Walker Hayes: From Costco to the Radio
When Walker Hayes came to Nashville in 2005 with ambitious dreams of becoming a country star, he probably never guessed that he’d briefly hit pause on those dreams to take a job at Costco– but that’s precisely what happened.
Hayes stepped onto the Music City scene in the early 2000s when artists like Taylor Swift and Carrie Underwood weren’t yet the superstars they were bound to become and he had one goal on his mind: to fit the traditional country mold. Hayes admits that he would study the songs on the radio and try his best to imitate what he heard.
“When I first got here, I was just chasing that country hit… I would hear the radio and be like ‘what is my version of that?’ And honestly that’s not the best thing for an artist to do,” he admits to Sounds Like Nashville, seated comfortably inside his publicist’s office in Green Hills. “Because again, I was trying to do what everybody else in town was doing. But I also was bringing something unique to the table. Little did I know there was something inside me that would eventually come out and become free and soar and be really unique.”
Interestingly enough, Hayes admits that growing up, his life was pretty care free, lacking in true hardships that make for powerful country songs. But that would all change when he got a taste of industry politics and was dropped from his label after the president was fired. He cites a story of when he was performing at Puckett’s downtown and a fan approached him to say how much they love his music. Hayes was so in need of work at the time that when the fan mentioned they worked at Costco, he asked if they were hiring, and when he discovered they were, he stepped away from his dreams to find a way to provide for his family.
“Embarrassing,” he says honestly about what it was like transitioning from the music world to the career world. “Just so humbling and embarrassing. Those times were super tough and I’m glad I had those experiences… They were times of tears, growth and all kinds of dark stuff. But now I have another chance and it’s amazing.” But that doesn’t mean the music wasn’t still coming. While spending his days stocking shelves at Costco, lyrics would flow into Hayes’ mind, like the chorus to “Lela’s Stars.”
“When I was in that time, that’s when the songs got really got good and interesting,” he reveals. “I didn’t try so hard to write songs for any other reason other than the fact that I loved to write and I think that brought out the best material.” It was also during this dark period that Hayes would find a frequent collaborator and insightful mentor in one of Nashville’s most prolific songwriters and producers, Shane McAnally. It is with the hitmaker that he created his latest EPs 8Tracks Vol. 1 & 2 in what’s basically a glorified tool shed known as The Shack on Music Row. Hayes knew that McAnally understood his vision of wanting to be authentic and create songs he, and others, could relate to.
McAnally encouraged the up and coming singer to stay true to himself, and more importantly, bring a sense of authenticity to every song he writes and not be generic in writing for the masses. “That’s like giving me freakin’ wings,” Hayes says about advice from McAnally. “The songs were just coming and they just meant something and they were about real stuff, they were about honest stuff.”
It was this mentality that led to the birth of 8Tracks and his latest single, “You Broke Up With Me,” which is currently climbing the country charts. Diving into a pool of authenticity, the song was inspired by Hayes’ rocky relationship with Music Row, using it as a tongue-in-cheek message about how the industry broke up with him after he lost his record deal.
“I just love when a song is a movie in my brain. I feel like the more specific I am, the more they relate,” Hayes explains of his songwriting. “I feel like my sense of humor is well portrayed with my songs. Even with the darkest stuff, there’s a sense of humor take on it and I feel like honestly that’s how you have to look at life. It’s not really pretty, it’s pretty dark when you really think about the truths of life, so you might as well be able to laugh at some of the heaviest stuff that we go through.”
Just one quality that’s apparent to listeners is Hayes’ impressive beat-boxing skills backed by quirky beats and incredibly clever lyrics that make him stand out from most artists in the genre. While Hayes enjoys the coyness of his tracks, he harbors no desire to present something that isn’t genuine, which is why he uses specific words when writing, like using his son Beckett as the name of song, singing about life from the perspective of a four-year-old. “If it’s clever and it applies to my life 100 percent, I’m all for it, but if it’s just clever and I can’t relate then I need to be in the room with the artist who can,” the 37-year-old father of six confesses.
With a popular EP project and a growing single under his belt, Hayes is getting ready to release a full-length album, which he says will be a compilation of some of his favorite songs off 8Tracks and a handful of new ones fans have never heard before, including one called “90s Country.” “I want people to hear my album and love it from front to back,” he says humbly. “I’m just so excited when that day comes.”