This year marks the 30th anniversary of Clay Walker’s platinum-certified sophomore album, If I Could Make a Living, which featured the No. 1 singles “This Woman and This Man” and the title track. During the past three decades, the Beaumont, Texas native has continued to release hit music that resonates with fans through its neo-traditionalist sound and relatable lyrics.

During Walker’s latest appearance at the Grand Ole Opry on June 19, he sat down with Music Mayhem to talk about performing at the iconic institution, fond memories with the late Toby Keith, recording new music, and more.

Clay Walker; Photo Courtesy of Kirsten Balani
Clay Walker; Photo Courtesy of Kirsten Balani

“Starstruck” At The Opry

When Clay Walker made his Opry debut in the early 90s, he was full of nerves. “We did it at the Ryman, and I was very nervous,” Walker recalls. “I don’t get nervous too often, but standing on that stage where people like Hank [Williams] Senior and Elvis, and just all the greats were there, it’s a very unnerving feeling. It’s exciting, but it’s also unnerving.”

With time, the 54-year-old artist learned how to transform those uneasy feelings into a sense of peace. “When you accept that you’re not going to probably do it as good as some of the great ones, and you’ve just got to submit… Things get a lot easier and more peaceful.”

Despite his self-deprecating outlook, Walker continues to delight crowds at the Opry. At the end of his set that night, which concluded with his debut No. 1 hit single “What’s It To You,” the audience roared with enthusiasm and gave him a well-deserved standing ovation. 

Walker’s favorite Opry memories include being surrounded by his humble heroes. “Being here and seeing little Jimmy Dickens and some of the Opry legends early on in my career, I was just starstruck,” he recalls. “I mean, it’s one thing to see contemporaries, people that are coming out when you’re coming out, people that I have a lot of respect for. That’s one thing. Then, when you’re around legends, it’s a whole different feeling because there’s no pretense or anything. They’re just who they are.”

Toby Keith Co-Wrote “I Know She Hung The Moon”

Walker’s latest single is “I Know She Hung the Moon,” written by Scotty Emerick and the late Toby Keith. Although the Texas Cowboy Hall of Fame member was a long-time Keith fan and knew most of the legend’s catalog, Walker discovered this song in a special way.

“My band and I were playing at Toby’s charity in Oklahoma, and Toby came out on stage with us and did some songs, and then we hung out after the event in the dressing room and just telling stories. He and I had some of the same friends, so everybody was hanging out, and he said, man, I got a song I want you to hear. I said, okay, what do you want to play it on? He said, I’m just going to sing it. So he started singing it, and I looked at Toby. I said, that is a smash. It sounds like a George Strait song or something. And he goes, man, he says, it sounds like a Clay Walker song to me. Who was going to say no to Toby?”

Although Keith passed before Walker released “I Know She Hung the Moon,” he did hear the recording and shared his praise. “Toby and I are managed by the same guy, TK Kimbrell, and I’d asked TK if Toby had gotten to hear it. He said, yeah, and he goes, he loved it. And that was pretty special knowing that,” says Walker.

When Keith passed on February 5, 2024, after battling stomach cancer, Walker was stunned along with the rest of the world. “It was such a shocker to everybody. But to know that I got to share that moment with him and then graduate that to actually recording the song. It’s a very special feeling. And I’m sure that years down the road when things don’t seem so numb… it’s so unreal that he’s gone. I think I’ll appreciate it even more then.”

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Working with Producer Tony Brown on New Music

Fans can expect even more music coming from Walker this year, including a song called “Cowboys in Heaven.” Walker wrote the tune with Jaron Boyer, who has had hit songs recorded by artists like Jason Aldean and has been a frequent collaborator with Walker.

“Having a younger writer that’s in the know and helps keep things modern, but he knows exactly where I need to be too, is a blessing.” Boyer co-wrote six out of the ten tracks on Walker’s 2021 album, Texas to Tennessee.

In November 2023, Walker gave industry insiders a preview of the tune, playing the demo from his phone. The song was inspired by the passing of Walker’s longtime friend Charlie Rizzo, whom he described as being larger than life. “We had the best times together,” Walker reminisced. “Charlie was the best fisherman. He was a firefighter, volunteer firefighter, golf course superintendent, PRCA cowboy in the Hall of Fame, bronc rider, and loved the Astros and was the greatest fisherman in all of Galveston.”

Clay Walker; Photo by Tonya Lippert
Clay Walker; Photo by Tonya Lippert

Walker is eager for fans to get their hands on new music. “I’m super excited about people hearing that [“Cowboys in Heaven”]. It’s so different and such a really cool production.”

Walker worked with “iconic” producer Tony Brown on the project, who is known for his work with George Strait.

“That whole experience was surreal because when I was growing up, I’d buy cassette tapes or CDs and I would open up the cassette or CD, and I’d always look at whom the producer was. Every musician, every background singer, every engineer, everything that had to do with it. Just lived it, ate, breathed, and slept it. And so getting to record with Tony was very special.” Although Walker felt a bit intimidated going into the studio with Brown, he enjoyed the experience. “Being from Texas, obviously I’m a Strait fan, but also going into the studio with him is a little bit intimidating because, oh man, I know I’m not going to sing this as good as George, and so there’s that. But he made me feel confident and it came out fantastic. I mean, the experience was good for both of us. He enjoyed it, and we’ve agreed that if we can find some good songs, we’ll do some more together.”

Advocate for Multiple Sclerosis Awareness and Research

Since being diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis in 1996, Walker has been a fierce advocate for raising awareness about the disease. As part of his ongoing fundraising efforts, the country hitmaker is hosting the 16th annual Clay Walker Charity Classic Golf Tournament at Pebble Beach this week (June 26-30). Baseball legend Roger Clemens and Grand Ole Opry member Mark Wills are scheduled to appear at this year’s event.

“It is a week that I just turn everything off, go to the golf tournament and be with like-minded people that want to help our MS charity and help people living with MS,” says Walker. “It’s a very special week.”

To date, the Clay Walker Foundation has raised $2.6 million dollars for Multiple Sclerosis research.

Clay Walker; Photo Courtesy of Kirsten Balani
Clay Walker; Photo Courtesy of Kirsten Balani

Country Side Tour

When we asked Walker about other projects in the works, he hinted that a “big project” is coming soon. While fans eagerly wait for new music from the country crooner, they can catch him performing across the U.S. on his Country Side Tour

Walker says no two shows are alike, comparing them to unique fingerprints. “A lot of it is reading the audience,” shares Walker. Since several of his band members have been with him since the early days of his career, they have a strong repertoire to pull from. Even for his Opry performance, he made a last-minute decision to add his version of Keith Whitley’s “Miami, My Amy.” 

“Spontaneity is good,” says Walker with a sly grin. “We know that we’re going to do a lot of the hits. We’re going to do ‘She Won’t Be Lonely Long,’ ‘This Woman, This Man,’ ‘What’s It To You,’ ‘Live Until I Die, ‘I Can Make A Living.’ We know we’re going to do those songs, but where it changes is we might do ‘Where Do I Fit In The Picture’ one night and the next night we might do ‘Watch This,’ or we will do ‘Fall’ pretty much every night. But it does change. Sometimes we do ‘Days That End in Y’ sometimes we don’t. And then sometimes I’ll throw in a Keith Whitley or a George Strait song, and it really is just kind of measuring where the audience is. And I think it keeps the band on their toes too.”

Including covers of classic country songs from legendary singers like Strait and Whitley in his show is key to Walker, who wants to recognize the people who paved the way for his career. “If you’re going to see farther down the road, you’ve got to stand on the shoulders of the giants, and I pay tribute to them.”

To see where Walker will be performing and to purchase tickets for the Country Side Tour, go to www.claywalker.com 

We wrapped up our conversation backstage at the Opry with a few fun questions for the country superstar. Walker reveals his favorite guilty pleasure, the most famous contact in his phone, and more!

@musicmayhemmagazine.com

@Clay Walker answered a few quick questions and revealed the most famous person in his phone contacts, his last big purchase and more ahead of his recent @Grand Ole Opry performance. #ClayWalker #GrandOleOpry #Opry #CountryMusic #KevinCostner

♬ original sound – Music Mayhem

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Nicole Palsa is a freelance writer based in Nashville, Tennessee. Since 2012, she has written about the newcomers, superstars, and legends of country music for publications including Music Mayhem, Country Now, and Country Music Tattle Tale. Nicole has served as a volunteer guide with Musicians On Call since 2016 and is a Troubadour member of the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum. She graduated from Virginia Commonwealth University, where she earned her Bachelor of Science degree in Mass Communications and her Bachelor of Arts degree in French. In addition to being a devoted country music fan, Nicole is a family historian and genealogist who can often be found in stacks of research. She is also an avid traveler with a passion for wildlife and nature photography.

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