mart in my hometown of Franklin, and [“Boom”] was sold out. That’s better than seeing your record in the store.
We’re just like two kids pinching ourselves every day, because it is a far-fetched dream. Unfortunately, only so many pitchers as kids get to play in the World Series. Only so many people who move to Nashville ever get to see the fruits of their labor in a way that we’re being able to see it.
The album taking off is blowing my mind. The song “You Broke Up with Me” being at number 12 and cracking that top 10 next year is just crazy to imagine.
Centanni: Tell me about the album’s title.
Hayes: That word is trite and emoji-rific as it is, but it’s important to me. Over the past year, I’ve had a really small team that has facilitated everything that’s been going on, from my merchandise to the size of my shows to the eight tracks that I put out last year to this album actually happening.
With every little thing that happens with this project, we celebrate, because the project is so unique. It’s not your typical country. It’s its own style of music. We see going up the ladder as a reason to celebrate.
Whenever a song would climb a number of the charts, whoever saw it first would text me, my wife and my teammates and say, “Hey, ‘You Broke Up with Me’ just cracked the Top 50. Boom!” Before we even named it, we were going back and forth using that expression at the end of every great thing that happened. That’s where we came to finally calling it “Boom.”
Centanni: One thing about this album is that it will definitely rub country purists the wrong way, but its success is showing that your offbeat country sound is being embraced. How did you come up with your sound?
Hayes: Honestly, my No. 1 goal for a song is to get out of the way of the emotion. I never want to write a song where the first thing that people say is, “Oh wow! What a great writer he is! It’s really clever!” I don’t want them to say, “Oh wow! The production on this is awesome!” I really want them to be kidnapped from the world for three minutes and put their own story inside a song.
As far as rubbing country purists a certain way, I just try to be honest in my delivery or authentic in my subject matter. I never want to sing about something that I haven’t experienced or felt at all.
As far as my delivery, I’m not a traditionalist or a purist. I think that I would be lying if I made music that sounded exactly like George Strait, even though I love that guy. I just want to get out of the way of a song.
I hold music on a very high pedestal. I think it’s powerful and shapes our lives. I wish everybody listened to music like I do. I get lost in it. I just want to help other people lose themselves as well, and maybe my album will remind people that they’re not alone.
Centanni: A couple of songs really stood out for me. One is “Halloween,” because you never hear many country songs dedicated to this holiday. The other one is “Dollar Store.” It’s so sweet, but it’s also hilarious. How did these situations inspire songs?
Hayes: “Dollar Store” is a great example. It’s been on the back burner for a while, and I’m excited it’s on the album. That’s where me and my wife came from.
You ask how we’re doing with success. I haven’t seen any massive paychecks, but my fee to play a show has gone up. The Dollar Store is where me and Laney shop. We shop for toiletries and a lot of food. We have four birthdays in August. We live at the Dollar Store during that month.
Laney and I are always laughing about the random items that you can buy at the Dollar Store. One day, I was like, “I gotta put all this in there.”
I don’t know about you, but I get to Dunkin’ Donuts and won’t have any cash. I hate putting stuff on a credit card, so I’ll start digging around the car. It’s amazing how much change is hidden in my life. We strung that together and had some fun. At the end of it, that’s totally me. I’m the guy who’s like, “I forgot about tax.”
Centanni: You’re getting ready to headline your first tour. What are your expectations?
Hayes: It’s a scary move. As my booking agency and my team started looking at my show numbers at the end of this year, they really encouraged me to do it. There’s still that insecurity and fear. It’s looking amazing, and it’s just an honor.
As far as expectations, the way I protect myself is to look at it like this. I get to go out for the month of March and get to say “thank you” to all the people and all the fans who are going to know the words to these songs.