Much like Dottie West, Barbara Mandrell and other past stars whose creative redirections signaled an unwillingness to concede radio airplay, Clay Walker made a point on new album Texas to Tennessee (out July 30 via Show Dog Nashville) to mix the story-driven lyrics that made him a '90s hitmaker with more modern production elements.
"Our plan was to be relevant and get in the mix," Walker told Wide Open Country. "I started writing some songs and doing some demos, and my manager really liked them and took them to the record label, Show Dog, and the choice was made to sign me to a record deal with the objective being let's get one of the really happening producers in town. We took some meetings with a couple of producers, but Michael Knox was really the one we targeted and settled in on because he had a vision that he could see for us. He said, 'Man, I'd really like to make a record where Clay writes all of the songs so the record is about him. We're not trying to reinvent the wheel. We're just trying to sell Clay Walker.'"
Knox, a go-to producer for Jason Aldean, brought on board co-writers, each with an ear for what's next in country music plus an appreciation for what set Walker and his songs apart across the three previous decades.
"I've written a lot material I've sang over the years, and all the songs I recorded I either lived or loved," Walker added. "There was always that integrity there. This was just a deeper dive. Michael Knox helped line up the really happening writers in town that we got to write with. Seriously, when those writers came to my house or we met wherever we were going to write, there was already a focus on what we wanted to do because they spoke to Michael Knox first. There was just this continuity. Everything was orchestrated for that goal. When we got done, it was a masterpiece."
Another major cog in the Aldean machine, Jaron Boyer, co-produced the album with Knox and co-wrote six of its 10 songs with Walker. Other songwriters range from Boyer's fellow Aldean and Dierks Bentley collaborator Michael Tyler to a '90s star who's already played the 21st century country game and won, David Lee Murphy.
"When we wrote 'You Look Good,' that song came together so easily, and (Tyler) was a huge part of it," Walker says of an advance release track he co-wrote with Boyer and Tyler. "He also has some cool phrasing. I really enjoy when you're writing with someone who can sing really good like him or Jaron Boyer. They're both fantastic singers. Phrasing has a lot to do with not only the sentence or phrase you're writing but also the next one that's coming. That didn't have to be explained in the session. We all just got it because we're all singers. Sometimes if there is a struggle in writing, it can happen in that place. If you have one too many words in a phrase, you can't get it all in."
Circumstances over the past year and a half took touring off the table and cut down on the scheduling conflicts that accompany time at home, making it way easier than usual for Walker and his new collaborators to piece together a track list of 10 well-crafted stories.
"Historically, I have listened to I'd say 5,000 songs per album to find 10," Walker said. "As an artist, you know within the first line or two if you're going to like a song or not. On these, we didn't do that. We didn't listen to songs. We came with a purpose, and we knew we could get it. That was completely shocking to me and different. I've always written about half the material I sing on an album and then looked for the other songs. We didn't have to do that. I was so pleased. I was tickled about it. If it wouldn't have been for COVID, I don't think we would've had the time to write so much, and that was a blessing."
Beyond reflecting Walker's embrace of the types of change that've always pushed country music into the future, Texas to Tennessee establishes that producers and songwriters who've navigated the genre's current path see promise in the '90s star's quest for another hit.
"They never would've taken on the project if they didn't believe that my voice still has a place on country radio," Walker said. "There's not any processing on my vocal or anything that makes it sound weird. There's no autotune sound or anything like that. It was, 'We like you, Clay, as you've always been as a singer. That's the one part that we know he can do. We're not going to mess with that.'"
The title Texas to Tennessee signifies two things: the album was recorded in both Galveston and Nashville, and the stories it tells track Walker's rocky yet rewarding path from his hometown of Beaumont to Music City stardom.
"Out of all of the songs on the record, it probably signals who I have been through my career," Walker says of the title track. "There's strong elements of '90s sound. And then also where I am in my life. 'It's been a hell of a road from Texas to Tennessee' is a true story."
Texas to Tennessee Track List:
1. "Anything To Do With You" (Clay Walker/Brandon Kinney/Shane Minor/Mike Mobley)
2. "Need A Bar Sometimes" (Walker/Jaron Boyer/Josh Mirenda/George Birge)
3. "Catching Up With An Ol' Memory" (Walker/Jaron Boyer/George Birge/Lalo Guzman)
4. "Country Side" (Walker/Jaron Boyer/Lynn Wilbanks)
5. "Cowboy Loves A Woman" (Walker/Jennifer Hanson/Mark Nesler)
6. "Texas To Tennessee" (Walker/Jennifer Hanson/Mark Nesler)
7. "I Just Wanna Hold You" (Walker/Jaron Boyer/Ben Stennis)
8. "Loving You Then" (Walker/Jaron Boyer/Brad Rempel/Ben Stennis)
9. "You Look Good" (Walker/Jaron Boyer/Michael Tyler)
10. "One More" (Walker/David Lee Murphy/Justin Weaver)