When Walker Hayes landed his breakthrough hit single “You Broke Up With Me” in 2017, the gears of his life shifted in previously inconceivable ways. The monstrous single co-penned with Kylie Sackley and Thomas Archer became the double-Platinum centerpiece of his album, Boom.
“It continues to astonish me,” Hayes shares humbly over the phone with American Songwriter. “Sometimes I look back at that album and wish I could duplicate it, what that album did. But I could never. It was so far-fetched for someone like me who’d been here for 10 years, to have a big break like that.”
After losing his deal with Capitol Records, Hayes’ music career looked grim. With a wife and children at home, his continued involvement was teetering on irresponsible. “You Broke Up With Me,” and what surrounded it, brought a foundation of fans that allowed him to take a step further into his artistry.
On June 4, the artist released a follow-up EP and sonic re-introduction, Country Stuff. His six-song collection includes contributions from industry peers and musical heroes Jake Owen, Carly Pearce, and Lori McKenna.
“It’s like a meal that we’re serving up,” he laughs. “And I hope there’s something on it for everyone.”
Welcoming Owen onto his title track brings Hayes’ career full circle. Before Shane McAnally signed Hayes to SMACK Publishing, he had one of his songs cut by Owen.
“Long story short it didn’t quite make it on the album. And it was just a devastating moment for me and my family. I was working at Costco, I was an alcoholic. We had one car, I mean just barely hanging on by a thread,” he shares. “But Jake gave me a call one day and was like ‘Man, I’m so sorry, I know this is heartbreaking. Your song is great, it just didn’t fit with everything else.'”
Walker continues, “It was a dark, dark time in my life, but for him to apologize, it just meant the world to me. I’ve had so many people hold songs and not cut them, so since then, I admired Jake for that. He’s a class act, that was a hard call to make.”
Beyond a suited sonic and strategic fit, Hayes feels that he and Owen are kindred spirits. Crafted as his unique take on a country hit, the artist is eager to see how this song resonates.
“Fancy Like,” follows suit with a twang-filled tribute to the ones like him with broadly relatable subject matter. Hayes declares the song a “smash for the masses” adding, “it’s just ready to go. Where I come from, it’s fast food and cheap home-cooked meals until payday — then it’s time to party. We’re gonna go sit down and have a waiter.”
The lyrics reference his type of blue-collar boujee, and the strip mall chains that were a “big deal” when he was growing up: Yeah, we fancy like Applebee’s on a date night / Got that Bourbon Street steak with the Oreo shake.
Sonically, the production meets the lyrics in a fresh union of his country-pop-R&B. “Country Stuff” opens the door content-wise, inviting the listener to take a step further into what down-home means to Hayes.
During the pandemic, Hayes’ time was dedicated entirely to his wife, Laney, and their six children for the first time in what felt like forever. At home with his family, Walker meditated on the road-worn miles between his heart and the music he shares.
“Make You Cry” is a testament to both the endurance and evolution of his relationship with his high school sweetheart-turned-wife. Though there have admittedly been times when Hayes made Laney cry in their worst moments, this cheeky track plays on the positive sentiment of happy tears that have flowed throughout their upward trajectory.
“I Hope You Miss Me” is dedicated to his seven-year-old, Loxley, who his coins “the freest spirit in the house.” But the messaging encapsulates his feelings for each of his children and a shared sentiment by parents everywhere. The “Dad Curse,” he explains, is that after raising and loving your children, “You give them everything you have just so they can leave with your heart.”
You want the part, baby, go get it / Can’t wait to see your name in those credits / Hope you find yourself but selfishly / I hope you miss me, he sings.
For Hayes, Pearce’s participation on “What If We Did”—a more soulful ode to Laney, whose support allowed him to live out his dreams—was a no-brainer. Listening through the demo, he felt the hook space calling for a uniquely brazen vocal accompaniment. Pearce immediately came to mind.
“We were looking for tasty vocals within that Nashville sound. And Carly’s voice just has a thing,” he explains. “When she sings, you feel it. She’s been through a lot recently and has some life under her belt too. And you can really hear that in her vocals.”
Pearce’s breakthrough hit “Every Little Thing” was released around the same time Hayes’ “You Broke Up With Me” was climbing the charts in 2017. Hitting their stride in tandem, in Hayes’ mind, places the two artists within the same class of country music. Joined by a classmate whom he admires so deeply, added weight to his crossover groove-filled track.
“She turned that song up so many notches,” he says. “I love the maturity in her voice.”
Growing up, like many, Hayes wanted to be anything but the nine-to-five briefcase character his father filled into. It wasn’t until after he passed a few months ago that he began to reconsider. Now, at 41, he finally understands the distance between them was a sacrifice he made out of love. After all those years of swearing he’d be different, the artist arrives at a sobering conclusion in his poignant EP closer, “Briefcase.”
Now, I get it dad, it’s a jugglin’ act / Between feedin’ the kids and feedin’ the dreams we chase / I guess a guitar doesn’t fall too far from a briefcase, Hayes laments repeatedly in the chorus.
“At the funeral, people compared the two of us, how much we look alike and how I remind them so much of him,” Hayes recalls. “And there was this sense of pride that welled up. I thought that was odd because when I was a kid, I was like, ‘No never.’ And now I’m just glad we’re in the same ballpark.”
To put these emotions to paper, Hayes turned to one of his greatest songwriting inspirations, Lori McKenna. With her expertise, the two were able to paint a poignant, sometimes brutally honest portrait of who his father was in his eyes.
“I listen to that song and it sounds like it was dropped from the Lord,” he says. “It so vividly and completely sums up how I feel about my dad. I always thought if Lori and I got together creatively, something special would happen, and it did. She immediately became someone I would trust her with my dearest most precious ideas.”
Listen Walker Hayes new EP, here and hear his story behind the Country Stuff below.