Walker Hayes on the Uppercut of a Song

Six Country Tracks That Knock Him Out

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.”

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