How Walker Hayes has handled ups and downs — even in a stuck elevator with me
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SALT LAKE CITY, Utah — We were stuck in a freight elevator in downtown Salt Lake City.
Walker Hayes, his tour manager, my wife and I.
The star’s opening act, Filmore, had just taken the stage Saturday night and Walker was on his way to a backstage meet-and-greet with fans. But first, we had to get out of the elevator.
With a laugh, Walker dared us to push the red emergency button. I suggested we go live on Facebook. The tour manager called someone to help.
But we quickly realized that maybe we could get out of the elevator by pushing the large heavy door open ourselves. It worked, and Walker soon took the stage.
If you’ve never heard Walker Hayes’ music, it’s hard to describe. He fits in the country genre but his songs have strong elements of pop and rap with spoken-word lyrics, beatboxing, whistling and more.
When I requested an interview with him a few weeks ago, I was expecting a rushed 2- or 3-minute conversation in a small room backstage with someone micromanaging every move. I’ve interviewed celebrities before, and that’s usually how it works.
Not so with Walker Hayes. We arrived at The Depot and his tour manager, Brian, asked if we wanted to do the interview on Walker’s bus. He said we could take as much time as we wanted and wondered if we needed anything.
Walker was just as friendly — and he was open to answering questions about his alcoholism, the death of his seventh child, the ups and downs of life and songs he’s written that pack a powerful punch to those who listen.
Craig, a car and Costco
One such song came after one of the most emotional moments of Walker’s life. It happened at a softball game.
The 39-year-old had just lost his second record deal. The car dealership seized his minivan because he couldn’t make the payments, and Walker and his wife, Laney, were unable to afford a new car with enough seatbelts for all their kids.
As the Hayes watched their son at the game, a couple from church, named Craig and Laura, drove up in two cars. They walked over to Walker and handed him the title to one of the vehicles – a minivan. Craig asked for nothing in return, but Walker was so moved he wrote a song.
I met Craig at a church called Redeeming Grace
It’s like he understood my “I don’t want to be here” face
I felt out of place and I smelled like beer
But he just shook my hand, said, “I’m glad you’re here”
Yeah I know, he sounds cool right?
Not your typical kid from Sunday school, right?
Nah he can’t walk on water, or turn it Napa Valley red
But he just might be tight with a man that did
Now he’s not the light of the world
But I wish that mine was bright as his
Yeah he just might be tight with a man that is
My pride was way too ashamed to be adequately grateful at the moment
But I signed the dotted line, and I drove the kids home
And when the cop pulled up beside us
At the light, they didn’t have to duck
Because thanks to Craig
They were all buckled up
I first heard “Craig” about a year ago, and it was unlike anything else on the radio. I wasn’t familiar with Hayes, but quickly learned this is a guy who isn’t afraid to open up about his struggles.
The Hayes moved to Nashville in July 2004, and Walker landed a record deal with Mercury but was quickly dropped. Then he signed with Capitol Records but was dropped again.
He continued to take gigs wherever he could but needed a steady income for his large family. So he started a 4 a.m. job stocking shelves at Costco and wrote songs in his beat-up Honda with upholstery falling from the ceiling. It was so bad he had to borrow thumbtacks from his daughter to hold the material up. She said the tacks looked like stars, inspiring the song “Lela’s Stars.”
It’s 3:42 a.m., eyes blood shot
Yawning in my Honda in a Costco parking lot …
Wondering what the hell I’m doing with my life
Wishing I was still in bed with my wife
Father, help, look at the felt on my effed up ceiling
Had to bum thumbtacks from my 9 and a half year old daughter Lela
Just to keep it from coming down
Kinda like my tears when I count
The sky ain’t fallin’, it’s just the roof of my car
Hope and heartbreak
Walker eventually signed with a third label, Monument Records, and was able to quit Costco in early 2016. His first single with the label, “You Broke Up With Me,” became a top 10 hit on the Billboard Music Charts and he has since released “90’s Country”.
Although he has the radio hits, diehard Walker Hayes fans likely have favorites you may not have heard. There’s “Dollar Store” and “Beckett,” upbeat tunes celebrating children. “Beer in the Fridge” tackles Walker’s battle with alcohol, and “Halloween” is about meeting his wife and no longer having to pretend to be someone he isn’t.
“My songs are very quirky, and I pay a lot of attention to the lyrics,” Walker told me. “Not a lot of people know those (songs), but I think eventually, as my stuff continues to succeed on radio, that maybe people will dig and find that stuff.”
As Walker’s career continued to grow, he suffered crushing heartbreak last June.
“Our daughter was stillborn, and my wife suffered a rare uterine rupture,” Walker said. “That shocked us. My career was just booming, we were so happy and then this. It was just tragic. We’re still learning how to grieve, but in a lot of ways, it’s brought us together. When that happened, this job seemed trite and trivial and made me look at it from afar and ask what matters in life.”
The Hayes named their daughter Oakleigh Klover, and Walker tattooed her footprint on his arm. He’s thought about writing a song about the tragedy and has penned a few lyrics.
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“Who knows if I’ll ever put something out (about the tragedy),” he told me. “I most definitely will release something if I ever feel like it can help anyone. Right now a lot of my lyrics about it are angry and misunderstood, and maybe a lot of people can relate to those emotions.”
Walker has learned to deal with his emotions by “never being afraid of a broken heart” and “falling in love with the process of things.” It’s how he deals with rejection, failure and even alcoholism. He will soon celebrate four years of sobriety and has replaced drinking with exercise.
“To me, the secret was falling in love with it. I wake up every day and can’t wait to get to the gym. I just love going to the gym, escaping, working out at my own pace and that has helped me stay addicted to something healthy. It’s healthy time consumption. I started a few days a week, and then it turned into every day, and now it’s just a part of my life,” he says.
Another part of Walker’s life is not stressing the small stuff, like being stuck in an elevator with a reporter. He’s learned to laugh it off, maybe write a song and that years of sorrow makes success so much sweeter.
“I’m just so appreciative for this because I went so many years desiring it. I don’t want to relive those years for a second, I don’t want to go work at Costco again, but it’s going to take a long time for me to sit back and truly digest what’s going on in there,” he said, pointing to the concert venue. “This will always be new to me after going through 12 or 13 years of some really hard times.”
Watch our entire interview with Walker Hayes in the video player above
Walker Hayes will be performing in Boise this Saturday, May 4. Tickets can be purchased here.