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Interview: Walker Hayes opens up about his music, his favourite Christmas song and his upcoming 8Tracks release

The singer-songwriter sat down with us during Country Music Week for a catch-up.

Walker Hayes
Credit: Monument

Walker Hayes is no stranger to the UK having made several trips here over the past couple of years.

He was recently in the UK as part of the Introducing Nashville line-up, which kicked off Country Music Week, after replacing Chris Lane, who pulled out so he could get married. Joining Danielle Bradbery, Travis Denning and Rachel Wammack, Walker performed a variety of his songs in a stripped-down setting and shared the stories behind them.

I sat down with Walker backstage at Cadogan Hall in London before the show to talk about his sound, discuss his detractors, and to find out about his upcoming 8Tracks release in December.

Welcome back!

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Man, it’s so good to be here. It really is.

It was a bit of a surprise wasn’t it because you weren’t originally part of the lineup…

Yeah! I mean, I feel like I’ve known about it forever and of course, I didn’t know I was taking somebody’s place that couldn’t do it or anything like that. I just was like, yeah, I’m coming. We’ve had a great time. Got to see a couple of new cities. I’d never been to Newcastle and also Brighton.

Was Newcastle rowdy by any chance?

Newcastle was pretty rowdy but I got to tell you Glasgow was the crowd of the week. Hands down, they gave it to us. They were awesome.

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You’ve been over here a few times now. Are you noticing a growth in your fanbase and people coming to support you?

Yeah. The fans here are alarmingly respectable. They’re not the drunk, loud crowd that we get in the US. They’re very calm compared to the US. You can tell more people know my stuff each time I come and honestly personally, I get better at traveling over here. I’ve gotten a hold of how to sleep and when to sleep as you’re coming over so I do better with that. I’m having a great time. We’ve been busy but I’ve had a great time this year. This is definitely my favourite trip over here but my favourite is always the one I just went on.

Being around the three other artists, has that sparked any creativity or collaborations?

Yeah. Now that we’ve all gotten to know each other, I am sure we will all probably collaborate at some point in the future, maybe write a little bit. I love Danielle (Bradbery) and Rachel Wammack’s voices. I write a lot of songs that feature females in the chorus and stuff. I could see myself using them. I didn’t know Travis (Denning) till four or five days ago and he’s just delightful. He’s a great guy. He’s hilarious. He and I have already talked about maybe getting together and writing when we get back.

Walker Hayes

Credit: Matthew Berinato

Musically you and Travis couldn’t be further apart. You straddle many different genres while Travis is more of a Southern rocker at heart. How would that work?

Honestly, I think it would work to our benefit that we’re both towards the bookends of country music right now. I will say, while we are very different and I think he’s kind of the the rock country traditional and I’m a little more progressive, if you will, I think what’s unique is that he and I both – you’ll see tonight as you watch us – we just love songs. A lot of his songs, I could sing them. They would just be delivered in a different way because I think we both share a unique and just a hunger for the lyricism and putting a song together. We both embrace and equally have a passion for that. I have so much respect for what he does and I think there’s vice versa. We just love songs.

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I’ve always said to you about your music that if you strip everything back and take it down to the lyrics, there is always a good traditional story, which is the basis of a country song. When I hear anybody say different to that it confuses me. I find that to be small-minded that they can’t get into the mindset. Does it ever frustrate you when you hear people saying you’re not Country?

Yeah. Just being quite frank the thing that frustrates me is that I try to focus on the integrity and quality of my lyrics. If you said, ‘hey, what do you want to give up first songwriting or performing?’ I would give up performing. I love to write. I try to touch someone’s soul with what I write, the words. When I hear somebody who doesn’t appreciate what I do because of the delivery, it frustrates me at times and often times makes me want to compromise, like maybe try to sound a little different just so that they will get past the delivery. I just have to be honest, you know, and sadly, my delivery is pretty authentic. I feel like I sing like I talk. I don’t turn on a country accent when I sing. I mean, I guess I could and maybe people would like my music more but I don’t talk like that and I’m not that kind of Country. But I do think a guy like Travis Denning could sing Leela’s Stars, a song of mine that’s a rap, and more of the traditional Country music lover would maybe get past that and actually hear the song. It’s frustrating sometimes but then again I have loyal fans and the people who appreciate what I do, it grows daily. I understand that it’s a known fact that some of the most challenging artists to a genre wound up being for the largest masses in the end. Who knows? Maybe that happens to me or maybe there’s just a select few who appreciate what I do. It doesn’t matter to me, but it definitely, I will say to answer your question, it can frustrate me when someone just can’t get past the style of delivery.

As I say it blows my mind. How can you listen to a song like Don’t Let Her and not be affected by it? I just don’t get it…

Thank you. Honestly you’re saying all the right stuff because I pour my life into these words and I walk around my house asking my wife and kids, ‘how about this line and how about this?’ and so it’s something I just protect. I nurture. I’m always writing so when someone can’t hear a song like Don’t Let Her and appreciate it because it doesn’t sound like everything else that that can frustrate me for sure. I have the best intentions. That song I hope that people would insert their own relationship and also I’ve noticed a lot of people have lost significant others so it’s touching to them. That’s kind of the catch 22 about Country music, man. It is a proud genre. It’s the only genre I know that writes songs about itself. I’ve never heard a hip-hop song or a R&B song that’s done that. Country is a culture and so with that comes some of the negatives, which to me sometimes it can be a little close minded.

To argue their point, when is a song just not country? You know what I mean? I think that’s what a lot of traditional listeners would say about mine – ‘if that’s country, what’s Jason Mraz?’ – and stuff like that. I understand. They need lines or boxes or whatever and I do know that mine kind of treads on that fence. In my opinion, Country is the story. Country and hip-hop are the only two genres that I know that just tell the story. They don’t get really poetic. They just say, ‘hey, I’ve walked here and I saw this and I thought this and this is how it made me feel’ and I love music that does that. I love some poetic, like heady things that you kind of have to figure out, but at some point it becomes non-relatable to me and that’s why I love Country music. That’s why I don’t care if it sounds like Luke Combs or Sam Hunt, if it’s a song that just reaches into my chest and grabs my heart and rips it out then I don’t know, I kind of don’t care what it sounds like. That’s a country song to me.

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As a Country music fan, every time I listen to boom. I find another layer that I can peel back…

Oh cool. I love that!

I’ll listen to a song one day and I’ll enjoy it, then the next time I listen it hits me in a different way and I’ll think, ‘oh wow this story is really quite devastating’ and it’s like I’ve discovered something for the first time. That’s what music should do, it should make you feel something…

Absolutely. It should. I agree with you. I love those songs that you can continually listen to and really depending on where your heart is when you meet it that day. is how it will make you feel. I agree with you. I even listen to some of my own records and I go, ‘wow, that is vulnerable’ or ‘wow, that hurts’. When I sing Halloween live, there’s many nights where I’m like, ‘I can’t believe I wrote this’. It’s so how I feel about that topic that I’m like, ‘man, I don’t know if I could write that today’. The same with Don’t Let Her, I revisit the story of how it came about and I’m really glad I didn’t miss it… that moment to write all that down. I love music and anything that just moves me. That’s why I love running my stuff by my kids. They are very unbiased as far as sonics are concerned. They don’t care whether it’s Country or hip-hop or whatever, they just want to turn it on and feel something. That’s what they love so if I can grab them, I have high hopes that even though my stuff might be a little different that it can still move people.

As we’re almost at Christmas, is there a Christmas record that you always listen to every year?

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Yeah, man, there’s actually a particular song and it’s by Alan Jackson and it’s called Let It Be Christmas. My kids will listen to that song in July. They don’t care. You turn that song on and it just feels like Christmas, I promise you, if you haven’t it, try it out. His Christmas album is one that is on repeat for us all Christmas. All ages and my kids enjoy it. We all love it. My parents enjoy it and they’re almost in their 80s. To me, that’s a test of the power of music when you have an 80-year-old person and a four-year-old and they love the feel of a song. Let It Be Christmas is a regular. That song is on repeat. Alan Jackson’s voice is very homey, if you will, to me and it just belongs in a house during Christmas time. It’s a great album. It just really has this pleasant lullaby-ish feel. It’s not slow but it’s it’s mid and it’s just very joyful. It puts me in a great mood just to have it on in the background. You know how Remember When, his song makes you feel? It’s that but Christmas. It makes you think of years gone by too, not in a too sad of a way, but it really touches you. Check that song out.

Walker Hayes

Credit: Sony Music

Would you consider a Christmas record yourself at some point in the future?

Yeah. I would consider making one. As far as me singing one, let’s just be honest, I don’t know if my voice is that that type of voice. I have written a Christmas song and it was quite clever if you ask me. It’s called Christmas Snow. It’s about a boy named Chris and he’s an orphan, and he goes around town and he makes snow angels in people’s yards and just leaves them there to make them smile. The hook is, his faith and his hope and his belief in what Christmas is about is as pure as Christmas snow and it’s like Chris-must know the reason… anyway, it’s a turn of phrase. I’d love to cut that song and I’d love to write a few more about Christmas, because Christmas lends itself to a lot of good hurts.

It’s a tricky season for some people. For us it’s a reminder that we’ve lost a kid. We lost our seventh kid. When I’m sitting around with all of mine, I’m thinking we should have one more here but it’s also a time of Thanksgiving and Jesus’ birth. It’s an emotional time. Christmas music is dangerous. If you write a song right it can really help people through that season. That’s what Let It Be Christmas does for us. There’s just something magic about that record and when you turn it on all is well.

I can see you doing a family EP or album where the kids are involved and singing on it too…

Yeah. That would be cool. Speaking of family this December 6th, I’m releasing a new 8-track and my daughter actually sings on a song that I wrote with Kelsea Ballerini that’s called Acceptance Speech. She sounds great on that. My daughter’s voice is just very unique and identifiable. I love it. I’m dad, of course I’m gonna love it, but she sounds really great. It was special. I have a little rig in my bedroom and I recorded her vocal and she had a good time doing it. Hopefully that’s a sign of more of that to come. She’s real nervous about it because I told her, ‘not everybody is going to like it, you know? When you put something out there, people can hate it’ and she was like, ‘it’s OK. I’ll be on it’ so we’ll see how that does.

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I look forward to hearing it…

Yeah. It’s really cool. Honestly, the song is perfect for a daughter. The song is basically an acceptance speech to yourself. You’re basically saying, ‘I accept me for me. I accept me for my flaws, my wrongs. I recognise them all and I’m humbled and grateful to be accepting me’. The song lyric is something I would definitely play for all my kids and say, ‘hey, there’s a couple lines in here that you just need to know about life as you grow up, like you need to have self-confidence because not everybody is gonna love you’. In all honesty, my dad always told me if everbody loves then somebody is lying and I think that’s the truth. It’s something you gotta learn to deal with growing up. This song I’m really proud of. It’s one of eight and there’s some great ones on there, including an acoustic stripped-down version of Don’t Let Her.

Roll on the 6th of December then!

Yeah. Honestly I can’t wait. I’ve been waiting to put these out for so long so I could go on and on about each song. There’s there’s also one called Black Sheep that for me personally we shot for the stars. It’s crazy. It’s not your typical Walker, very deep lyric that’ll make you soul search but it’s challenging. We went full force into how it feels and it’s a good roll the windows down and just bump it.

Walker Hayes’ new single Don’t Let Her is out now and his 8Tracks Vol. 3: Black Sheep is released on 6th December 2019. Watch the video for Don’t Let Her below:

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