As people across the U.S. go into self-isolation amid the coronavirus outbreak, country music superstar Clay Walker has found a way to give his stir crazy fans a respite: on his social media, he posts videos of himself going about his daily life on his bucolic farm outside of Nashville. As he shows how he tends to his livestock, or finds peace beside a burbling creek, Walker displays a down to earth, reassuring demeanor. For fans who are anxious about the increasingly uncertain world around them, this seems to provide a much-needed escape to a more soothing world – especially when Walker is accompanied by his happy-go-lucky herding dogs.
“Border Collies are so smart,” Walker says, calling from his farm. “They don’t need a lot of coaching. I enjoy them. They help a lot, too. Whenever we’re getting cattle, doing branding or doctoring, the dogs are always a huge help. It would be a lot more difficult without them. So I enjoy them. It is therapeutic.”
But neither the frightening coronavirus nor his enjoyable farm duties are stopping Walker from working on his music. “I’ve been in constant writing appointments with the top writers in Nashville, and that’s yielding a lot of success,” he says. “I was really thinking that they were going to get canceled [because of the virus], but everyone so far has agreed to Skype or Zoom.”
Walker says it’s been no problem working remotely with his collaborators. “It has gone fantastic. You can see the relief in each of the writers’ faces on the screen that their creativity has not been stifled, it’s able to continue on because of technology.” Walker is even able to find a silver lining to this arrangement: “While it’s not the ideal situation, I think having the constraint makes you try harder.”
This burst of creativity comes, Walker says, because “I signed with a new management company, TKO, and together we’ve laid out a game plan for me over the next several years, starting with this year. We’re going to put out new music at the streaming services. I look forward to getting this new music out, as I know it’s going to fit in with what younger listeners love, as well as please the fans that have been there a while.”
Besides focusing on his new music, Walker is also using this time to ensure that some of his older work finally gets a proper release. His 2003 album, A Few Questions, has never been available on a digital platform before – but that release will finally happen on March 27.
As he considers the long delay in getting A Few Questions released in such an important format, Walker again displays his tendency to find the good in every situation: “It may be fortuitous that it’s happening now,” he says. “This record, in my opinion, was ahead of its time, production-wise. And I think people are going to find it very refreshing. People who have a physical copy of it probably already know that. I get requests all the time for songs that were on that album.”
One of the most important songs on A Few Questions, in Walker’s opinion, is the title track, which was written by written by Ray Scott, Phillip Moore and Adam Wheeler. And it’s not just Walker that found the song special: when it was released as the album’s lead single, it went to number nine on the Billboard Hot Country Singles chart.
“I write a lot of my songs, so if I’m going to cut an outside song, it’s got to be really great. And that song blew me away,” Walker says. “That song touched me deeply. It still brings a tear to my eye every time I hear it or think about it. I remember my producer playing me that song and before the chorus got finished, I already knew it was a hit. To this day, it’s still my favorite song to sing live.”
Now, seventeen years after “A Few Questions” was released, Walker says he recently teamed up with one of its songwriters, Adam Wheeler, to work on new material. This was the first time they’d actually write together. “So I’m writing a new song with him that could very well be our next single. I mean, it’s just crazy how fate just works out like that.”
Walker also says that “I Can’t Forget Her,” which closes A Few Questions, is another track that he feels is particularly special. “That track had so much magic to it for me as an artist, as far as what I liked stylistically. All of the elements align in this song. It’s got a lot of different pieces of percussion in it that are unique and tasteful. It’s got a really awesome string sound. The steel guitar has a different tone to it. And it’s a western storyline. The music helps facilitate the imagery of the lyrics better than any instrumentation I’ve ever had on a song that I’ve recorded.”
And A Few Questions isn’t the only standout moment from Walker’s career that he’s revisiting lately: this month also marks the 25th anniversary of his single “This Woman and This Man” (written by Jeff Pennig and Michael Lunn) reaching the top spot on the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart, where it stayed for two weeks.
While Walker has had plenty of hits – including 31 charting singles (with 11 reaching number one), drawn from four platinum albums and two gold albums – he believes that “This Woman and This Man” has remained one of his most beloved songs for his fans because of its universal relatability.
“It’s a couple that’s struggling and they’re both trying to get their point across and it’s not sinking in, neither party feels like they’re being heard. I can relate to that, and I think fans can, too. The point is that you’re better together than apart, and I think that’s what that song is saying. I believe when two people really love each other that they can conquer any obstacle in front of them if they’re both willing to try.”
Thinking about what makes a song great – especially when it’s created as a collaborative effort – has been much on Walker’s mind as he writes new material with others lately. “That’s what fascinates me about songwriting: I understand my own [process] very well, but what’s going to make me match up with certain writer? You can call it chemistry if you want – it is very scientific. But it’s turning on that process and then letting emotions ride on top of it. Some people are heavy on the emotions and really low on the scientific. I think the greatest writers are the ones that blend those two things equally. It’s the craft and the emotion.
“I’ve learned through the years that the craft is the hardest part to learn. Most people have the emotions already. But how are you going to frame a chorus, for example? On the craft side of it, what are some keywords that are going to go with this hook, or with this title of the song? That’s why there’s thousands of songs written every year, because there are thousands of different nuances in songwriters’ processes.”
One thing Walker knows for sure, though: when he’s working with great artists, he lets them do what they do best without undue interference. He likens this leadership style to how he works with his beloved dogs: “A lot of people think that you teach Border Collies how to work cattle. Actually, you don’t. Border Collies are born with the natural instincts to herd livestock. When the livestock is moving in the correct way, you make the dog lie down and stop. And then you ask the dog to come on back up. It’s the same way with great musicians. You don’t tell them what to play. You tell them when to stop and play something different. You don’t interfere when it’s right.”
With that, Walker must say goodbye so he can go back to work. Whether that means he’s going to work on a song or on his farm, there’s no doubt that fans will continue to find his efforts simultaneously relatable and fascinating.