Walker Hayes admits premiering a brand new song on national television is a surreal feeling. It's even more surreal when your breakthrough album is barely 9 months old and you're still technically a "developing artist" in the industry. But that's the scenario Hayes found himself in when he sang his new single "90's Country" live on Good Morning America earlier in September -- before anybody else heard it.
"I was nervous as shit," the 38-year-old breakout singer tells Wide Open Country. "Like I don't even want to go back and watch it because when I see the pictures I look so nervous."
The fact that nobody knew the song yet also meant Hayes couldn't lean on the audience for help with the words. "I still get lost in the lyrics when I'm nervous," Hayes laughs. "With [breakthrough single] 'You Broke Up With Me' it was like boom, smash hit everybody knows the words and I felt like Elvis. Playing a brand new one, I forgot what that felt like. It's like, 'Here's a new one y'all; hope it doesn't suck.'"
The good news for Walker Hayes is that if the last three weeks is any indication, fans certainly don't think "90's Country" sucks. The song immediately set the country blogosphere ablaze and it's become one of his fastest-streamed song to date.
Making It Feel Like 90's Country
For Walker Hayes, "90's Country" is a bit of a different beast. He and Gabby Mooney (known professionally as Lyrx) started writing it two years ago, when he was still writing and recording out of a shack. When producer and co-writer Shane McAnally got involved, the pair spent hours on end just trying to get the right lines.
"We'd spend like 6 hours together and only get two lines," Hayes says. "I mean we'd write 20 that worked, but only two really fit. There's about 10 versions of this song nobody will ever hear. There's one with a minute and a half rap in the middle that had like 'Cheap Seats,' 'Neon Moon,' 'My Maria,' 'Small Town Saturday Night,' 'Achy Breaky'...it was packed and it was awesome, but it just got a little too complicated."
So they opted to choose the lines that helped make a story. And the lines that they most resonated with. "Everything about this song was more calculated than the songs on [most recent album] boom.," Hayes says. In the end, the writers snuck in just north of 20 references to different '90s country songs.
They spent more time on this song, both writing and producing, than just about any other song to date. It is, by all accounts, the "biggest sounding" Walker Hayes song. Combined with how Hayes premiered it and how the spotlight on him has grown since he released "You Broke Up With Me," it also makes this song the biggest of his career in terms of expectations. "This is the first song me and Shane wrote where we were like, 'Yo, this is going on the radio,'" Hayes says.
It's also a little paradoxical, considering the loose, bubbly vibe of the song. As Dolly Parton says, "It costs a lot of money to look this cheap" -- or in Hayes' case, it takes a lot of work to sound this carefree.
Interestingly enough, Hayes and company briefly considered putting "90's Country" on boom. They decided against it, thinking it stood too far apart from the heavier material of songs like "Craig," "Halloween" and "Beer In The Fridge."
Which also means Hayes' follow-up album may lean more towards the content of songs like "90's Country." In the interim, Hayes plans on releasing more of his "8Tracks," which are essentially 8-song EPs with less production sheen -- and fewer filters. It's a delicate balance in the spectrum of music industry politics.
"Trust me, I'm not the only one saying this," Hayes says. "You can ask any artist in Nashville and they'll tell you they want to release music all the time. I don't want to sit on '90's Country' for 30 weeks. And luckily my team won't let me do that. But a lot of artists are under those constraints. Their label will not release music and draw attention away from the single.'"
"I love that fans love the 8Tracks," Hayes adds. "Because those are for me...they're therapeutic."
Hayes is consistently candid. About his struggles with alcoholism. About losing his daughter Oakleigh Klover the day she was born. And about the politics of country music.
"I think country music needs to allow each other to evolve faster," he says. "We all have great content just sitting there that a lot of times we're not allowed to put out for marketing reasons."
Hayes doesn't shy away from explaining how the desire to get radio play with the song affected its overall production. He doesn't mind being honest about the drive to release commercially viable songs to keep food on the table.
He's also self-aware, despite his sometimes flippant vocal delivery. He knows people will immediately take digs at him for releasing a song called "90's Country" that sounds nothing like country songs from the '90s. Right after pointing out that the majority of the songs mentioned in Anne-Marie's pop hit "2002" didn't come out in 2002.
But for all the ways Walker Hayes may be "polarizing" to country traditionalists, there's something uniquely fascinating about him. He's a family man approaching 40 with a better fashion sense than his teenagers. He'll give you a bro hug one moment and then open up about sensitive subjects in the first five minutes of meeting you. The music he makes sounds nothing like the music of his heroes. Plus, he could just as soon write a song about how much '90s metal means to him.
Honestly, it's refreshing. Especially after years of watching artists walk the tightrope of trying to be everything to everyone (particularly their label). And as his fans are proving, being yourself (as unpredictable as that may be) is always a winning a combination.