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Quirky Songwriter Walker Hayes on New Album ‘Boom,’ Conquering Self-Doubt

“You Broke Up With Me” songwriter struggled through years of anonymity before discovering his voice

Walker Hayes

Walker Hayes' releases his debut album 'Boom.' on Friday.

Rick Diamond/Getty Images

Walker Hayes has been pursuing a music career in Nashville since 2005, but he’s only now getting around to releasing his first album, a record that is sure to turn heads for its out-of-bounds influences and production. It’s an accomplishment that isn’t the least bit lost on the 37-year-old father of six.

“It’s going to be an emotional moment when I walk out and see it [in stores] and think, ‘Hey, this is happening everywhere around the country,'” Hayes says of the album, titled Boom. (which he styles as boom.), while relaxing at Nashville’s Third Man Records before playing a private showcase in the label’s Blue Room. “We’re ecstatic. We take a little more of it in every day.”

Hayes is the first artist signed to Monument Records, a legacy imprint that was revived by songwriter-producer Shane McAnally and executive Jason Owen earlier in 2017. It’s not Hayes’ first time to have a record deal – he was signed to Capitol Records Nashville in the early 2010s, releasing a couple of middling singles before he was let go.

He spent the intervening years working at Costco and writing songs, with the full support of his family – including wife Laney, who will welcome their seventh child in early summer – every step of the way. While Hayes himself went through intense periods of doubt, he kept writing, eventually getting McAnally’s attention.

The single “You Broke Up with Me,” a breezy, genre-defying ode to moving on that Hayes admits is more about his relationship to the music industry than it is about anything romantic, finally gave Hayes his breakout moment. Boom. picks up the thread from there, showing Hayes to be a versatile songwriter who can deftly move between soulful crooning (“Shut Up Kenny”), startling vulnerability (“Beer in the Fridge”) and melodic pop (“Dollar Store”). Hip-hop flourishes abound, as on the Nicolle Galyon duet “Halloween” and arresting album closer “Craig,” which tells the true story of a life-altering friendship between Hayes and a member of his church. When Hayes was struggling to make ends meet, the titular Craig gave him a car.

It took you a while to get to this album. What do you think that Boom. has now that you wouldn’t have been able to put into it in, say, 2010?
I’m one of the lucky artists in Nashville that gets to – I know it sounds cliché – but just write from the heart. There’s no boxes put around this project. It’s all the truth about what it took us to get here. That’s a lot of what the album entails, my struggles on this journey to putting this album out. So yeah, six or seven years ago, I didn’t feel that freedom. A lot of what I did in the earlier parts of my journey was try to aim. I’d listen to what was on the radio and I’d go, ‘Oh, this is what a label wants me to do. I can do that.’ It just wasn’t believable. I think that’s why it never really popped earlier. I think that we – we meaning my family – kind of hit rock bottom along this journey, and that’s when the truth came out. I didn’t think I was going to have an album coming out, so I started writing songs just to write songs, which is why we all should create.

Where did the title Boom. come from?
[Laughs] Thats just a silly word. I overuse words. My kids catch me saying stuff. They’re like, ‘Hey, you say that all the time.’ “Boom” is one of those things. Nothing happened in the first 12 years of my career and then all of the sudden everything happened. Like you asking me how does it feel for my album to be out, I’ve noticed people already pre-ordering it and saying good things about it. So when I read those things or my song climbs another number up the chart, I either text my wife or text my manager Robert, “Boom.”

You mentioned how all of this, in some ways, happened at once for you. Do you have an idea of what precipitated that? Was there some kind of tipping point?
Well, it was two things. One was I had to hit that point where, like I said earlier, I’m no longer aiming. For lack of a nice way to put it, I kind of hit where I just didn’t give a fuck, you know? I was still writing songs but I kind of didn’t even want to because I was like, “Where are these going to go?” I was thinking that my dream was such a waste of my time in life, but I still wrote on cups and napkins in my car. I would get pissed off at myself, like, “What are you doing? Get your life together.” I think it was a matter of me hitting that point, because all of the sudden, people started liking what I was writing. Then, also, Shane McAnally… I wouldn’t be here without him, hands down. Exactly two years ago, I was working at Costco, he called me and said, “Hey, I’m listening to your music. I can’t get any of these artists I’m working with to cut it, but I want to make a record on you.” And that changed everything.

What do you think you get out of working with Monument that you wouldn’t necessarily find at a more traditional label?
I think it’s not only Monument, but I’m their first artist. That’s a lot of pressure on them. And it’s pressure on me. I need to provide for my family. It’s so nice to know that when I’m out in a hotel room and missing my family, maybe jotting down some ideas, I’m tired, I’m trying to stay positive, it’s nice to know that wherever I am, they’re here, and they’re busting it, too. I don’t think you get that at one of these massive labels. Right now, they have a lot to lose and a lot to gain. So I feel like they are lying in bed thinking the same stuff I am.

Listening to the album, it seems like they’ve given you a lot of space to explore and experiment. How did you develop your eclectic sound?
One thing Shane always appreciated about me was the lyrics and the stories. That’s the heart of country music, really. I don’t know another genre where you could write a song like “Craig.” There’s a lot of music out there that’s vulnerable, but I feel like my album is really a diary. I think that’s why they allow me so much space.

People like to argue about what’s authentic and what’s not, what’s country and what’s not. With that in mind, what do you feel makes music authentic?
Just as an outside listener, I’m sure we can be fooled. But I love what is believable, and that’s up to the listener. I like artists with a life, where it’s not this universal thing anybody could sing. I want them speaking to me in only a way that they can. To me, that’s what makes it good.

A lot has changed for you over the last year. When you look forward to this time next year, what do you hope you’ve accomplished?
I have some lofty goals. I want “You Broke Up With Me” to go Number One. If that happens, it’s going to take me a year to process it … I went to the awards, the CMAs. I’d like to go there, maybe with my name on a nomination … I’d love to get an outside cut … I hope I have a reason to make another album, really. I hope I have a reason to play shows everywhere. I just want to have a job.

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