Four years before a father-daughter TikTok dance drastically changed his fortunes in country music, Walker Hayes included a musical ode to his best friend, "Craig," on the 2017 album Boom.
The song tells the true story of how losing a record deal cost Hayes access to a minivan, leaving him and his wife Laney with only a worn-down car without enough seatbelts for their six kids. Hayes family friend Craig Cooper, a founding pastor of Redeeming Grace Church in Franklin, Tenn., stepped in, surprising a struggling singer-songwriter with a pre-owned Chrysler Town & Country.
"Fancy Like" introduced more listeners to "Craig," as did a new version of the latter recorded for 2021's Country Stuff the Album with Christian act MercyMe. Hayes even dubbed his charity the Be a Craig Fund in honor of a Christian who walks the walk.
As co-authors of Glad You're Here: Two Unlikely Friends Breaking Bread and Fences (out May 3 via Moody Publishers), Hayes and Cooper tell the full story behind what led to and resulted from an act of brotherly love.
Hayes and Cooper wrote the bulk of the book before "Fancy Like" became a social media sensation and one of the definitive country songs of 2021, which makes it hard not to smile as next-door neighbors count blessings from a time when a rather eventful conclusion remained unwritten.
Read on for Wide Open Country's Q&A with both authors, which examines Glad You're Here through a post- "Fancy Like" lens.
Wide Open Country: Walker, you make a habit of putting yourself out there through confessional songs like "Craig." Is it scary to be so honest through a different medium?
Hayes: When Craig started the book, we were just at a phase of life that it kind of was a great place for vulnerability to live. It was during COVID. Craig and I's friendship, it just grew because we moved next door to Craig. We basically did COVID together. So I mean every day, I felt like we were either hanging, writing a song, coming up with an idea or celebrating a kids' birthday or something. We just got to know each other on a new level as neighbors. So when we started the book, that vulnerability just poured onto those pages.
Now that it's coming out, it's like, "Whoa, there's a lot more people to share this book with than there were when we started it because of the year we've had." So it's a little bit frightening. There's a limit to how vulnerable you get on a song.
Wide Open Country: Craig, with you co-authoring the book, we get your side of the story, which is that you had your own struggles, your own fears and your own things that strengthened your faith and put you in a position where you were sort of paying it forward by giving Walker's family the minivan.
Cooper: I got a book deal, and then kind of as we were writing [songs] together a lot and dreaming together, I'm like, "Dude, what if we did this together? Would you want to do that?" He got excited about it, so I went back to the publisher and they got excited about it.
God's hand is over the whole thing. A million things had to happen for us to get what is Glad You're Here, and God orchestrated all of it. So we're just basically telling our stories from two different perspectives. We're broken people, looking at the incredible kindness and grace of God.
Wide Open Country: Walker, you wrote candidly about when your career was first picking up while working with Shane McAnally. You made it seem like you didn't know when to say no to opportunities and overwhelmed yourself. Did lessons learned from that help you navigate how hectic your life's been for the past year?
Hayes: That was before I knew the Lord. I was trying to fill some emptiness. I think I was beginning to see my need for a savior, but I would've denied that what I needed was a savior. I thought that maybe success would heal me. I thought maybe making my success about the fans would heal me. Success was one of the greatest letdowns of my life ever, so that happened to me with "You Broke Up With Me."
So when I got to "Fancy Like," Craig could probably feel it. I mean, he was my neighbor. At times, I feel like Craig was more excited about "Fancy Like" than I was, just because I just know how fast it all goes away. And look, it's great. It helps me provide for my kids, and I know it makes people smile. But there's a more important thing and character in the story of life. Again, it will all fade. I mean "Fancy Like" is literally about as big as you can have a song in music, but it is so, so small... I hate to even compare it to knowing Christ because it's just stupid compared to knowing Christ. However, it's useful. God can use something as dumb as the song "Fancy Like" to get [listeners] to the story of Craig.
Honestly, I feel like the letdowns of success, they prepared us. God was preparing me to have "Fancy Like" and to not let ourselves get so sucked in. I will say when "Fancy Like" popped off, I could feel my grip tighten around success and control over my career. I was glad to have friends like Craig and believers around me reminding me like, "Hey, it's all in the Lord's hands."
Wide Open Country: I think it's valuable, Walker, that you are so open that you were against church for a long time. You felt like you'd met a lot of hypocrites back home and that it wasn't for you. Through Craig, God softened your heart over time until you became a believer. I think it's great that you put that part of the story out there because you're reaching people that maybe feel the same way [about organized religion] and might otherwise feel preached at at a country concert.
Hayes: Yeah, I think a lot of people can relate. I'll freely admit, and now Craig knows me: I'm just another hypocrite in a pew. There's no day I'm going to wake up and be complete here this side of heaven. I don't like that, but that's just the way it is.
As the song says, I still haven't figured out church. Honestly, I've stopped trying to figure out church and started just trying to walk to Jesus and get over my problems with this person or that person or this institution or that. It's not about that.
I know I have a lot of friends that you wouldn't catch them within a square mile of a church, and I understand that.
Wide Open Country: Craig, your parts of the book teach us how the presence of Walker, a self-professed "alcoholic atheist" at the time, blessed the Cooper family.
Cooper: I get excited about that because so many people have heard the story of "Craig" and everything, and I'm like, "Y'all, listen. Walker is an amazing friend." I want to tell the world that this guy has held me up. I've struggled through depression over the last couple of years, with COVID and the pandemic and a fledgling staffing firm that I tried to start off the ground. I don't even know what life would be like if I didn't have Walker there.
I can think of specific instances. One on his front porch, where he just put his hand on me and was like, "God, I play for Craig more than I pray for anything. Please help him now." It just lifted me. Another time in the car when I wanted to give up on this book, he called and he was like, "Dude, we're on the one-yard line. This is important. It's about Jesus. No wonder that you would feel opposition to it because these are eternal things, man. You've got to press through." It helped me because at one point, I wanted to give up.
Hayes: Book writing is hard!
Cooper: It is hard, man. It's hard doing it on top of Walker has "Fancy Like" hit on chapter five or six, and then you've got deadlines hitting on that. I had a staffing firm that I'd started that I was still running, but I had to leave it to go get a full-time job to pay the bills. I was still serving as a pastor with Redeeming Grace, and we had parent stuff going on.
Wide Open Country: One last thing. When the book covers the Walker Wednesdays series at a seafood restaurant in Franklin, Tenn., it stands out, knowing what we know now, that Walker's daughter Lela stole the show back then, too.
Hayes: She's the star, man. My kids, they're beautiful content for the world, and I love sharing them with the world. I love them too much, I think.
Lela and I have a special bond. She's the oldest, so she's clearly seen the most versions of me. She could read this book, and she already knows the story exactly how it's written. The others might be surprised by some stuff. Not Lela. She's a special girl, and she's very forgiving. She's seen Christ up close and personal in our relationship.
Just having her in 2005, thinking the things we'd do together later in life is crazy.
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