Walker Hayes is not your typical artist who grew up with big dreams of becoming a country star. In fact, Walker Hayes really isn’t your typical anything in country music. He doesn’t consider himself bound by a genre and makes whatever music sets his soul on fire. His tell-it-like-it-is style makes his songs very real and raw – an authenticity fans can appreciate. This past summer he shared his stories with the world when he released two EPs, ‘8 Tracks (Vol. 1): Good Shit’ and ‘8 Tracks (Vol. 2): Break the Internet.’
To start at the beginning, Hayes grew up in Mobile, Alabama, where his passion for music sparked at a young age. “I always loved music, but I wasn’t really loving it out loud because it wasn’t the coolest thing to do,” he explained. “I was a little hesitant about it because it wasn’t what my friends we’re doing.” Adolescent peer-pressure pulled Hayes away from the arts and more towards sports. Eventually, Walker followed his high school sweetheart, Laney, to college where he went out on a whim and changed his major from biology to piano. “It became somewhat of an addiction. I changed my major and got a degree in piano, but I really wasn’t pursuing it as a career. I had stage fright issues,” he admitted. “I planned on basically coming back home and working for my dad.” But Walker’s father saw his undeniable talent and continued to encourage him to pursue music. In time, he was convinced to play a small show at the Mobile Yacht Club. “There was like two tables, no applause, I had a small amp and a guitar, and just sang the same five songs over and over and over all night,” he laughed. But that show ignited something in him. “It was amazing! It was like taking a drug.” After that night he called Laney and insisted they move to Nashville in pursuit of a career in music.
A couple weeks after making the move, Hayes went to the infamous Bluebird Cafe where it first hit him that not all artists write their own songs. “They had a bunch of songwriters at the Bluebird singing these massive hits. I was blown away. I was like, ‘I have to learn how to do that!’ A year later I got my first pub deal,” he recalled. Although he had this great publishing deal, Walker continued to struggle. Hayes and his wife have six children, and the publishing deal wasn’t enough to cover all the bills. “It was a bigtime struggle, especially the past few years because I had a deal with Capitol Records and I ended up getting dropped,” he explained. “If you’re a musician and you’re making it, it’s a respectable career. If you’re a musician and it’s not really happening for you, people around you kind of doubt and wonder if you’re crazy.” Alongside Walker’s financial struggles, it was a constant battle trying to balance his career and personal life – there just wasn’t enough time to do it all. “There was a point last year when I was working at Costco from 4am to 10am, and then I was writing, I was playing shows. I had to do all those things to make money, but while I was doing all of that I was a pretty crappy dad,” he confessed. It became so much that he began to really question what it meant to be a good example for his kids. Is it chasing a dream and never giving up, or is it realizing when you’re in over your head? Fortunately for Hayes, things have been looking up recently with the release of his EPs and he was able to avoid any kind of ultimatum.
Putting together demos can be an expensive process and hiring someone to do it really wasn’t an option for Walker, so he learned how to create them himself. “I’m not an instrumentalist, I just play a little guitar and piano, but I’ll just sit here and beat box, or bang on the table, whistle, anything I can just to get a track going.” He showed some of his demos to Shane McAnally, who is the owner of SMACKsongs and also the guy that’s producing Walker’s record. McAnally loved the music so much he suggested releasing it as-is because he thought fans would really connect to the raw versions. “I was so excited about the idea of not having everything so fixed in the studio and so polished,” Walker said. “I could get fans a version of the song that I basically created the day I wrote the song, how cool is that?!” It’s clear right away that Walker has found his own niche as far as sound goes. Hayes is inspired by all kinds of artists from different decades and genres. In fact, the singer hates the word genre so much he wrote a song about it. “I grew up listening to whatever was good. My soul wasn’t tied to just one radio station in Mobile,” he explained. The song, which hasn’t been released yet, is about growing up in a “burning cd generation” where your mixtape wasn’t just limited to one style of music. When listening to his ‘8 Tracks,’ it’s evident that Hayes is inspired by all kinds of music, from country to hip-hop and everything in between. “If you’re a country fan and you just hate everything that’s not country, you’re probably not going to give my music a chance. But if you listen to my music you’re probably going to go, ‘What did he NOT listen to growing up?’ you know,” Hayes said with a laugh. “I just love music that feels great and that’s not just one genre.”
From the sound to the lyrics, one thing that’s constant throughout Walker’s EPs is that his music is genuine and honest. Writing in the shack has given the singer the opportunity to play by his own rules. “I haven’t taken bad words out because they can’t go on the radio, I haven’t sung it differently because it might be a bigger hit that way, I haven’t really catered in my music at all. I’ve just been writing exactly what comes out. It seems like fans turn it on and they’re like, ‘Whoa, that’s real!’ There can be no better compliment than that for me.” he said. The first ‘8 Tracks,’ Hayes explained, is a little on the lighter side, giving fans a taste of his music. “It’s deep and it’s honest, but it’s nothing like the second one,” he revealed. Hayes uses songwriting as therapy and he’s written a lot of songs he thought the public would never hear, two of those are ‘Lela’s Stars’ and ‘Halloween.’ Both appear on ‘Vol. 2’ and ended up surprising Walker by being fan favorites. “Sometimes I write songs that are really really personal that accidentally, they kind of move everybody. It’s almost that the more specific I get the more it connects with everybody,” he discovered.
Hayes has made great connections with his fans through his music alone, but where he really thrives is during live shows. Walker is somewhat of an unconventional performer in that he has a tendency to just wing it, seriously. When asked how he comes up with a setlist, the singer said, “Right now I just write a whole bunch of songs on my hand.” He also mentioned that he doesn’t even play them in order. But it’s not because he’s too lazy to create one, he just feels like a better entertainer when he’s playing on the fly. “That’s going to be a struggle as the show gets bigger, but now it’s just me and a loop, I can mess up and nobody goes the other direction. If I’m singing ‘Shades’ and I start to think of a song that I can sing that’s a cover, I want to be able to just go into it and get the crowd singing it,” he justified.
He’ll be able to prove the method to his madness shortly when he joins Dan + Shay for their Obsessed tour this fall. “This town has really embraced what I’m doing right now and Dan + Shay have gone out on a limb. I mean, I don’t have a single, I don’t have a bazillion followers, I don’t know how many people I’m going to put in seats, but they like my music and so they chose me to go on tour and that blows my mind,” he said. It will be the singer’s first time packing up and hitting the road with a band, and he had nothing but praises for the duo. “I’m amazed with how great they are at singing, and their album is ridiculous,” he said, adding that he’s also seen great support from their fans who have already gone out and listened to his music. “I’m going to go out and learn from them… steal all their tricks!” he laughed. In addition from the support from Dan + Shay, he’s received notable affirmations from many influential people in the industry like Bobby Bones and Cody Alan. “I know there are a lot of people in Nashville that are trying to get recognized by those trendsetting guys,“ Hayes said. ”I’m so low on the totem pole that they had to search to find some of my stuff. That goes to show that they really, really, truly are genuine music lovers, digging in the trenches for something their ignites their soul. I genuinely, genuinely appreciate any hype from them,” he said with sincerity.
One thing you’ll never hear anyone say is that Walker Hayes is not grateful. He fought so hard and made many sacrifices to get to where he is today, and truly appreciates any listener and fan. Even though Hayes isn’t your typical country artist, his true stories and catchy homemade beats will hook any skeptic.
Give it a listen for yourself. You can download his EPs, ‘8 Tracks (Vol. 1): Good Shit’ and ‘8 Tracks (Vol. 2): Break the Internet,’ for free on his website, and also stream them for free on Spotify and SoundCloud.