Walker Hayes knows that not every song he puts out is going to be a hit at country radio. Hip-hop-inflected and exactingly specific, his songwriting delves into his past alcoholism, his conflicted relationship with his hometown and his children’s lives with such unmistakable particularity that it could — and often is — deemed too niche for mainstream relatability.
“Everybody knows that I don’t walk in with a cowboy hat. That’s not my persona,” Hayes tells Country Now. “If I did, everybody would be like, ‘Ah, he’s faking.’”
That’s not to say he’s never cracked the radio code. In 2018, he broke into the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart’s Top 10 with “You Broke Up Me,” his third chart entry and first to ever make it into the Top 40.
“You Broke Up With Me” was a crucial song for Hayes. It taught him that he could blend simple, catchy songwriting with his signature musical style and still have a hit on his hands. It also proved that he could write a song about something personal — in this case, his frustrations with country radio and the music industry — and his fans would still be able to relate to it.
Still, Hayes needed more: A big part of his artistry is deep, specific connection with his fans through songs that don’t compromise in the name of radio friendliness. Enter the 8 Track collection, a series of mixtapes full of deep cuts and Easter eggs for his die-hards. He’s put out three in total, beginning in 2019; the most recent, 8 Tracks Vol 3: Black Sheep came out in December of 2019.
“I can’t describe it. It’s so therapeutic for me to put the 8 Tracks out, it truly is,” Hayes says. “It’s me being able to get everything off my chest that’s been going on in the past year.
“I’m so lucky I get to do those, in a market where, whether you like it or not, from my perspective, there’s rules. I can’t really go off on a rap tangent on country radio,” he continues. “I can’t get so specific about my wife, or it hurts my chances on having that mass appeal.”
On his latest 8 Tracks installment, Hayes goes deeper than ever before into darker, sadder subject matter. “Dad’s Sailboat” is a gut-wrenching meditation on watching his parents get older, for example, and “Wish I Could Drink” finds the singer white-knuckling his way through the most difficult moments of sobriety. 8 Tracks Vol 3: Black Sheep documented a hard couple of years for the singer: In 2018, he and his wife, Laney, lost their seventh child, a daughter named Oakleigh, who died just hours after she was born.
“The 8 Tracks are kind of how I speak to my fans, my original die-hards,” Hayes reflects. “They wanna know about my kids and my struggle with alcoholism, how that’s been. They wanna know about the loss of our seventh kid. And I find so much peace and joy and affirmation that this is the job I’m supposed to be doing on earth right now, because I get to do those 8 Tracks.”
Hayes finds catharsis and connection in going deep with his fans. The only song on 8 Tracks Vol 3 that gave him pause was “Love Hate,” a conflicted and sometimes heartbroken ode to his hometown of Mobile, Alabama.
“That was the only one where I was like, ‘I sound kinda mad in this song,’” Hayes admits. “But I love the song. And I truly feel like that, and I’m not ashamed that I feel like that.”
Pain is a unifier, he continues: Talking about the parts of life that hurt has always been an effective way to find connection.
“The guy down the street, his name is Joe. He walks a dog whose name is Chili, and he lost his son when he was 30,” Hayes relates. “He and I have become such great friends, and it’s because we’ve both lost a kid. And gosh, I had no idea about this, but I have had more grown men appreciate my music since ‘Dad’s Sailboat.’ Because I noticed that my father, as he got older, his writing got worse, and they’re like, ‘Man, I noticed that, too.’ It’s those dark places that really unite us.”
Even in his darkest moments, Hayes tries to put a hopeful spin on his songs. “I hope people listen to ‘Dad’s Sailboat’ and go, ‘Man, he loves his dad,’” he explains. “To me, that’s one of the most beautiful bad jokes about life. The better some of it is, the worse it feels when it’s gone, or when those moments are over.”
Hayes will continue to share those kinds of songs, but he’s also looking forward to something completely different — and much lighter — with an upcoming single. “I don’t wanna say stupid or trite, but it’s just not deep. It’s fun,” Hayes says of the song. “I do think sometimes when I get into those really heavy places, you just need to go, ‘Hey, this song is just about having a good time.’”
He hasn’t given up on breaking into the mainstream, and it’s heartening for him to see artists he feels kinship with, like Sam Hunt, back on the top of the charts. Like Hayes, Hunt is an exacting lyricist who creates his own, entirely new, stylistic backdrop for his songs.
“I love that he kinda has his own genre. Those [kinds of artists] are my heroes,” he explains. “I love people who kinda change the game. I love Keith Urban, because there’s nobody else who kinda walks that rock/country line. I love Brad Paisley, because I think there’s no one else who could have sung a song like ‘Ticks’ and it would have been cool.”
It’s not easy to carve out an entirely new lane for yourself, but Hayes is encouraged by the success of his peers and the support of the team around him. His label, Monument, gave him the option to stop chasing country radio, offering him the chance to just focus on developing the kind of music that he releases on his 8 Tracks. But Hayes’ goal is to play bigger venues, he explains — and nothing grows a crowd like a radio hit.
“Man, every time we go to radio, those shows get bigger and bigger,” he says. “That’s kind of how we multiply the size of our venues exponentially.”
Plus, he’s got a good feeling about the song he’s got up his sleeve. “It’s just one of those that I listen to and I’m tempted to believe it’s the one,” he hints. “It just has a thing about it.”