Walker Hayes may come off as a happy-go-lucky kind of guy with bubbly songs like “Fancy Like,” but underneath his carefree persona that reflects the melodies of his music, is a man with a difficult past and a rough road to stardom.
Hayes recently appeared on Southern Living’s summer tour edition of Biscuits & Jam, where he talked about his years-long struggles with success and his battle with alcoholism, which nearly took over his life.
To begin, Hayes at least had one sure thing – his wife, Laney, whom he met in high school. The pair tied the knot in 2004 and wasted no time packing their bags for Nashville in hopes that Hayes would turn his passion for playing music into a full-fledged, lucrative career.
But that wasn’t the case. It took Hayes more than a decade to get established in Music City. And all of that came after he got used to hearing the word “No” from some of country music’s biggest power players.
“I had been rejected four or five times a year at a major public level,” Hayes recalled while speaking to Southern Living Magazine editor-in-chief Sid Evans. “I was working at Costco, looking other music business people in the face every day. You know they shop in my produce section, and we had to face each other and go, ‘yeah it’s come to this?’ And I felt I had to act like I’m good when I wasn’t.”
Rejection wasn’t something Hayes enjoyed, but what was even worse, he felt he didn’t receive the support he was looking for from his relatives back home in Alabama. The lack of a core group of people to believe in his music, rejection from top labels, and a growing family to provide for all led to Hayes turning to alcohol – something the country music star isn’t proud of but not afraid to openly talk about.
“Our families had become quiet. It’s almost like we couldn’t be around any family members without them dry heaving the words, ‘how much longer are you gonna do this?’ or ‘when are you coming home?’” Hayes said. “And if they didn’t say it, you could read it on their faces. So sadly, Laney and I were just getting more and more on that island of isolation.”
Even then, Hayes’ personal life came crashing down after he and Laney lost their seventh child, Oakleigh, at birth. At the time, Hayes had a handle on his addiction, but the pain of losing his daughter was too difficult. He considered drinking again.
“Just holding a lifeless child. It’s indescribable. I can’t imagine a worse pain,” Hayes explained. “I’d been sober for three years when we lost Oakleigh. I was ready to not be. As soon as that happened, I was like, ‘this is why you drink.’”
Through the grief, however, a switch flipped for Hayes – who before that would’ve considered himself an atheist. Instead of recklessly turning to alcohol, he leaned into his faith and his family. One thing, of course, led to another, and Hayes found something that had been missing – a core group of supportive friends. Through one of their kids’ basketball games, Hayes and his wife became friends with Laura and Craig Allen Cooper.
“Craig’s a preacher, but outside of church, I never heard him preach,” Hayes said before adding that a book he came across also changed his life. “By the grace of God, somebody recommended a book to Laney called Secrets of an Unlikely Convert by Rosaria Butterfield… This woman’s testimony, it’s exactly like mine, except I hadn’t surrendered yet… I wolfed this book down. I finished it by the time the sun came up.”
“I know for some reason losing Oakleigh led me to Christ. I would not know Jesus if I had not known the loss of my daughter. That’s what it took for me,” Hayes said. “Losing Oakleigh granted me the knowledge of how much control I do not have. It gave me the freedom to just love my kids and kind of get down on their level and quit trying to imagine what I think the perfect future would look like.”
Fast-forward to today, and the future is looking pretty good for Hayes. In 2021, He got his big break with a song called “Fancy Like.” The tune, written with Cameron Bartolini, Josh Jenkins, and Shane Stevens, created a buzz on TikTok and even sparked a dance craze.
The song ended up becoming Hayes’ breakout hit, topping both the Billboard U.S. Country Airplay and Hot Country Songs charts, respectively. Just in the past year, Hayes has received nominations at the Grammys, Billboard Music Awards, CMT Music Awards, and ACM Awards. He is also currently in the running for the New Artist of the Year Award at the 2022 CMA Awards. The 56th Annual Country Music Association Awards will take place at Nashville’s Bridgestone Arena on November 9, 2022.