Walker Hayes became one of the most buzzed-about new artists when his song "You Broke Up With Me" picked up serious steam on Spotify. The 38-year-old father of seven then released debut album boom. in December, crafting a sound as youthful -- and "controversial" -- as it comes in country music.
After taking "You Broke Up With Me" to the top 10 on country radio, Hayes announced an unlikely candidate for a new single. "A lot of people expected either 'Beautiful' or 'Shut Up, Kenny,' to be the next single," Hayes tells Wide Open Country from his bus, between a whirlwind of shows opening for Kelsea Ballerini, headlining clubs and visiting radio stations. "But the last thing we wanted to do was be another artist who does exactly what's expected."
Instead, Hayes and his label chose album closer "Craig" as the next single. It's completely out of the box in terms of country music, leaning heavily on a spoken narrative and uncommon lyrical and rhyming structures. It's a commercial risk for a relatively "new" artist in a polarizing space. In fact, "Craig" almost didn't make the album at all.
It's also arguably the best song on the record and a message the world needs to hear right now.
"I met this guy named Craig a few years ago at a church, of all places," Hayes says. "He and I couldn't have been more different. At the time I was an aspiring songwriter hoping for a miracle in the music business. I was working at Costco and we just had our sixth kid. We also only had one car. And I was an alcoholic."
Craig, on the other hand, "had his shit together," Hayes says. But despite their different life situations, the pair hit it off and became close friends. "He and his family just reached out and loved us unconditionally, first and foremost," Hayes says.
While Hayes tried to keep his struggles internal, there were certainly cracks in the facade. And though he's an admittedly proud person, there were moments in his family's struggle that Hayes couldn't hide. Like why a family of eight people traveled in a car made for five.
"When I had my first record deal five or six years ago, I had an endorsement deal with a car dealership," Hayes says. The dealership let him shepherd his family around in a free minivan. But as it often goes in the industry, Hayes' first deal didn't pan out and he got dropped.
Over the next several months he tried to hide the news from the dealership, putting together just enough to make it seem like he was still signed. But it only worked so long. Soon, the dealership came for their van. "I remember watching the truck take the van away, and we were just left with a Honda Accord," he says. "I'm ashamed to say we weren't street legal, but we had to go places and didn't have any other options."
To hear how it ends, well, listen to the song.
An Unlikely Choice
Walker Hayes wanted to thank Craig and his family for what they did. "I always felt I had done that really masculine, 'Thanks bro,' but that wasn't enough," Hayes says. "I'm not great at communicating in that way, but I wanted to articulate it by doing my favorite thing in the world."
So Hayes told Craig he'd write a song for him. "I think he thought I was joking," Hayes laughs. At the time, he didn't plan on putting it on boom.
In fact, Hayes was already well into the pre-production and recording process for the record. He wrote "Craig" over several weeks and sent it to the title character. "Both he and his wife cried," Hayes says. "They really responded how you'd hope somebody would when you just want them to know how grateful you are."
Hayes also sent it to his label, Monument Records, the Tuesday before the Friday he was scheduled to work on the album. And it was like the song took on a life of its own.
They were like, "We're putting this on the album; there's no question about it," he says. There was never talk of it becoming a single. But after seeing the reaction to the song live, it suddenly felt like an option.
For one, notoriously fickle radio programmers really responded to the song when he played it at Country Radio Seminar. "What better way to test a song than to play it for the most jaded listeners on the planet?" Hayes laughs. But more importantly, the fans and fellow artists love it.
A Special Message
"I always saw our situation at the time as my mess," Walker Hayes says. "And I never wanted to be a burden to society, especially for the sake of chasing a dream many people thought was foolish. I've never been so broken, to need somebody or something like that, and I've never met somebody so willing to do what Craig did."
But it turns out there are more people like Craig than you'd think -- we just don't hear it much, because we're consumed with the negative, headline-grabbing news. "Since I put that song out I've had more people and artists come up to me and say they had somebody help them like that when they were in a similar situation," Hayes says.
He's excited for the opportunity to see that conversation grow and see a movement development around the message of selflessness in "Craig." And he's genuinely excited to talk about the single. "As soon as we started talking about the possibility of making 'Craig' a single, my excitement went up a million notches," Hayes says.
Because it's not about him.
"As an artist it alleviates a lot of pressure," Hayes says. "It's not like, 'What cool outfit can I put on today, or what cool social post can I put out to glorify me?' That's why releasing this song is so fun. It's not about me. It's about Craig and his story, this story he gave me. I feel like this song could help the world in a small -- or maybe even big -- way."