C2C: Country 2 Country Special: Interview With Walker Hayes

by Ceylan Kumbarji

Music was not something that Walker Hayes ever saw himself pursuing as a career. Describing himself as a “late bloomer music-wise”, he was persuaded by his father to perform at a local yacht club and after that, he fell in love. The journey wasn’t always easy for him, with some tough times along the way, but after a lot of hard work his songwriting and music is well and truly on its way to success.

Walker got the opportunity to perform at Country 2 Country in London and now, he’s set to perform at world-famous country festival Stagecoach in California. We spoke to Walker while he was in London about what it’s like for him to perform in the UK, future hopes to work with Macklemore and Taylor Swift, and his family being his number one priority.

“You can feel the appreciation in the UK, and those are the people I want to play for. I can see myself releasing music here and trying new things for the fans.” – Walker Hayes

Taylor Magazine: Hi! How have you been enjoying your time in London so far?

Walker Hayes: It’s been amazing! It took a few days to get over the jet lag, but apart from that it’s been really fun. We got to see London and explore… my wife and I took the underground the other day and had a wander around. We’ve had the full London experience! The London crowd, which I’m sure you hear a lot, is absolutely amazing. A lot of people that I spoke to before I came really praised the UK and I thought ‘how different could it be?!’ But it really is – UK fans really digest the music.

Taylor Magazine: How did you get involved with country music and where did it start?

Walker Hayes: I was a late bloomer music-wise and so I didn’t get into it until after college. My first country record that I loved was a Tim McGraw song, which made the genre really stand out for me – it became something I really appreciated. When Laney and I were engaged, I was all set up to do real estate as a career, but my Dad encouraged me to go to play some music at a yacht club. I was reluctant at first, but I did it and completely fell in love. From there, we moved to Nashville where I learnt to write songs. Bluebird was life changing for me because I was able to hear songs being performed by the writers – I immediately went home and started writing songs. Now, here we are in London performing the songs I’ve written!

Taylor Magazine: How does the songwriting process work for you?

Walker Hayes: At first, and for a couple of years, I would only ever write alone and was embarrassed to share my ideas with people but I finally managed to co-write. I’ve still kept those independent writing skills though. I have a relationship with writing more or less – there are times when I don’t have an idea but then something happens in life which sparks an idea.

Taylor Magazine: Moving on to your album – how is that project going for you?

Walker Hayes: The album began because Shane McAnally wanted to make it, so that’s what got the ball rolling. Shane was so gracious through the whole process – I was showing him songs for other artists to sing and he decided that other artists wouldn’t be able to perform the songs in the same way, so he said that this was a project for just me.

It was a big deal and totally changed my life. It was just me, Shane and my manager, Robert, through the creation process, which really created a bond between the three of us. It was difficult at times to decide what made it on the album, but it seemed like the more personal the better. I’m proud of what we created and I love finding out what are people’s favourite songs too.

Taylor Magazine: Do you have a personal favourite on the album?

Walker Hayes: My favourite is the next song on the album, it’s called ‘Craig’. I’m fortunate to be able to write the song and that’s basically the meaning of the song too. It’s about a friend of mine who really helped our family at a low point when times were tough. I was trying to write songs, we were trying to provide for the kids and he gave us the keys to his van. I just wanted to say thanks to him. I’m so happy to have a song like that on the album.

Taylor Magazine: In terms of writing honestly, did that come naturally to you?

Walker Hayes: I think, sadly, a lot of times I would take that honesty out to be generic. It’s almost as if I would listen to country music radio and see what was working. I was basically trying to appeal to the masses, but what I found was when I was handing songs to Shane and Robert, they didn’t react to the more generic material. They came to expect the really detailed parts of my life that I would put into my songs.

I found that fans began to love that too, which is strange, because I consider country music as one of the most honest genres, so for fans to say that my music was so fresh and honest was unexpected. I’m glad my music gets to be like that – it’s therapeutic to write.

“It’s not hard for me to be honest with writing, but when I perform it can be difficult and I sometimes feel vulnerable, but once you perform it a few times, it gets easier.” – Walker Hayes

Taylor Magazine: Is there anyone you really draw inspiration from or someone that is an icon to you?

Walker Hayes: I feel like my songs are really similar to that of Harry Chapin’s music – they dwell in the stories of his life and that’s where they begin and end. He was a really humorous live performer, so I love to listen to his live albums. I’ve also always loved songs that Kenny Chesney has picked and Garth’s early stuff too. A lot of it are 90s artists that are still around – musical influences are definitely all over the map for me. I’ve listened to all types of music and appreciate all genres too – I feel like I fuse them all together with my sound.

Taylor Magazine: And how would you describe your sound in particular?

Walker Hayes: I would honestly say that you haven’t heard anything like it ever. In the country genre, I’m compared to Sam Hunt and I do feel like he and I came from similar roots. I also feel like it’s the closest thing in country but stylistically, it’s a lot of 90’s hip hop,  a lot of country and just a lot of general 90’s sounds.  I didn’t become a deep-cut listener until later. As a kid, I just loved any hit.

Taylor Magazine: If you could work with anyone in the charts right now, who would it be?

Walker Hayes: I have a deep crush on Macklemore… I do also love his music! I was talking to Ashley McBryde today – she is so country and I’m so barely country so that would be cool! I admire Taylor Swift’s writing so much as well. I reference Kenny Chesney quite a lot in my music – I feel like he is the best performer in the country music genre. I would love to collaborate with him. I’m spoiled – Shane McAnally in my opinion is the best writer. He co-produced my record and we wrote some songs together, so I’ve had a chance to work with the big dogs already!

Taylor Magazine: Have you always wanted to play at a festival like C2C?

Walker Hayes: I’d be lying if I said it was my all time dream to play in London. But us as artists tend to get caught up with where we are at a single moment. I’ve looked at Laney a few times and thought ‘Wow… we’re in London right now.’  That is so awesome – it’s priceless and a memory we’ll never forget. It’s a place where I could see myself making a priority, I appreciate how people react to music here.

The honest reaction I get from fans here is that they appreciate my music – you guys are so open minded and fans like something that isn’t the norm. I’m not slamming American fans at all, but you can feel the appreciation in the UK, and those are the people I want to play for. I can see myself releasing music here and trying new things for the fans.

Taylor Magazine: What has been your favourite moment so far professionally?

Walker Hayes: A couple of weeks ago I got to perform at the Ryman. I grew up watching shows there and it’s kind of a sacred venue. There was a moment that night where I was playing the song ‘Craig’ and he was there in the audience. It was a moment where I thought ‘Man… isn’t it weird where we end up in life?’ Laney and I saw this dream coming to an end, and we were really close to that. The closer you get to all of that getting taken away from you, makes everything we do now completely incredible. Singing a song of thanks to Craig, while he was in the audience, was such a special moment.

Taylor Magazine: How do you guys cope being away from your kids?

Walker Hayes: We’re just so grateful that I have a job doing this, rather than anything else. I’m always sad to leave, but they’re proud of me and support me no matter what. It’s exciting going away on tour and I love my job, but family is always my priority and comes first and foremost. Laney always tries to join me on the road but she does such a good job with the kids too.

Taylor Magazine: What’s the plan short and long term?

Walker Hayes: I’m finishing up a part of a headline tour at the moment which is going really well. I’m going to finish up opening for Kelsea Ballerini and then CMA Festival, and then we’re releasing the song  ‘Craig’ – it’s a bold choice and I’m excited!

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