Walker Hayes knows he’s not for everyone.
“People might get mad at my style or my delivery, and say it’s not country,” Hayes told me when he was in Chicago last week. “But the country music that brought me to Nashville? Man, I will always have that on a pedestal. I will go down on my deathbed telling my kids to find songs like ‘Don’t Take the Girl.’”
Story songs like that, he said, are why songwriting comes first for him. That was the driving force behind the ten tracks on his breakout album boom., and especially his top ten single “You Broke Up with Me.”
The kinds of elements Hayes insists on injecting into the stories? That’s a long list. “I love an imperfect rhyme. I love lyrics that are not too clever. And I’m a big fan of a wild, off-the-cuff conversational feel,” he said. “Kacey Musgraves’ songs are like that. They’re dark, but there’s a smile in that darkness, and a lazy poeticness about it. It never gets too head-y or too twisty. I make a big effort in my songs to keep it how you would say it. Massive words are not in my vocabulary, and I don’t write songs that sound like they came from a bumper sticker,” he said. “I try to make it real life. I’ll write something about the upholstery in my Honda, and I won’t make it about a pick-up truck with a diamond-plated toolbox in the back. I can just be me.”
Hayes and I compared notes, and he explained that for him, he’s waiting for the one powerful line in the song that makes it all make sense. He called it the song’s uppercut. Here are some of those uppercuts that influenced Hayes and his songwriting:
“Don’t Take the Girl,” Tim McGraw
“I was in 7th grade when I first heard it, and it blew my frickin’ mind. I had no girlfriend, and I wasn’t really close to mom. So there’s no way you would think that I could relate to that song, but I knew there was something amazing about that big, huge life. I hadn’t embarked on any of those incredible moments. And you’d probably think, ‘Seventh grade? All he probably does is play basketball, play video games, and listen to hip-hop.’ But no. I got my mom to drive me to Peaches in Mobile so I could buy that album. Not a Moment Too Soon was my first country album.”
“Ships That Don’t Come In,” Joe Diffie
“That song is from my favorite songwriter, Paul Nelson, and it was a Joe Diffie song. It’s just one of those story songs that have poetry in there.” Nelson wrote often for Diffie, as well as Tracy Lawrence, Kathy Mattea, Lonestar and more.
“Unforgettable,” Thomas Rhett
“You take a song like ‘Unforgettable,’ and it was so solid, but then they use that word unforgettable in the coolest way: ‘the night was just like you, unforgettable.’ Man, all that other stuff in the song was worth it to get you there to that. That’s when (songwriter) Shane (McAnally) pops you with, ‘I am a songwriter.’ You’re right there; then he kills you with that line.”
“That Summer,” Garth Brooks
“It all comes together with that line about ‘hands of leather,’ and how they ‘turn to velvet in a touch.’ That gives you such a strong visual. Whoever wrote that? Cheers to them.” (Brooks wrote the song with his first wife, Sandy, and Pat Alger.)
“There Goes My Life,” Kenny Chesney
“My kids haven’t even left, and I can barely even listen to that song. But then again, I loved that song before I even had kids. When my house is quiet, and I look around at the things my kids did around the house, my heart is going to implode.”
“Alone With You,” Jake Owen
“There’s a line in that song that says, ‘Don’t slip your hand under my shirt and tell me it’s OK.’ That says so much about that girl. Man, that’s the meat of that song right there. That line describes the whole situation he’s in with that girl. You know you shouldn’t be there, and you give in, so he can’t be alone with her. He painted that picture so well.”
As our conversation was winding down, Hayes threw a few more songs into his list of songwriting stand-outs: Bonnie Raitt’s “I Can’t Make You Love Me,” The Band Perry’s “If I Die Young,” Miranda Lambert’s “The House That Built Me,” Midland’s “Drinkin’ Problem” and “Space Cowboy,” Kacey Musgraves’ just-released track from her upcoming album Golden Hour.
“My favorite songs will always be the ones that make me remember exactly when I heard it for the first time and where I was,” he said. “Those are the songs I’m most moved by, and those are the kinds of songs I try to write.”