Clay Walker has a perfectly good explanation of why he kept fans waiting three years for his new album, She Won't Be Lonely Long.
"Whenever you've had hits like we have," he tells CMT.com, "fans expect something extraordinary from you. They already have songs [from you] that they love and have memories with and that are very dear to them. They want to hear something as good as -- or better than -- the hits. That is a pretty difficult task and [it's] what took the time. We just couldn't go out there with something less than spectacular."
History will reveal just how "spectacular" fans judged this new album to be, but it is safe to note that it debuted at No. 5 in Billboard with first-week sales of nearly 20,000 copies. That's a relatively modest number compared to Walker's sales in the years following his chart breakthrough in 1993. Still, it's quite a respectable total in these financially-troubled times for the record industry.
Moreover, Walker's single of "She Won't Be Lonely Long" climbed to No. 4 on the country songs chart, making it the best showing he's had there since "Chain of Love" went No. 3 in 2000.
Walker says he was immediately attracted to the song.
"I'm a believer in songs people can dance to," he explains. "More of those songs tend to be hits. When I first heard the song on a demo, it made me feel like dancing. The melody was very infectious and the beat was good, and I thought that the lyric was just outstanding. It wasn't one of those songs I had to keep listening to over and over. I knew on the first listen -- and that's normally my big barometer if a song is going to be a hit or not."
In February, Curb Records released a five-song CD -- also titled She Won't Be Lonely Long -- which hit the charts briefly and then disappeared. Three of the songs on the EP were from Walker's previous Curb album, Fall. Only two -- the title cut and "Jesse James" -- are on the new album.
"That's a pretty sore subject with me," Walker admits. "I just try to avoid talking about it." Other Curb artists -- notably Tim McGraw and Hank Williams Jr. -- have railed at the label for the ways it paces and handles their records.
Although the release of the EP distressed him, Walker is lavish in his praise of Curb for its song-finding skills and promotional muscle.
One of Walker's proudest cuts on the album is his duet with Randy Owen on the 1981 Alabama hit, "Feels So Right." Owen also wrote the song.
"I met Randy Owen five years ago down at St. Jude Children's Research Hospital, and I shared this story with him," says Walker. "My very first concert was when I was in elementary school. My mom took me to see Alabama. It was there that I really knew I was going to be a singer. I saw the look on my mom's face."
Walker says "Feels So Right" has always been his favorite country song. That being the case, he asked Owen if he would mind if he recorded the song some day.
"He sort of grinned," Walker recalls, "and said he'd be flattered. So when we got ready to record it, I called and asked him if he would sing on it with me. He said, 'Absolutely.' He came in, and there was a magical thing that happened with that song.
"We wanted it to be just like the original. So we cut it in the same key and same tempo. This probably won't matter to fans, but insiders will get it. When it came to the modulation, the beat speeds up two beats per minute -- in the original track. So we did that, and that's pretty rare these days to see someone speed a track up or change tempo at all -- because we have Pro Tools [sound adjustment technology]. Things are so perfect.
"When we got ready to do the strings, we called the lady who originally did [the arrangement] for 'Feels So Right.' She said, 'This is so odd. I'm moving boxes out of storage because I'm changing offices. The sheet music for those strings is setting in a box on my desk. It's been there for two days.' She said they'd been in her attic for 27 years. How odd is that?"
She Won't Be Lonely Long was recorded in two stages over a period of three years, Walker says. Keith Stegall produced the first nine cuts, Doug Johnson the last three. Walker co-wrote four of the songs.
"That's probably the most fun part of the record business," he reflects. "You still have to write great songs for people to live with. It's something that can't be manipulated. You can manipulate music with Pro Tools. You can manipulate voices. But you cannot manipulate words. They are what they are. And the melody is what it is. So the song's the only thing that's non-changing in our business."
He says he holds current country singer-songwriters in high regard for the music they're creating.
"People complain about 'this new music,'" he scoffs. "There's no new music. It's just the way you craft words. Songs are about two things: love or the lack of. There's nothing new. But what is new, maybe, is the way you arrange those words. I enjoy it so much. I enjoy seeing artists write their songs. I love Taylor Swift, Toby Keith, Keith Urban. These people really do write from their hearts. It's so good to see."
On the industry-wide drop in record sales, Walker observes, "The artist, in general, hardly ever made any money from record sales -- relative to touring and merchandise. So it's not really affected the artists as much as it has the record labels. I wouldn't want to be a record label owner right now. It's a very difficult time. I think it's going to take a collective effort for artists and managers and labels to reinvent the record business."
And how might that be done?
"The only thing that strikes me is that we need to get more music out quicker to the fans," Walker says. "It's really sad. When I first came out, there were a lot of record sales. We should have been thinking about this back then. I think when we heard the word 'Napster,' we shouldn't have thought, 'Ah, it's not that big a deal.'"
Walker has maintained a heavy touring schedule with his eight-piece band and says the crowds are getting bigger. "We've had some really good shows recently," he reports. "The single has helped a lot."
His next single, he says, will probably be "Where Do I Go From You." He confesses he thinks "Summertime Song," one of his own compositions, might be a better choice. But he's resigned to reality.
"There can only be one boss," he says, "and we know who that is. But it's OK. That's the way it goes."