Walker Hayes’ current single “You Broke Up With Me,” might contain lyrics about a soured romantic relationship, but for Hayes, the song chronicles a kind of heartbreak that, for creative musicians and songwriters, can often cut deeper and last longer than any romantic entanglement.
“It’s about the music business,” Hayes says. “My wife Laney and I have been in Nashville for 13 years, trying, and trying to get a foot in the door. It’s been shut on us many times.”
After Hayes and his high school sweetheart Laney moved from Mobile, Alabama, to Nashville in his early 20s, he quickly landed a publishing deal, followed by his first record deal with Mercury Nashville, which he “lost in one of those crazy music biz ways…someone gets fired at the top and they let everyone go.”
In 2010, a second recording contract with Capitol Nashville followed and fizzled.
“When you are on fire, everybody wants on that train and wants to associate with you. They want to applaud you and when I lost my deal at Capitol, we began to feel the other side of that and how when people think your ship has sailed, they have no reason to invest in you.”
Hayes found a new recording home early this year, signing as the flagship artist for ace producer Shane McAnally and manager Jason Owens’ renaissance of Sony Music’s Monument Records, which originally existed from the 1950s through 1990 and was the early recording home for Kris Kristofferson, Dolly Parton, and Willie Nelson. Arista Nashville’s radio team adds additional radio promotion muscle behind Monument’s artists.
“When Shane signed me, I could tell people were thinking, ‘This is dangerous, this stuff might actually work.’ People would call and say, ‘Hey do you want to write?’ but I was like, ‘Where were you three years ago when I was working at Costco?’ So there is definitely a little smirk in my mind when I’m singing that song, because it’s like, ‘Hey, you broke up with me.’ It’s victorious, for sure, it’s an empowering thing to say.”
Hayes harbors no ill feelings. “I know they are not surprised that something is happening with me. They wish me the best. I’ve received congratulations for everything going on.”
Still, his road to peace was hard-fought, for Hayes, Laney, and their six children.
With the loss of the Capitol deal came loss of income, and a surge of worries over missed mortgage payments and essential car repairs. Hayes balanced 4 a.m., $11/hour shifts at Costco with afternoon songwriting sessions, struggling to provide for his family while chasing an increasingly elusive dream.
The family shared an old beat up Honda without enough room or seat belts for everyone.
“I remember telling the kids to duck if a cop car pulled up beside us at red lights,” Hayes recalled. “Everybody was under a seat belt of some sort, but it probably wasn’t street legal.
“A lot of people probably looked at me as a father, thinking, ‘God, that’s so irresponsible of you. Why don’t you just take care of your family?’ And I was trying.”
Along the way, Hayes found glimpses of hope and support. Hayes picked up a weekly performing gig at Puckett’s Grocery & Restaurant, where his family would eat for free once a week. A friend from church gave the family a van.
“We were at a baseball game. I was happy, I was fine, I wasn’t going to ask anyone for help. He showed up with an old van and said, ‘I’m not leaving until you take this van.’ He had a title and said, ‘All you got to do is sign here.’ I fought because it was embarrassing but that is just an example of someone showing up and saying, it’s ok to need help.”
A self-described “stubborn person,” Hayes resisted the temptation to return to Mobile and join his father selling real estate.
“I didn’t want to take the easy road,” Hayes says. “Like every artist, a nightmare is having to drive back to your hometown and say, ‘You guys are right. I didn’t belong there. I didn’t make it.’”
Though lacking financial freedom, Hayes realized a newfound artistic freedom within the struggle. Songwriting became a growing addiction, an creative filter for processing his thoughts and emotions, as he grew more confident of his own talent and, perhaps more importantly, in his own authentic story.
“I’ve learned what it’s like to only perform and sing what is authentic,” Hayes says. “Before, I thought, ‘I’m in Nashville so I need to write country songs, and maybe I need to sound country. Maybe I need to say ‘truck’ here, even though I drive a Honda. That was immaturity on my part. But I thought I needed to fit in with these alpha male guys who are so western. There is a freedom now that I wish every artist could taste for just a minute.”
While he was still working at Costco, Hayes met McAnally, whom he calls the “great rescuer,” a creative soul that understood Hayes’ affinity for urban beats and up-tempo melodies underpinning lyrics that expose both life’s trials and joys. He began sending songs to McAnally, and eventually signed with McAnally’s SMACKSongs publishing company.
“He said, ‘Everything you send me is so intriguing, but I can’t get people to cut these songs because they are so stylistically you. I feel like the reason people won’t cut them is because you are supposed to.’” Hayes recalls. “If anyone else had said the same thing Shane did, I probably would have said ‘No thanks. I’ve been down this road before and people have told me I needed to be an artist.’ But when he said it, I wanted to do it.”
Working with SMACKSongs and RareSpark Media Group, Hayes sifted through the turmoil to craft the 16 tracks that appear on 8 Tracks Vol. 1 and Vol. 2, which released last year.
“Lela’s Stars” delves into his internal tug-of-war during those years. At one point, Hayes had borrowed thumbtacks from his daughter to keep the fabric on the roof of his rundown Honda from falling in.
Pink and purple, green and blue, poor man’s decorations/All I saw was a bunch of thumbtacks/she saw constellations, he scribbled the lyrics to “Lela’s Stars” on a Styrofoam cup.
Hayes’ kids and wife inspired many of the songs on 8 Tracks. The idea for “Halloween,” a track featuring writing and vocals from Nicolle Galyon, sparked after Hayes found one of his kids’ leftover Halloween jack-o’-lanterns.
“I thought about how I met Laney in 11th grade,” Hayes says. “When I was around her I was free, fearless, not trying to sell myself. She thought I was funny just being myself. Now, after all we’ve been through, she’s still that person. Nicolle and I put it around that idea of Halloween. There’s a line about I still put on my Superman cape and hide in it, but when I’m with you it comes untied for a minute. We thought it was a beautiful sentiment.”
Hayes calls his compositions journal entries, not songs. After working painstakingly to chronicle his journey so far, Hayes kept that penchant for authenticity going into the recording process.
On “You Broke Up With Me,” recorded while still in the writing room, one can hear the voices of Hayes’ co-writers Thomas Archer and Kylie Sackley in the background, along with Hayes’ original vocal take. “I put the guitar down while we were writing and they kept talking and I thought it sounded cool, and I started whistling, and added the background vocals. We never redid it.”
“Lela’s Stars” was recorded in one vocal take.
“They are not perfect, but they are right,” Hayes says. “I feel the closer you get the audience to the conception of a song, the more feeling is going to be in it.”
As Hayes looks back over his journey thus far, and continues working on new music, he sees perhaps the necessary role his trials played in fine-tuning his creative process.
“Maybe we have to all get that close to giving up for the stuff that really matters to us comes out,” he muses. “Creative people are the type of people, who when we say ‘it’s over,’ it’s over. You don’t just get said goodbye to in Nashville. You get injured. If I wasn’t still in Nashville, if I’d gone back to Mobile, it would be like going to Costco. I don’t like to go there, cause it hurts. They were great to me and gave me work, but just the smell and darkness that I feel when I walk in there, I’m reminded of the despair. I wouldn’t do that time in my life over again for any amount of money, but it is what is necessary to get you where you are.”
He credits his wife and family for being the solace and inspiration for the past several years.
“When I succeed or when something happens, it happens to all of us. It happens to Laney. It’s her being rewarded for sticking it out. It wasn’t just my dream.
“I’m not blowing my nose on $100 bills yet, but I feel like I might be able to support my kids while doing what I love. To me, that’s all I want.”
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