Walker Hayes had no business being in Nashville, yet here he is. He may have moved to Music City on a lark, but his determination—and a loving and supportive wife—helped him develop talents he didn’t know he had.
Raised in Mobile, Ala., in a “Brady Bunch” household—his parents each brought four children to a blended family before making Walker the ninth—he discovered music early in his life. His father was a former music minister and one of his half-sisters once auditioned for “Star Search.”
“My parents once caught me conducting Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony,” Walker admits. “I’ve always been different.”
While he learned piano at a young age, Walker was torn between music and sports. “I grew up an athlete/ choirboy in turmoil,” the boyishly handsome singer-songwriter says. “Half my friends were jocks and half were in choral. I was pulled between them.”
He eventually chose sports. “Music was my back-up plan,” he admits now with a chuckle. But despite his affinity for sports, particularly track and basketball, the call of the stage was too strong.
Walker performed in musicals while in high school, which is where he met his now-wife, Laney—they co-starred in the school’s production of Little Shop of Horrors.
He completed a degree in general music with an emphasis on piano in just two years at Birmingham-Southern College and then attended the University of North Carolina before moving back to Mobile to work in real estate with his father and half-brothers.
But his father could see how much Walker missed music, so he convinced a waitress at a local restaurant to let his son play a few songs. Walker took the job, though he was hardly prepared. “I played five songs over and over for an hour,” he admits now. Still, it was enough for him to reignite his passion.
Faced with the choice between a corporate job and pursuing a fanciful dream, the now-engaged Walker opted for the latter.
He and Laney moved to Nashville immediately after their honeymoon. There was only one problem—he was moving to the songwriting Mecca of modern music and he had barely written two songs in his life. “I didn’t know anything about writing,” he says.
Undeterred by his shortcomings, or perhaps oblivious to them, Walker performed two cover songs at an open mic night at the famed songwriter’s hangout, the Bluebird Café.
Determined to make it in Music City, Walker honed his songwriting skills and a year after moving to Nashville he had a publishing deal.
Hit songwriter Paul Nelson (“Lessons Learned”) was an early supporter. “I don’t know why he took me under his wing, but he gave me an office at his house and wrote with me every week for two years straight. I learned a lot from him,” Walker says.
Still, success didn’t come immediately. “I did a lot of yard work,” he says with a laugh. He also performed on the streets of Nashville’s Lower Broadway, playing for tips and honing his performance skills. “I just went down there and found an empty corner. It was kind of scary, but it was also liberating,” Walker admits. “It was good for my soul.”
At around the same time, Walker began playing at Puckett’s Grocery, a well-known area haunt famous for its songwriter nights. “I wanted to get out of the writers room and take my music to the masses,” Walker says. “Puckett’s was my first regular gig in Nashville.”
After a few false starts, Walker caught the attention of Autumn House, an A&R executive at Capitol Records Nashville, who had heard his voice on a few song demos pitched to Keith Urban. Intrigued, she brought him to label president Mike Dungan, who quickly signed him to the label.
Walker’s signing typified the business plan of Capitol Nashville, which aims to sign unique artists to their roster.
Because of his unique style and creativity, Walker and the label wanted to look beyond Nashville for a producer who could bring his material to life. Los Angeles-based producer Marshall Altman (Marc Broussard, Matt Wertz) fit the bill. Altman fell in love with what he heard and agreed to take on the project.
The combination was magic. That Walker’s influences are varied—he counts the Oak Ridge Boys, Mariah Carey, Steve Miller, Sugar Hill Gang, John Michael Montgomery, Keith Whitley, Don Williams and classical music among his guilty pleasures—is evident when one listens to his debut album. “I like all music,” Walker confesses.
He attributes his diverse appreciation to listening to the radio as he grew up—and the local Waffle House jukebox. He knew every time a new song was added to the jukebox’s playlist.
Perhaps not surprisingly given his quick learning curve, Walker’s debut album, Reason To Rhyme, doesn’t sound like a debut at all. It reminds one of a polished stone, not a diamond in the rough. The album is rife with picturesque images of love and lust with just the right dash of his trademark sense of humor.
The album’s title is a tribute to his wife, who has fully supported Walker’s crazy dream. “It’s nice to hear your wife say, ‘I'm with you, not because I'm biased, but because you’re crazy good and you’re talented,’” he says.
With song titles like “Mama’s Hot” and “Naked,” it seems obvious what Walker has on his mind. But looks (and song titles) can be deceiving. Take “Naked,” for example. While the song and its lyrics can be taken at face value hey baby let’s get naked, a closer look reveals that the singer is talking about revealing one’s inner most thoughts and feelings.
Walker is a romantic, no doubt. “I get off on finding new ways to tell my wife ‘I love you,’” the father of three admits.
“Pants,” the debut single from Reason To Rhyme, which not so coyly states, she can wear the pants as long as I can take them off her, is also a study in contradictions. “I wrote that totally for Laney,” Walker says. “She is so much better than me at so many things—for example parenting our kids—and I will bow down and cower to whatever she says. She does wear the pants and I’m OK with that, as long as I can take them off her.”
“Kitchen Table” equates relationships with the dents and dings that come with the wear and tear of life. “Relationships are kind of like leather shoes,” Walker explains. “They're dinged up but comfortable, and that's kind of how me and Laney are.”
Walker’s music also reflects his unique sense of humor. “My Best Friend’s Fiancé,” for example, which finds the singer in lust with his friend’s intended and which rhymes “fiancé” with “Beyonce,” was written “just for fun,” Walker admits.
Sticks-in-your-head, “Wax Paper Cups,” paints an enticing picture of a day at the beach with a loved one, complete with his trademark love for Icees, George Strait music and a tailgate.
No matter what happens next, Walker has proved that dreams, with a heaping helping of determination, can come true. The man who sang cover tunes at the Bluebird Café is now a songwriter of extraordinary proportions. “From now until the day that I die I can get up and write a song and hopefully it will be better than the last one I wrote,” he says.