Less than two years ago, Clay Walker had already become one of the hottest tickets in country music — unleashing hit after hit after hit, selling millions of albums, and making a quick transition from contender to heavy weight in the entertainment world. Unfortunately, life was also extremely stressful.
Today, the Clay Walker ticket is scorching. The hits are hitting harder. Record sales still soar, plus he’s the September CMT Showcase Artist. He’s also living life with multiple sclerosis, but is perhaps happier than ever. While new challenges lie ahead, that extreme stress factor is but a mere stranger from the past.
“I have a very strong will and a very strong belief that God will take care of me,” admits Clay, during a rare day off from headlining the spectacular Four Star Blowout Tour. “When I’m feeling weak or this MS thing starts bothering me, then I just pray about it and it doesn’t bother me after that. I just realized that nothing is in my control. It’s really not. All I can do is pray and take care of my body the best way I can.”
“There are times that I’m a little more concerned with it all than others,” he continues. “There are days that I wake up and may be walking around and my legs are a little stiff and I have to stretch them out. But it’s times like that that I also wonder to myself what this disease could do to me. So there’s no answer to that. I just have to deal with it as it comes. Right now, I have a very positive outlook on it, and I just don’t see this disease beating me or causing me to be disabled.”
Clay’s battle with multiple sclerosis has, however, enabled him to look at both his personal life and music career quite differently. He’s learned that life with less stress means having more passion for the things that are most important.
“I’ve always been passionate about music and about what I’m doing,” he explains. “For the most part, I now try to focus differently. I focus more now on the things that are real important rather than the little bitty things that always bothered me by trying to get everything perfect. You can’t make things perfect. You have to accept your best and other people’s best and then go on with that. I think it took a lot of pressure off me once I found out that I had MS because I thought, ‘Hey, wait a minute — one of the key factors that gets this stuff (MS) going is the stress. Stress plays a major role in MS because it’s a nerve disease.
“I know that there are people who want to know what my physical condition is,” he admits. “I’m just not the type person to complain about stuff. So I never want to make a great big issue out of it. But right now I would say that my physical condition is as good as it’s ever been.”
The Giant Records artist’s career condition couldn’t be better right now either. Having already scored eight No. 1 singles, recorded such top-selling albums as Clay Walker, If I Could Make A Living, Hypnotize The Moon and his brand new Rumor Has It disc, which he co-produced, Clay’s relationship with his enormous fan following also has newer meaning than it did a couple of years ago.
“The most important thing that I have learned is there are two things that really matter,” he confirms. “The fans are personable, and they’re not just a number. They really care about who you are. Like when I was diagnosed with MS, I saw a different side of country music than I ever realized was there. I thought it all was just a business. It’s not that way at all. It’s a family. Secondly, I learned that hit records are what makes the career. You have to have those hit records, and you have to find the best songs out there. Those are the two most important things — be loyal to the fans because they’re loyal to you, and to put out hit records. It’s really that simple, and you can’t have one without the other I don’t think.”
As well as everyone else in the country music world, including the fans, Clay’s also learned that he carries a torch in the tour circuit. He’s headlining the critically praised Four Star Blowout Tour, which features himself along with Terri Clark, James Bonamy and Emilio. The upcoming fall phase of his first headlining tour will play musical chairs with Kevin Sharp, Lee Ann Womack and Mark Wills.
Billed as one of country music’s five highest-grossing tours of 1997 and one of country music’s ten highest-grossing tours ever, the Primestar-sponsored tour has meant often working entire no-day-off months, as well as an obligation that sometimes seems a bit overwhelming.
“Doing the headline of this tour is very special to me, because it’s something I’ve always dreamed of doing,” admits Clay. “But it’s a very scary step when you step out there and say, ‘Okay, I want to do this!’ That’s taking on a lot of responsibility. The other three acts are guaranteed to get paid, but for me, I have to sell the tickets to get paid. So it’s a big commitment, but was something that we went into knowing that there would be risks and knowing there would be rewards. So far, it’s been very rewarding.
The phenomenal success of the Blowout Tour is obviously due to the demand for Clay’s extraordinary talent, but also packs some additional ammunition.
“I think a lot of it has to do with putting four acts on the show,” he explains. “I think that folks are really getting a bargain for their money. They’re getting four acts for right under twenty dollars. I think that it makes people realize throughout the industry that people do look for deals and want to get the most out of their money. This tour is doing that.”
Having launched such hits as “What’s It To You,” “If I Could Make A Living,” “Dreaming With My Eyes Wide Open,” “Who Needs You Baby,” “Live Until I Die,” “Rumor Has It” and “Watch This,” the Texas native singer still looks at himself as almost a babe in the business.
“Yeah I do,” he insists. “But then I like to feel that way, too. I guess you don’t ever want to feel like you’ve arrived, because when you do feel that way, the only place then you can go is down hill. For me, I still feel like a newcomer. I think I’m just now starting to put out my best work; or I’m getting ready to. I’ve had a lot of experience with James Stroud (Clay’s producer) in the studio, which makes me more comfortable in the studio. So album wise, I feel like I’m growing a lot.”
Another feeling that continues to grow for Clay is that moment on stage that he describes as “magical.”
“Oh boy, that’s something that you can never get enough of,” he says. “For me, it’s like when you’re born you have this great big spot right in the middle of you that you try to fill up with the crowd and you can’t ever get enough of them. I think that probably any entertainer who eats, breathes and sleeps, they can never get enough. If there is somebody who gets enough, I don’t think that they were really meant for this business. I just can’t wait until the next time I get on stage, because every time is so different.
“I was watching the bullrides on TV in Salt Lake City, Utah. These guys were riding these bulls, but in the strangest way, that’s what that rush is like whenever you watch the crowd. I was in junior rodeo and never rode the big bulls. I rode steers and younger bulls. But I remember the few times that I did, that feeling that you got right when you were ready to come out of the chute was the same feeling that I get when I’m about to walk out on stage. You don’t know what to expect, but if they’re screaming and going crazy, you give everything you’ve got. I always give a crowd 100-percent during a show. If they’re giving me back more than that, then I give them more than that. It’s one of those things that’s a magic moment, and it’s something that can’t be replaced when you get that feeling.”
But even all the No. 1 singles, platinum-selling albums or high-grossing tours in the world can’t replace what gives Clay his most thrilling rush — his wife, Lori, and baby-girl, MaClay
“Watching my baby makes me laugh the most,” he humbly admits. “She does the funniest things, and whenever she smiles with those little eyes, it just makes my heart beat real fast. That’s another thing that can’t be replaced. That’s what I like about my life. The thing that I like the most is that I don’t have to be anybody else. When I’m on the road, I’m still Clay Walker the daddy and I’m still Clay Walker the husband. When I’m at home I’m still Clay Walker the singer. It’s not like there’s ever this line I have to cross over, or feel like I have to come home and be somebody else. That’s just a wonderful wonderful way to feel and it’s the first time in my life that I’ve ever felt this way.
“I finally feel like I know more about who I am now than I ever did,” he concludes. “Things aren’t perfect and they never will be for anybody, but I feel like it’s as close to that as it can get right now.”