Walker Hayes On His Not-So Overnight Success

Talks Costco, Saviors and Debut Album boom.

Walker Hayes agrees. One of the greatest gifts a parent can pass down to their children is showing them what it’s like to chase a dream. Hayes and his wife Laney have six and another on the way.

In his 13-year Nashville life, the Mobile, Alabama native, 37, had signed with a few record labels and he was subsequently dropped by them. He and his wife moved to the Tennessee capital for music right after their honeymoon. And if anyone had told him then that it would be more than a decade before he would release his full-length debut, he probably would have stayed home.

“Thirteen years to a 20-something-year-old is a long time to wait, work, kill time and chase a dream,” Hayes tells CMT.com. “What keeps you in this business is the thought that maybe tomorrow will be different. It’s cliché, but everybody says, ‘We’re all one song away,’ and it’s so true. The difference between me and the guy down the street busking with his guitar case open is just one song.”

You Broke Up with Me by Walker Hayes on VEVO.

As Hayes says this, he is sitting in a conference room at his publishing company. A framed quote hanging on the wall reads, “Work hard, be kind and good things will happen.” Good things are happening to Hayes. His debut album boom. comes out Friday (Dec. 8), and he will support the new music with a headlining tour in 2018. The 10-song collection came to life in the studio in the back parking lot. The space, dubbed The Shack, is maybe 200 square feet, and it’s a renovated tool shed with a couch, some carpet, a computer for tracking, an AC wall unit, wood paneling and no windows. To Hayes, it’s heaven.

“We wanted to have a healthy balance of truth,” Hayes says of the music on his new album. “I just wanted to tell the world about me and my struggles — the good and the bad. The tough part was to show the lighter side of me that mattered most.”

What makes Hayes’ music stand out is his ear for rhythm and how he fits his soul-baring subject matter within the beat. The music is pop country ear candy, but the lyrics offer a surprising amount of depth. “Beer in the Fridge” addresses his past struggles with alcohol addiction. “Craig” is about a savior who buys the family new cars so his children wouldn’t have to share their seatbelts. “Beckett” gets its name from one of his sons, and it reminds the listener to see the world through a child’s eyes.

“I love to watch my kids when they don’t know I’m watching,” he says. “Beckett is that kid who’s never met a stranger. And the things he says about people, like, ‘The girl next door has skin like chocolate.’ He sees a black girl, and he’s like, ‘I love her skin.’ Whereas adults, we would never say that, or see it like that. Watching life through his eyes is so innocent, and the world could use a little bit of that right now.”

Hayes says his distinctive sound was developed by accident and through struggle. More than a decade of making music on Music Row sharpened his writing skills, but it was hard getting his songs recorded by other artists. In 2015, he needed a side job to make ends meet. He was hired at Costco and worked from 4 to 10 a.m. so he could take writing appointments during the day. His live performances dwindled, and occasionally, he would run into staffers from his former record labels as they shopped in bulk.

“Costco was good to me, and I did a lot of thinking,” Hayes admits. “It was very humbling, and it was embarrassing. It would have been easier had I not gotten the job in the town where I was trying to make it in. I saw people who worked at the labels I’ve been signed to, and we would look each other in the eye. It was awkward because they probably thought I was crazy.”

But his year working at Costco was a prolific time of reflection. He started writing songs just to write songs without any agenda.

“For years, I wrote songs to try to get cuts, or try to have hits, or try to appease a label, or to be famous. I was learning a lot of valuable tools, about structure and how to articulate. I was getting really good at that.

“But then when I was at Costco, I thought, ‘Ain’t nobody going to cut my songs. Nobody’s listening to my songs. What am I writing for?’ Because I had to write. So then came this real vulnerable style that’s on the album.”

In the back of his mind, Hayes knew that he wouldn’t retire at Costco. And he was careful not to get too comfortable with the benefits and pay.

“I think that was the hard thing about working there is I knew that a lot of people go and get jobs and they say, ‘This is only temporary until my dream comes true. I’ve got to make a buck.’ But you get comfortable. Maybe you don’t write. Maybe you write less. But the weird thing was my car was just full of ideas, and a lot of these lyrics that people will hear on this album were written on smoothie cups in my car. I couldn’t stop.”

Then he received a life-changing phone call from hitmaker Shane McAnally. At the time, McAnally was boarding a flight and audibly frustrated over not getting acts to record Hayes’ music. “He just kept going on and on about how he would read one of my titles and try to predict what they were about. And they were never about what he thought they were going to be about. He just loved that about my writing.

“He said, ‘I don’t even know what this looks like, but I want to make a record with you.’ And we cried. That’s all I could say. I felt rescued immediately.”

Hayes eventually quit Costco, and by summer 2016, he was releasing music online to build his fan base. “It’s been a really quick process since then but a lifetime a in the making. I understand the overnight success completely because it really is. That’s how fast when something works, it works.

“I do have fans who have been waiting for this moment just like me. They’ve been waiting for the world to hear this stuff. That’s what I want to do on tour is look those fans in the eye, meet them and let them know how much I appreciate them.”

boom.‘s lead single “You Broke Up With Me” is currently No. 15 on Billboard‘s Country Airplay chart. His Good As Gold tour launches Feb. 1 in Uncasville, Connecticut.

Lauren Tingle is a Tennessean and storyteller who eats music for breakfast, lunch and dinner. When she’s not writing or rocking out, she enjoys yoga and getting lost in the great outdoors.