Everybody wants to be the headliner. That’s kind of the country music endgame. But for Walker Hayes, he sees a lot of good in being the opener, too.
In between his own headlining dates, he’s been opening shows for Kelsea Ballerini since February and will continue to take her stage through April.
And he knows the reality of that situation. “I’m on stage for 45 minutes, and that’s 45 minutes that her fans don’t get to see Kelsea. So it’s more of a challenge walking on stage, because those people paid their hard-earned money to hear her, not me,” Hayes told me when he was at Joe’s Bar in Chicago recently for his own sold-out show.
Ballerini’s fans are gracious and attentive, he says, and he thinks that a good portion of the crowd knows his songs. “A lot of people know more than just (’You Broke Up With Me’). Like they’ll know the words to ‘Shut Up Kenny.’ That energy almost makes me feel like a headliner,” he said. “My heart goes out to every act that has invited me out. Even if just one of her fans is like, ’I gotta check that guy out. I like his vibe,’ it’s worth it.”
Another perk? “What’s great about being an opener is that even when you lose, you win. There’s no pressure. And no expectations. If you sell merch, you’re killing it. But when you headline,” he admitted, “you have to sell those tickets.”
“So when my team said, ‘We want you to headline some shows between the Kelsea dates,’ I was like, ‘Honest? For real? Are you sure?’” Hayes’ reluctance was due in part to the fact that so far, he only has one single that made its way to the top of the charts. And the fact that the last time he was playing Joe’s Bar, he’d driven up from Nashville in a rental car and split a hotel room with someone from his band.
So yes, things have changed for Hayes, and that’s not lost on him.
“There have been a lot of times in the last 12 years that I don’t ever want to feel like again,” he said. “But gosh, they make what’s happening now feel so sweet. I’ve opened for Carrie Underwood here at Joe’s Bar, and Darius Rucker, too. Now I’m the headliner, and it seems like that all happened so fast. I can see why people say it happens overnight, even if it did take me 12 years.
“All of that is so humbling,” he said, “because honestly, six months ago, I couldn’t have sold out a place in my hometown.”