Walker Hayes
Robert Chavers

Walker Hayes Went From Working at Costco to a No. 1 Hit. Now He's Focused on What Really Matters

Nashville is known as a "10-year town," a reference to the slow — and exhausting — climb to the top of fame and fortune. Even those who appear to be an overnight success have more than likely spent at least a decade of late nights playing cover songs on Broadway for tips. In the case of Walker Hayes, who created an inescapable smash hit with his joyful ode to the simple things in life, "Fancy Like," it was nearing 20 years and untold setbacks before he broke through with the viral song that changed his life. "I literally was nobody," Hayes says. "I wrote an Applebee's song and then all of a sudden I'm somebody."

Hayes moved to Music City with his wife, Laney, in 2004. Along the way, he busked on Broadway, earned and lost a recording contract, and worked the graveyard shift at Costco while spending the rest of his days writing songs.

A chance encounter with hit songwriter and producer Shane McAnally at a Smoothie King led to Hayes' 2017 album Boom, which included the top 10 hit "You Broke Up With Me." Then, in 2021, Hayes' daughter Lela introduced him to the video hosting app TikTok, and together they shared a dance Lela choreographed to his newly released "Fancy Like." Pretty soon, celebrities from Amy Adams to Shaquille O'Neal were taking part in the "Fancy Like" trend.

Since then, Hayes has shared his heart with fans through his songs, from his struggle with addiction (he's seven years sober) to wrestling with life changes and his journey to faith.

With a gold album under his belt and a headlining tour around the corner, Hayes chatted with Wide Open Country about taking his family of eight on the road, the meaning of success in the music industry, TikTok and, of course, the joy of Applebee's.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Wide Open Country: You've been able to start taking your family out on the road with you. How are your kids enjoying tour life and joining you on stage?

Walker Hayes: I think at first it was a shock, you know? It was exciting. My fame and the success — it just literally came out of thin air. So at the beginning, there was a lot of adrenaline. Everybody was excited. Now, honestly, I feel like my kids are hard to excite. ... My daughter Lela, she dances with three other dancers through the whole show. And they're pros. They're incredible. And I'm like, do you even realize that's a big deal? You're a 17-year-old girl — not a lot of 17-year-old girls dance on a show in front of 10,000 people a night.

I think it's kind of becoming old hat to them. However, I ask Laney, my wife, and my kids all the time, like, are y'all cool? Are you sure you want to go on the road? And they do, they choose the road. So that makes me feel good. I don't feel like I'm dragging them around. But it's fun. I'm just amazed. ... I just almost feel guilty sometimes. It's just awesome. I mean, right now we're just in a season where I don't have to leave my kids. I don't have to say goodbye to my wife. I get to sing songs and people sing along, and that's my job. I mean, it's what we always hoped for. It's amazing that God has allowed this to be my existence right now.

The last couple years have really been a whirlwind for you, but it came after a lot of years of struggle. Has your definition of success changed from when you first came to Nashville? How do you define success for yourself now?

I would say when I got here in Nashville, I liked the word success. I wanted it — I wanted that worldly success. I wanted to be a successful guy. I wanted to be somebody that was like, "He is a successful writer. He is a successful performer." I think I wanted to look in the mirror and say, "Damn, you're successful." And I hate to let people down, but I just — I'm kind of freed, you know? I've been the most unsuccessful human in Nashville, and I've been the most successful human. And now I find success just kind of meaningless. It didn't solve any problems that matter. It can't save me from me.

It can't make me a better person. I don't sleep any better because I'm not worried about how I'm gonna buy food for my family next week. I guess I'm a little surprised now at how little all the worldly success in the world changes anything for the better. I think maybe success for me now is just not even thinking about my circumstances, but just thinking about other people and myself less and not being self self-centered as a father, as a husband and as a performer and just even with people I see on a daily basis. The older I get, the less [it is] about me. I honestly attribute that to just — to knowing Jesus. And I wasn't always a believer. I'm kind of a new believer. But the definition of success has gone from this lengthy list of things that I needed to accomplish. And now, again, it's kind of a meaningless word. The last thing I want my children to do is leave my house chasing success, because it will only let them down.

Your song "Face in the Crowd" addresses what's truly important. Can you tell us about writing that song and what it means to you?

I wrote that song and the idea was given to me by a wonderful, just way-more-talented-than-me writer named Emily Falvey. She's one of those people who is very observant, and she's known me for a few years and she's known my writing for a few years. I think she recognized the discomfort that not only I feel, but I think all artists feel at when they become famous. No human was made to be worshipped, so it's a very — it's a weird feeling, going from just your average Joe to ... I literally was nobody. I wrote an Applebee's song and then all of a sudden I'm somebody. And it's like, whoa, whoa, whoa, I'm just trying to feed the kids. But I think she recognized that while all this fame is good [and] it's good financially, it's stability that we've never had, it's a future — she recognized all those good things, but I think she also recognized that a lot of people are like, "Oh man, y'all are so down to earth." What they don't realize is that's just us. We're just a normal family. I'm just trying to make it to tomorrow with six kids and a wife and us still be married tomorrow and love my kids and have the dogs fed. We're just a family. And she recognized that. She could tell that I was a little uncomfortable. She had that idea — when the fame's all gone, what's it all about?

If you come to a show of mine [and] my family's not there, it's a different show. Because when my family is there, I find myself looking for their faces around the stage and performing for them. And the crowd receives that joy — that ricochets on the crowd. My family is obviously very important to me. And [my wife] Laney, that woman loved me when nobody did. I'm telling you, I met her when I was 17 and I don't know why she and I connected, but praise God we did. And it was about time I put it in a song.

We have to ask about TikTok. You and your family seem to have so much joy making videos. It seems like you're just purely doing it for fun. Has it been a bonding experience for you and your family?

It is. It is. You know, it's funny, I think a lot of people look at TikTok and it's very trite and trivial to them. But for my family — the bond that Lela and I have, it's just been enhanced. With each of my children, I really just love to find something we can both dive into. And TikTok is funny and it's fun. And honestly, some of the most precious moments are making them. We don't even really watch them that much or see how many views [we get]. We have so much fun making them. Honestly, if you could capture that — the 10, 20 minutes you spend making them — that's the most fun part. My daughter's 17. She's kinda looking at colleges now, and honestly I'm like, man, I'm gonna miss "Hey, you wanna do a TikTok?" That's just kind of like playing a board game in our house.

Broadway is obviously a huge draw in Nashville and a lot of artists have their own establishments. Is it true that you're interested in opening a "fancy" Applebee's in Nashville?

Oh yeah. The guys at Applebee's, they're family. I mean, they're just open-minded to this whole thing. I was impressed. I love marketing.  I think it's such a creative space, and I think they just were wise in how they handled the popularity of this song. We've become really close. It wasn't even my idea; one of them [asked if I would] be interested. We'd kind of have that home theme — the stuff you find [inside], it would all be around "Fancy Like." I mean, that's an easy yes for me. And to think I used to just stand on the corner on Broadway and just play with a jar, you know? So to imagine that I did that and then there was like a "Fancy Like" Walker Hayes [themed] Applebee's — I mean, that'd be pretty crazy.

That'd be amazing. We need more Applebee's in Nashville too.

I know, I know. We don't have enough. I'm with you.

READ MORE: Walker Hayes Songs: 8 Gems From His Feel-Good Rise to Fame