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Walker Hayes Interview: ‘Country Stuff’ EP, Songwriting Over Zoom, Working with Jake Owen, Carly Pearce, Lori McKenna, and Shane McAnally, Getting Back to Live Shows

I talked to Walker Hayes last week just a couple of days before he released his new EP, ‘Country Stuff,’ and the day after he had just performed his first show with a full band in over a year. We talked about finally releasing a new project after all this time, getting back to live shows, his new collaborations with Jake Owen, Carly Pearce, and Lori McKenna, and what he’s been up between songwriting and life over the last year.

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I talked to Walker Hayes last week just a couple of days before he released his new EP, ‘Country Stuff,’ and the day after he had just performed his first show with a full band in over a year. We talked about finally releasing a new project after all this time, getting back to live shows, his new collaborations with Jake Owen, Carly Pearce, and Lori McKenna, and what he’s been up between songwriting and life over the last year.

Having not released a full new project since 2019’s 8Tracks, Vol. 3: Black Sheep, I asked Walker Hayes what it felt like to finally be releasing the Country Stuff EP: “I think I speak on behalf of most artists. By the time you actually get to release something, you’re just about tired of it. You have nitpicked it up and down, and you’ve explored every crevice of every song. It’s good to just let it go.”

“I think I speak on behalf of most artists. By the time you actually get to release something, you’re just about tired of it. You have nitpicked it up and down, and you’ve explored every crevice of every song. It’s good to just let it go.”
— Walker Hayes

His Country Stuff EP is a six-song project, but artists always have their favorites they can’t wait for everyone to hear. In this case, Hayes said that out of this bunch, “Briefcase” is the song he’s proudest to have written and “Fancy Like” is the song he’s most excited for people to hear, and “Briefcase” is the song he’s proudest to have written: “I want see their faces when we sing it live. I want to hear the tears they cry when they hear ‘Briefcase.’ ‘Fancy Like,’ I can’t wait to play that one live.”

“Briefcase” is an especially personal song, which he wrote with Lori McKenna (who is also featured on the track). I dare you to listen to it and not get at least a little bit emotional. Walker shared some insight into the timeline of the song and what specifically inspired it: “I lost my dad March 22nd of this year, and one of the hardest things I’ve ever done is when my mom asked me to clean his truck out. When I was carrying his briefcase in the house, she and I crossed paths in the hallway, and we just both lost it. That was him. Wherever that briefcase was, so was he, and that’s kind of like my guitar.”

There’s one line in “Briefcase” that Walker says is especially true among his kids: “Every time I pick it up, my kids say, ‘Daddy put it down.’” His guitar case symbolizes the same thing to his kids that his own father’s briefcase symbolized to him — work. He told me that his six kids have a love-hate relationship with his guitar: “They know that’s what takes care of them financially, but it’s also what takes me away from them. They don’t like the guitar.”

“They know that’s what takes care of them financially, but it’s also what takes me away from them. They don’t like the guitar.”
— Walker Hayes

Keep in mind that he has six children, so I asked him how he is able to fit his busy songwriting schedule. He has a unique schedule that lets him squeeze everything in: “My kids stay up really late, so I have from about 7 or 8 in the morning until about 11 with a quiet house. They don’t even wake up. And she [Laney] homeschools, so I get up and I start writing about 9, 10, or 11, and I did a lot of it via Zoom.”

Having the opportunity to work from home has been a change of pace for Hayes, but he says that being able to write songs and remain in close proximity to his family has really been nice: “I actually prefer to be near my family. I would dare say I’m a better creator near the chaos if that makes any sense. When I get out on the road, and I’m away from my family, I’m not as sane. I really do well near them, and I found that out this year.”

This time has forced everyone to move at a bit of a slower pace, and with that, Walker found a new appreciation and love for songwriting in the midst of the chaos: “I love writing, and I forgot how much I love it. When you’re on the road, the last thing you want to do when you get to the hotel room is write another song. You’re tired. Being home and being rested has been awesome for me, and I think you can hear it in my songs.”

“I love writing, and I forgot how much I love it. When you’re on the road, the last thing you want to do when you get to the hotel room is write another song. You’re tired…”
— Walker Hayes

The night before our interview, Walker had just played a sold out show at the Basement East in Nashville; his first full band show in over a year. I asked him how it felt to get back on stage in front of a live crowd: “It was the first band show in like 400-and-something days. Isn’t that insane? I had done acoustic shows here and there, but that was the first full band show. It really was like, ‘Wow, I forgot how to do this.’”

I asked him what that environment felt like, and one thing that stood out was how close everyone is at concerts: “It was almost like the entire crowd, including us, had forgot what to do. It just felt so good. It was weird. We get close together at shows. You could tell some people were a little freaked out, and then some people were just diving in. When you get something stolen from you, you will appreciate it…”

“It was almost like the entire crowd, including us, had forgot what to do. It just felt so good. It was weird. We get close together at shows…”
— Walker Hayes

From my own experience attending concerts, I know how draining they can be on your body. The adrenaline rush is the only thing that gets you through the night, but you’re going to feel it in the morning when your ears are still ringing and the muscle aches kick in. He told me he experienced something similar: “It’s a lot, though. I woke up this morning drained. I can’t believe I used to do that five nights a week. I was tired.”

We started talking about having live music taken from us this last year and a half, which made Walker think of another show that he played following a different kind of tragedy and how that impacted concertgoers: “One show I’ll never forget is the week after the Vegas shooting, I played a show opening for Thomas Rhett in Virginia. 22,000 people were there to see us open, and that was insane. That was because they had had something threatened, the live shows, so people really showed up. So I’m hoping that coming out of COVID-19 will have a similar effect. People will be there for the whole thing. They’ll listen to the opening acts, and they’ll stay the entire night and just soak it up.”

Something that has always personally bothered me is how some concertgoers just don’t seem to appreciate (or even at the very least show up to hear) the opening acts at concerts. You paid to see them too, so you might as well at least show up and see what they have to offer! This is just one thing that I realized Walker Hayes and I have in common, and he has a very similar outlook: “The opening acts are those gems. I love to find somebody early and to watch them grow. Then to be like, ‘Hey, I found them.’ I did that a while ago with Amos Lee. I think he was opening for Ben Harper, and we left, and we were like, ‘Oh my gosh, that guy.’ I mean, Ben Harper was great, but I was like, ‘Who was that guy?’”

One thing that hasn’t changed over the last year is Walker Hayes’ constant songwriting. He named a few of his recent collaborators (from up-and-comers to seasoned stars): “I’ve written with a lot of other artists. Alana Springsteen, Kylie Morgan, Nikita Karmen, Tigirlily, Jordan Davis, Jake [Owen] and I collabed. I’ve written some stuff that other artists are kind of hanging onto to possibly cut themselves, so that’s always kind of going on also.”

Some of my favorite conversations to have with artists are learning how some of these collaborations come about. Walker Hayes recruited Jake Owen to be featured on the EP’s title track, “Country Stuff,” and he told me where his connection with Jake Owen first started: “About five years ago now, we had a Jake Owen song called ‘Song in Your Pocket’ that was going to be cut by Jake. For an aspiring songwriter-artist, that is life changing. You get a Jake Owen single, and it’s on the radio, you go from no-name to like, ‘Oh, you’re a writer.’ Laney and I were hanging on to that thread, and it turned out that Jake had cut the song, but it didn’t fit the rest of the stuff and it didn’t make it on his album.”

Having an artist cut your song and get your hopes up just for them to ultimately not use it on their project is something that countless songwriters, including Walker, have encountered. But there was one thing that made this time different from the others: “I had that happen many times over the years, but Jake Owen was the first artist to this day that ever called me and apologized that the song didn’t make the album. As I got off the phone that day, I just was like, ‘Man, what a hard phone call to make,’ but he did it. It didn’t make me feel better. I was like, ‘We’re still broke,’ but what a guy. I was so thankful and so grateful that he did that. That will give you a lot of respect for a guy. Thanks for having the guts to break my heart in a classy way. I felt for him for having to do that. So that made an impact, and I couldn’t be more excited to collab with him.”

“…Jake Owen was the first artist to this day that ever called me and apologized that the song didn’t make the album….”
— Walker Hayes

Hayes gives credit to Shane McAnally for ultimately having the idea to send  the song over to Jake Owen, and at first Jake couldn’t tell if it was being pitched to him as a collab or for him to cut: “Honestly, the idea came from Shane [McAnally], and basically Shane just heard the song and he was like, ‘This sounds like Jake Owen,’ and I was like, ‘Yeah, it does.’ Shane sent it to Jake, and Jake said, ‘Are you pitching this for me to cut or to collab with Walker? Because either way, I’m in,’ so that was pretty cool.”

Carly Pearce’s voice pops up on the EP on a song titled “What If We Did,” an artist that broke out at country radio at about the same time as Walker Hayes did, so I had to know how where that idea came from: “That was another Shane [McAnally] connection. Her and Shane have been writing a lot lately. I put out ‘You Broke Up With Me’ literally a month after she had ‘Every Little Thing,’ so our careers just kind of skyrocketed at the same time. Those are people that are kind of in your class, just watching side by side.”

I honestly think that Walker Hayes could go on for hours complimenting and admiring Carly Pearce’s one-of-a-kind voice: “I don’t know how to say it just to do her justice, but I think Carly Pearce’s voice is underrated. Not necessarily from a chops standpoint. I think every female artist has something to offer. The texture of her voice is very identifiable and pleasant, and it never hits that, ‘you’re yelling at me,’ thing. It’s very smooth. She just has such a womanly, great texture voice. I don’t know how to say it…”

Putting it in a way I hadn’t really noticed, Walker points out that Carly Pearce’s vocals on their duet are just a simple repeated four word phrase: “She literally says, ‘What if we did,’ and you know who it is. That’s crazy. I don’t know if I could say, ‘What if we did,’ and people would be like, ‘Who is that?’”

Just proving how fast Walker is able to crank out songs, he told me how quick of a turnaround there was between the EP’s title track being turned in to his team and the song “Fancy Like” being written: “’Country Stuff’ was turned in on a Friday, and ‘Fancy Like’ was written on the next Monday. And I truly believe that when we turned in ‘Country Stuff,’ we weren’t ready for everybody to love it. I think we were ready for them to pitch it, but they all loved it. And I was like, ‘If y’all love that, then let’s have some fun today,’ and that’s when we wrote ‘Fancy Like.’ It’s weird how each song kind of led to the next one, and then all of a sudden, we were like, ‘that’s the project.’”

Lori McKenna is one of the most sought-after songwriters in all of Nashville and beyond. Seeing her name stamped on a song’s credits is a surefire sign that the song is going to tug at your heartstrings or bring out your emotions in a way only she seems to be able to do. Walker Hayes told me how they ended up writing together on “Briefcase,” one of the EP’s standout tracks: “She is the most in-demand songwriter. She is also the sweetest soul on the planet. I had a meeting with my publisher, and they said, ‘Who are some of your dream writes these days,’ and, of course, I said Lori McKenna. That was the first time I met her. We wrote via Zoom. I swear, the Lord must have dropped that idea on me because it’s a good idea. Trust me, I don’t just come up with ideas like that.”

Lori McKenna is notorious for being a perfectionist; evident in her flawless songwriting and pristine singing. She doesn’t think she’s as great as she really is, a trait that Walker Hayes brought up while talking about her: “She’s so humble, after she did it [sang on the song in the studio], she was like, ‘If you want me to do it again,’ or, ‘I’m so sorry, I stink at that.’ And I was like, ‘You’re insane! You absolutely crushed it!’ Every time we got it mixed, they would just say, ‘Hey, nothing wrong with the song, just turn Lori up. We want to hear her more.’”

On this EP alone, he rounded up a trio of some of the biggest names in country music to feature on songs, but I had to ask him who else was on his collaboration bucket list in the future: “I love Kane Brown. I’d love to do something just crazy with him. Maybe not aim, just do something insane. There’s a couple Christian groups that I’d love to maybe do some stuff with. Tauren Wells and I have written a little bit. That’d be kind of sick.”

Walker Hayes was signed by Shane McAnally to SMACKSONGS, and they have been working together for quite some time. Through their countless collaborations, both in songwriting and in their personal lives, Hayes told me how McAnally has had such a profound impact on his life:

“I don’t know if there’s anybody more talented than Shane. I love Shane as a person first and foremost. He and I, we have magic moments together where we work surprisingly well. And then also have moments where we don’t work so well together. One thing I’ve come to appreciate about Shane is his loyalty and his forgiveness and his mercy and his understanding-ness.”

“I don’t know if there’s anybody more talent than Shane [McAnally]…”
— Walker Hayes

Being able to relate to him as a fellow artist has also been helpful in their relationship. They have grown to learn each other’s personalities to make for even better communication and build a solid foundation of trust:

“It’s nice to have a leader who has been an artist, who has endured persecution for what he creates, the way he creates it, the style of which he creates. I think Shane could be honored in the Hall of Fame and it still wouldn’t really suffice the impact his heart and his mind have had on the world. It is truly an honor to be known and loved by a guy like him. Again, I stress known. Shane knows all my flaws. He knows my pride, he knows my bullheaded-ness. But he remains 100% behind what I’m doing, and I don’t know why sometimes. I’m definitely a guy who tends to push people away, and he refuses. I’m so grateful just to be under his wing at SMACK and at Monument. My gratitude is really indescribable. I love Shane. If I have an idea that is precious to me, he’s the first one that I see if they’re available. And sometimes I can’t wait, and I’ve gotta to get it out. He is the best writer I know, hands down.”

While talking about Shane McAnally’s influence on his music, Hayes brought up that Shane had the idea for that incredible bass drop that comes in during “Fancy Like,” and how that’s just another example of his genius:

“It was Shane’s idea to drop out that chorus. […] I feel like he’s just one of those people that comes up with those signature things that separate a song. He comes in and just snaps, and it’s not just badass, it’s gonna feed us. He has a gift. He really has a gift. I think it’s from the Lord. God was like, ‘I’m gonna give this little dude named Shane a lot of talent.’”

There are some diehard country fans out there who would argue that Walker Hayes, as well as artists like him that ride the line between genres, are not “country enough” for country music. On his song, “Country Stuff,” Jake Owen and Walker Hayes playfully go back and forth at each other over who is more country, so I wanted to see what Walker had to say to people who argue that his music is not country enough:

“I don’t have any argument with people who don’t think my music is country enough. In my humble opinion, there are so many kinds of country. I would classify myself as a southern boy who grew up going to Krystal, hanging out at Colonel Dixie every night after the football game, following everybody around in trucks, drinking beer, listening to Bone Thugs-N-Harmony and Hank Williams together. That was my life growing up. I think everybody is entitled to their opinion. When I listen to music, I try to just listen with an open mind. I feel like that’s gonna be my fanbase.”

He’s not tone deaf to the differences between his music and that of country music legends, and he gets it, but he says that’s just his style of making music: “I get it. Maybe George Strait didn’t do it that way. I get down with some George Strait! I’m carrying your love with me.”

Speaking on the topic of people choosing what to like or dislike, he told me the message he is trying to instill in his own children; a way of thinking that I also believe everyone should adopt: “Be you. Don’t like it because everybody else does, and don’t hate it because everybody else likes it. Just listen to it, and say what you really think about it.”

“Be you. Don’t like it because everybody else does, and don’t hate it because everybody else likes it. Just listen to it, and say what you really think about it.”
— Walker Hayes

Because his music is such a melting pot of styles, I wanted to know which artists have inspired or influenced him the most: “I would say, in my industry, I’m always inspired by what Sam Hunt does. I’m always inspired by Kenny Chesney just as a business, just his everything. I love Macklemore. I love the conversational nature of his lyrics, and that is one detail I really try to do, is not write poetically, but just say… Like in ‘Country Stuff,’ one of my favorite [lyrics] is ‘guitar strings and dirt roads, you know,’ because if I was talking to you, I’d be like, ‘you know?’”

Another artist he loves (that might surprise you) is none other than global superstar P!NK: “I love P!NK. You ever get down on some P!NK? I love some bold artists who do things boldly, but they’re not bold for shock value. They’re bold ‘cause that’s what they were feeling.”

This should come as no surprise, because her music is so universal, but Kacey Musgraves has a fan in Walker Hayes: “Kacey Musgraves is somebody that I get down on her music. I feel an authenticity when I listen to her.”

Authenticity is something that can be really lacking nowadays in music. Walker Hayes says that, although he doesn’t know Kane Brown all that well, he feels like he’s a genuinely good and true person: “Kane Brown just seems like a dude who’s just having a good time being him. He’s not putting on a facade, trying to create a character, really. ‘Sometimes it be like that.’”

TikTok’s dominance over music couldn’t be more evident than when I asked him what songs he and his family were listening to most, and he said, “Anything that blows up on TikTok. I’ve been looking for that, ‘oh no, oh no no no no no.’ I wanna take that and remix it or something.”

He also told me that his daughter is “obsessed” with boyband Why Don’t We, so he has “been getting down on all their stuff.” On the other side of the spectrum he has been loving Christian group MercyMe, saying, “I’ve been getting down on MercyMe’s new album. It’s frickin’ insane.”

For a guy that writes songs all day everyday, I wondered if he knew just how many songs he had written over the last year and how many he had to choose from for this project. His answers surprised me: “I guess I probably write 75, 80, maybe close to 100 songs a year. It’s been a year of COVID, and I’ve had Zooms five days a week. Not all of them are for me or for my project. Some days you write two. I’d say for this project we probably wrote 35, 30, something like that. You miss. Some days you miss bad. You don’t even remember those.”

Just from hearing him talk about his work on this project, you can tell that Walker Hayes is really proud of his work on this EP, which is all a songwriter can ask for when releasing new music: “From a lover of songwriting myself, I’m really proud of every lyric on the EP. I think it’s all really tight, and I’m proud of them.”

I am always taken aback a little bit when talking to stars like Walker Hayes who have had #1 songs on the radio and sold out concerts seem like one of us normal people. This one selection from our interview made this idea ring especially true to me: “I think this year has shown us that you can let people behind the curtain and life goes on. There doesn’t need to be this facade. I’m just a dude with kids, and I go to Applebee’s just like you. If this song goes number one, I’ll still eat Frosties and fries. That’s my jam.”

“…I’m just a dude with kids, and I go to Applebee’s just like you. If this song goes number one, I’ll still ear Frosties and fries. That’s my jam.”
— Walker Hayes

Walker Hayes’ brand new Country Stuff EP is available everywhere right now. Buy and stream it here: https://smarturl.it/WHCountryStuffEP

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