There's nothing like a life-threatening illness to serve as a wake-up call. Just ask Wade Hayes. After battling cancer twice in the past four years and being told he only had a 12 percent chance of survival, the country singer has emerged with a refined sense of priorities and a renewed passion for music that is evident on his new album, Go Live Your Life.
"I hope it inspires people," says Hayes of the title track. "When I'm saying, 'Go live your life,' I'm not saying to go jump out of an airplane or ride a bull. I'm saying I've got a second chance. You never know what's waiting around the corner for you. So tell somebody you love them. Find what makes you happy. That's what the song's about."
Hayes has partnered with Genentech to help raise awareness and money for people with advanced colorectal cancer. Genentech is donating $1 (at least $25,000/up to $50,000) for every download of "Go Live Your Life" on iTunes. The money will support the Colon Cancer Alliance Blue Note Fund, a non-profit that supports people with advanced colorectal cancer.
Hayes was first diagnosed with stage IV colon cancer in October of 2011. Extensive surgery and chemotherapy seemed to eradicate the disease and the singer was putting it all behind him when the cancer reappeared in the fall of 2012.
"It came back in my lymph nodes, near the original cancer site," he says. "I had to take chemo for several months prior to surgery and then they did surgery again, opened me up nearly in the exact same spot, and got all the lymph nodes out that were affected. I've been cancer free since."
Hayes co-wrote "Go Live Your Life" with Bobby Pinson after a conversation with his oncologist. When the doctor told Hayes he was cancer free for the second time, he encouraged the musician to make the most of his new lease on life. "He said, 'Wade, you were stage IV, and now you're cancer free,'" Hayes recalls. "He said, 'This is a big deal. I want you to go live your life.'"
For Hayes, part of that mission included recording a new album. Co-produced with his friend Dave McAfee, Go Live Your Life is the musician's first project since 2009's Place to Turn Around, and he was beyond anxious to to get back to recording and performing again — things that cancer had robbed him of doing. "During chemo, you've got a lot of time on your hands," he says. "I couldn't work. Being a singer, songwriter and guitar player, the side effects of the chemotherapy that I was on, you get blisters in your throat, in your mouth, in your nose, and you get neuropathy really bad where you can't feel things. It was very difficult for me to play and sing, so you get a lot of time on your hands. I read a lot of books and I wrote a lot of songs, and it got me through it."
One of the songs he penned during his darkest days, "Is It Already Time," chronicled the feelings he had after receiving his diagnosis. In the lyric, he asks, "Is it already time?/Time to move along?/Have I lived my life?/Have I written my last song?" But he decided to leave that track off the new album. "It's too heavy and I didn't want to do that anymore," he explains.
No one would have blamed Hayes for delivering a dark album filled with deep explorations on life and mortality, but that's not what he does on Go Live Your Life. Though there are meaty songs such as "If The Sun Comes Up," a beautiful ballad about moving on after losing a loved one, the LP is also populated with fun, uptempo tunes such as "Remember the Alimony" and "Love Knew Better."
"Obviously my life has changed a lot in the past five years," the now 45-year-old singer says with a smile. "I just look at things differently, and it's changed my songwriting and the songs that I want to sing. I feel like the new music is a lot more [upbeat]. I used to gravitate towards the darker stuff because I loved it when I was a kid for some reason, but now I see things totally different. I'm more into happy stuff. I want to make people happy and hopeful."
Hayes insists he's enjoying this period in his life more than he did during his first brush with success. A native of Bethel Acres, Oklahoma, he moved to Nashville in hopes of being a sideman like his hero Don Rich, Buck Owens' legendary guitar player. He landed a job as lead guitarist for Johnny Lee, but his songwriting skills and distinctive voice soon led to a publishing deal and then a record contract with Columbia. His very first single, 1994's "Old Enough to Know Better," went to Number One, and he continued with a string of hits, including "I'm Still Dancing with You," "On a Good Night," "The Day That She Left Tulsa (In a Chevy)" and "What I Meant to Say."
"I was ill-prepared for all of that stuff," he says of his early success. "I was very a very ignorant country boy. I had never been on a plane. I had barely been out of the state of Oklahoma when all this stuff started happening. It was almost too much. I took my first airplane ride going to promote a record. I had a song on the national charts, on a big record label, before I had ever done anything. It was crazy, and I didn't know anything about anything. It was a bit much, but I'm very thankful."
These days, Hayes is touring again and frequently shares a bill with Bryan White and Mark Wills. He also recently shot a video for "Go Live Your Life" on a country road near his 11-acre farm in Lebanon, Tennessee. "We used a drone to film the video," he says of the clip (below), which features Hayes tooling around in his '73 Ford truck with his dog, Jack, riding shotgun. "I'd never seen a drone in person. It was the most fascinating machine I've seen in years, but Jack went crazy and was trying to get the drone because it was hovering right outside of our truck window.
"One of the things the song is about is finding the things in life that make you happy, taking time for them and just not taking them for granted," Hayes continues. "One of the few things in this life that actually does make me happy is riding around out in the country in that old truck. I grew up in the country and I love to be out driving those country roads, and Jack loves it too. So that was a big part of the video, for my personal satisfaction."
When Hayes isn't making music, he spends time speaking to groups about his battle with cancer and encouraging people to get screened early. "This is the first time in a very long time that I've felt like I was doing something that mattered, that I mattered," he says. "Making music is wonderful, but this is serious business — about as serious as it gets. I just felt like I've wasted a lot of time of my life not doing more. I'm hoping now there's something I can do. I want people to get screened and not have to go through this in the first place. I've talked to plenty of people that have gone through it or been diagnosed, are going through it, or about to go through it, and it hurts my heart to know what they're going through. I just want to make that better in some way."