Meet Walker Hayes: The Insanely Talented Not-So Newcomer About to Take Country by Storm (Certified Country)
By Sophie Schillaci
Walker Hayes is on his way.
The 37-year-old father of six is set to release his 10-track, Shane McAnally-produced album, boom., on Dec. 8. It's a country and hip-hop infused mix of triumph and heartbreak -- both personal and professional -- delivered in variations of spoken word and song. It's also the product of a lengthy, tumultuous journey in Music City.
As the Alabama native scored and lost multiple deals in Nashville over the last decade, one thing remained constant: his wife, Laney, and their kids.
"I met her in 11th grade and we have been on this journey, hand in hand, held tight together," Hayes tells ET on this week's episode of Certified Country. The couple has been married now for 13 years, tying the knot right around the same time that Hayes was bit by the performing bug.
"We dated from 11th grade 'til right after college and then we took a year off, didn't see each other," Hayes recalls, noting that the split was during the pre-social media era, so he couldn't "just check up" on her.
"But we collided at a wedding. I was singing in it and that was all she wrote," he says. "I saw her, my stomach hurt, we got back together [and] got engaged."
The moment is chronicled quite literally in his song, "Beautiful," with lyrics proclaiming, "I don't think your stomach's supposed to hurt quite like this when you run into a girl you forgot you missed."
At the time of their engagement, Hayes planned to follow in his father's footsteps, selling real estate in their hometown. A few months later, the couple was headed in a completely new direction.
"My dad was listening to me noodle around on the guitar in the house and sing, and he was like, 'Man, you're funny and you sound good when you do that. You should do that at a bar,'" Hayes says. "I had stage fright, so I was like, 'No, Dad. Leave me alone.'"
Hayes' father persisted and eventually he gave in to parental pressure.
"This sounds crazy, but I did it one time -- I sang about five songs over and over for about an hour -- and when I walked to my car after that, I called Laney and I said, 'I wanna move to Nashville and be a rock star.'"
It wouldn't be quite that easy. Hayes was previously signed and dropped by both Mercury and Capitol Records, where he released his Reason to Rhyme debut in 2011.
Today, Hayes serves as the flagship artist for McAnally's Monument Records after a chance encounter at a Smoothie King. Hayes, who says he "should have known better" than to approach a celebrity in public, couldn't resist the opportunity to reconnect with the industry veteran.
"When Shane said, 'Hey, we're gonna be able to make an album on you,' my immediate thought was, 'Hey, I might actually be able to take care of my family doing something that I love,'" he says.
News of Hayes' new gig spread quickly around town. "A lot of people that had vanished ... began to come out of the woodwork," he explains. "I'm not mad at anybody, but there were a lot of co-writers and stuff that were like, 'Miss ya, bud!' and I was like, 'You didn't miss me three years ago,' you know? So I just kinda wanted to move on, and I got with a new team, so my reply to all those people was, 'Hey, y'all broke up with me.'"
The result (again, quite literally) was Hayes' first radio hit: "You Broke Up With Me." Upbeat and catchy-as-hell, the song gleefully triumphs over an ex who did him wrong.
"I ain't even fixin' to listen to your guilt trippin', you're forgettin', girl, you made your bed and didn't want me in it," Hayes croons.
It's actually the most lyrically ambiguous offering on boom., allowing audiences to relate their own experiences to earworm.
"When I sing it live, I love watching the looks on people's faces," Hayes, who is currently touring with Thomas Rhett and Old Dominion, says with a laugh. "I mean, they are furious when they sing 'You Broke Up With Me!'"
Elsewhere on the album, Hayes sings pointedly about past breakups on "Prescriptions" and "Shut Up Kenny," a cheeky ode to Kenny Chesney. He celebrates his kids on "Beckett" and "Dollar Store," and wife Laney, again, on "Halloween."
"It's my favorite song on the album," he confesses. "I was very insecure [as a kid]. I was a big athlete, but I think a lot of the things I did were because they were my false identity, if you will. They got me acceptance and they got me that attention that I craved ... But when I met Laney, I realized really quickly that we don't know a lot about love at that age, but what I did know was I was a different person around her because I was being who I really am."
With much to celebrate these days, perhaps the sweetest reward has been sharing his success with his children. Hayes is a dad to three girls and three boys, all 11 and under, spaced out by two years each. Eldest daughter Lela, 11, is "definitely having fun" seeing the public embrace her dad's new music.
"If she sees someone with a 'You Broke Up With Me' T-shirt, she's like, 'That's my dad!'" he gushes.
"We have a unique family situation, obviously, in this business," he says of their large brood. "I don't meet a lot of people who can relate, but it works for us. They have been my -- I don't even know what to call it other than the cliche word -- rock."