Walker Hayes' story isn't quite rags to riches, but almost. The singer-songwriter was married to his wife, Laney, with six children, working at Costco to make ends meet, barely able to put food on the table, with one car – a falling-apart Honda – to transport their entire family of eight.
After having a series of failed record deals shortly after he moved from his native Alabama to Nashville, Hayes succumbed to the fact that maybe, just maybe, a music career wasn't in his future.
"There were mornings where I was clocking in and kind of going, 'Why am I doing this to me?'" Hayes concedes to PopCulture.com. "Unfortunately, it was all for the wrong reasons. I was worried about what other people thought. Laney and I, we could survive off of very, very little. We're not 'stuff' people, but you begin to look next door and you look at your kids and you go, 'Hey, I want you to be able to play on this baseball team, but you can't. It's because I don't make enough money.' And you go, 'Well, I decided to have you, so why can't I provide for you?'"
Hayes still had a publishing deal, but future prospects in music seemed dim. It was in those dark moments when Hayes considered moving back to Mobile, and joining his father in his real estate business.
"It wasn't going to take a lot to make me drive back into that town and say, 'Hey, I give up,'" acknowledges Hayes. "I think that was the next step. We were close to that because even working full-time at Costco and having a publishing deal, man, it was exhausting. Really tiring. I took the job on a whim and was kind of like, 'Hey, I got this. I can work this job.' But I learned five or six months into it, I was killing myself."
While Hayes had family who he says would have gladly helped if they needed it, resorting to a hand-out, even a temporary one, wasn't an option Hayes wanted to consider.
"I'm a proud person," says Hayes. "The last thing Laney and I ever wanted to do was have a big family and become a burden to society, so I think once I saw us maybe getting to that level, it was for lack of a better term, maybe a little big embarrassing to keep chasing such a foolish dream that doesn't really come true for most people. You know, most people have to, another for lack of a better term, grow up."
It was those precarious, scary moments that ultimately became the launching point for Hayes' current role as one of country music's leading men. Writing a song, "Lela's Stars," about the thumbtacks that his family used to keep the interior in his dilapidated Honda attached, the song was the one that ultimately convinced his publisher, and co-President of Monument Records, Shane McAnally, to give Hayes the record contract he had been waiting for.
Once Hayes had his long-awaited record deal, he set to work making what became his freshman album, boom. The ten-song record doesn't fit what the typical country music cookie-cutter mold appears to be, but if Hayes was going to make music, the only way he knew to do it was his way. And, perhaps a bit surprisingly, at least to Hayes, it worked.
"For 11, 12 years, I couldn't get arrested," he remarks. "So, the fact that the reaction is so strong to the album, every song on it – it seems like every day it's a different song people are pointing out like, 'Hey, this is my jam,' or, 'Man, the song, 'Craig,' really touches me.'"
The debut single from boom. is "You Broke Up With Me. With lines like "Guess you dont know what you want / 'Til you see I'm movin' on / Makin' lonely look like freedom / Baby don't even act like I'm doing something wrong / If my song comes on and I get lost on that dance floor / In somebody's arms that aren't yours," became Hayes' tongue-in-cheek way of responding to the people who ignored who he was, until he was signed to a major label.
"It was written kind of in response to people coming out of the woodwork when I got signed by Shane McAnally, really," he says. "As soon as I got signed by him, people who hadn't called or texted me in about five-plus years began to come out of the woodwork and say, 'Hey, I'd love to write,' 'Love to grab coffee.' I was kind of like, 'Man, I couldn't get you guys to call me ever, or respond to my emails with songs,' stuff like that.
"When you've got a record deal, everybody wants to write with you, everybody wants to hang," he continues. "That's kind of the similar experience I felt when Shane signed me. When they came out of the woodwork, I [had] moved on and we had found this direction. Honestly, I thought a lot of them were very nice people, but the project was so unique. I saw where it was going, and I didn't really have a need for more writers at the time. One day, I just kind of took that chip on my shoulder and put it in a song, and was like, 'Hey, y'all broke up with me. Don't be upset if I don't have time to hang.'"
Now, with the song in the Top 10, and plans to join Kelsea Ballerini on her upcoming Unapologetically Tour, Hayes is seeing the dreams he held onto all these years finally come true.
"I always wanted to believe that something like that would happen, but it only happens to a few people," he notes. "There's room for all kinds of music, but only so many people make it in this town, and I feel like this is kind of my entry into it. I feel like I got a big foot in the door."
Photo Credit: Facebook/Walker Hayes