With last month's release of Fall, Clay Walker set sail on his fourth record label. But it's a wiser captain at the helm than the one who split the country music horizon in 1993 with "What's It to You," the first of his six No. 1's.
Walker launched his recording career on Giant Records and stayed with that label until it closed down in 2001. During that tenure, he scored such other chart-toppers as "Live Until I Die," "If I Could Make a Living" and "Rumor Has It." From Giant, he went briefly to Warner Bros., which released a couple singles on him but no album. Then, in 2003, he resurfaced on RCA with the Top 10 hit, "A Few Questions." That song also became the title cut of his only RCA album.
Fall, released on Curb/Asylum, pairs Walker with Keith Stegall, Alan Jackson's longtime producer. (Jackson and Stegall co-wrote "If I Could Make a Living" with Roger Murrah.) The new album took about a year to prepare.
When Walker calls CMT.com to discuss his new album, he's just returned to his home in Texas from a brief holiday in Mexico. "I worked for about three months without a day off," he explains. "And then, finally, I took three days for a little siesta."
Walker says he chose Stegall to be his producer rather than having one assigned to him.
"I always loved his style with Alan Jackson, and, of course, I already knew that he wrote 'If I Could Make a Living.' I kind of wanted to get back to that sound, to get more of a pure form of country. ... It's really cool because when you listen to Keith's productions, you can get fooled [into thinking], 'This is a stone-cold country guy.' He is that. But the truth is that he wrote an old disco hit called 'Sexy Eyes.' He's very versatile."
Walker continued, "So when I got the record deal on Curb, I had a meeting with [owner] Mike Curb and said I really wanted to move forward with Keith, that I felt like we could make really good music together. He said, 'OK, but it's going to depend on what it sounds like. We're going to check it halfway through.' And, sure enough, they loved it, and we continued on and made the record."
The only track on the album that Stegall didn't produce is "I Hate Nights Like This," one of the six songs in the 12-cut collection that Walker wrote or co-wrote. It was produced by Jimmy Ritchey, who also co-produced A Few Questions.
Shuttling from one label to another has been unsettling, Walker admits. "It grinds on you -- I don't care who you are," he says. "But one thing that stuck out to me is that no matter whether you have a record deal or not, your fans are still there. And, you know, who in the hell are we making this music for, anyway? If they're still here, I've still got a job. That was the shining light."
Fall boasts a wide range of songs, from the frolicsome "'Fore She Was Mama" to the pensive "It Ain't Pretty (But It's Beautiful)." A bonus is Walker's duet with the late Freddy Fender on Fender's 1975 signature hit, "Before the Next Teardrop Falls." The two cut the song just a few months before Fender died.
"It Ain't Pretty," which contrasts the fundamentals with the peripherals of life, falls into the same philosophical category Walker explored in "The Chain of Love" and "A Few Questions." He says he understands their power but confesses they're not his favorite form of songs.
"Those kinds of story songs are the ones that choke you up," he muses. "I'm not a person that tends to listen to those songs a whole lot because they are deep. I like something with a little more vocal range in it. But those three songs really do make me think. It takes great songwriters to write them because they're totally lyric-based. They're not standing on production. They're standing on the story and the words."
In his stage act, Walker does a variety of cover tunes, everything from country standards to rhythm and blues classics. One sure crowd-pleaser has been "Before the Next Teardrop Falls." Although he didn't know Fender, a mutual friend agreed to ask him to sing on the project.
"Freddy had heard through the grapevine that I had been performing [his] song," Walker says. "I think he and his family also knew that I had multiple sclerosis, and Freddy was battling his own illness at that time. I think he felt the connection with me. I know he did -- that's what he told me. ... He called me and said, 'I'll come to Nashville and record it.' I think everybody was pleasantly surprised that he said yes. He had been asked countless times to do this exact same thing with pop acts, country acts, all kinds. ... And he'd turned them all down."
Walker remembers the recording session with special fondness.
"You could just see the level of respect that Freddy commanded in the studio," he says. "Just his presence. Just by being in there. Just watching him converse with Keith, as well as the other musicians and myself. Everybody hung on every word. I think one reason was because every musician in there knew that the song they were about to record was kind of like touching the Holy Grail. ... It launched his career, and it was the last song he ever recorded. ... What a classy, classy man."
Walker says the covers he records are basically tributes -- not attempts at revival.
"These are songs that I love but none that I think I could improve on. I've recorded [Earl Thomas Conley's] 'Holding Her and Loving You.' I'm a huge Earl Thomas Conley fan. As much as I love our version of it, it doesn't even come close to his.
"We did 'La Bamba.' I wanted to try that because I love Spanish, and my youngest daughter loved the song. Every time I'd sing it, she'd go crazy. ... As for 'Teardrop,' I'm infatuated with the Spanish culture -- the language, the food, the people. To see how oppressed Mexican people are is sad. It really is. You have the extremely wealthy and the poverty-poor. There's no middle class. But here's what so neat about that: The poorest people there have the greatest spirit and are so happy and festive. When I went to Cuba [to film the video "I Can't Sleep"], I did not feel that even a little bit."
Although Walker has some understandable qualms about the way major labels treat their artists, he is still enthusiastic about the country music he's hearing these days.
"I think country music radio is better than it's ever been," he says. "They're cracking down on labels. They're saying, 'Look, we're not going to force-feed our fans the stuff that you're calling music. It's going to have to really be good.' They know that for their ratings to be good, the music's going to have to be that way. It's good for our business. I think what you're going to see in the next five years is probably the best country music that's ever been put out."
He is also an outspoken advocate of artists writing their own songs.
"More of the artists need to be exposed on their CDs, and I wish more artists would do it," he says. "I think they would if they were allowed to. A lot of people in our industry want to feel important. So they'll try to change an artist to make them something they're not. There are some great artists out there. A lot of them never get the chance to shine through because they're trying so hard to please people at the label rather than being what they are. I'm a good songwriter. So why shouldn't I write?"
It was RCA's patience in developing Sara Evans, Walker says, that convinced him to sign with the label.
"When I got dropped by RCA, I was like, 'You know what? I'm going to take a break from this music-industry mentality,'" he explains. "I felt like it was destructive to creativity and everything else. I wanted to get away. And I did for three or four months. Then I got a call from a friend who said, 'Hey, I want you to meet with somebody.' I said, 'Who?' and he goes, 'Mike Curb. Do you know who he is?'"
Walker didn't know Curb personally, but he knew him by reputation and agreed to meet with him in Texas.
"I realized very quickly that I was not speaking to someone who fell along the corporate lines that you normally see and have to follow," Walker emphasizes. "He had just a fresh lease on things -- on how he wanted to do things. To be as successful and as independent as Mike Curb is, you've got to know something. I think what he knows is: Give an artist time and they're going to figure out who they are."
It's been 10 years since Walker announced he has multiple sclerosis, an affliction he now appears to have fought to a standstill.
"I'm really healthy," he declares. "I'm out of shape right now [because] I worked so hard on this radio tour [and there was] hardly any time to work out. ... I expect that I'm about to get into the best shape of my life. Two years ago, I was in the best shape, and I've kind of let it go downhill. After this trip to Mexico, I decided, 'That's it. I'm not going to be fat.' A tan can only do so much."