Nashville Broke Up With Walker Hayes, But After a Stint at Costco He's Back

David McClister
Walker Hayes

Walker Hayes has a lot riding on the success of his new single, “You Broke Up With Me.” It has to work, not just for his career, but for his family, which includes his wife and their six children.

The talented singer-songwriter simply cannot find himself working the graveyard shift at Costco again.

Hayes’ inspiring story puts a few dramatic spins on the typical tale of a rising Nashville star. Initially signed to Capitol Records Nashville, he released two singles — “Pants” and “Why Wait for Summer” — in 2010 and 2011, respectively. Neither got above No. 40 on Billboard’s Hot Country Songs chart. He subsequently parted ways with the label, and his album was shelved.

“That was definitely heartbreaking,” says Hayes, who worried that his one shot had come and gone. “Not a lot of people get multiple chances at this.”

When a label deal goes away, “people tend to lose faith in you,” he says. “I’m not mad at anybody for that, but when I lost my deal at Capitol, things got rough.” His wife, Laney, was then pregnant with their fifth child, and his distinctive modern style meant that even though Hayes still had a publishing deal, his songs weren’t getting cut by other artists.

That’s when he took a job working 4 a.m. to 10 a.m. at Costco to make ends meet, an experience he describes as “humbling,” particularly when he had to initially ask a fan if the retail chain was hiring. The hours allowed him to still make writing appointments.

Hayes says he tried to stay “relentless” about his musical dreams during that time, and “remember every day that I have a gift and something unique to offer,” while also attending to his family’s financial realities. But, he admits, “It was a tough time for me.” While he describes himself as “functional,” he was also struggling with alcoholism at the time, something he says he turned to to help him cope with the stress of his shattered dreams and his growing economic responsibilities. (He has now been sober for several years.)

Things changed in his professional life when producer-songwriter Shane McAnally, who Hayes calls “my angel,” recognized his talent. When McAnally and artist manager Jason Owen teamed up to relaunch Sony imprint Monument Records in January, Hayes became one of the two flagship artists they signed. Soon after, he got booked to open Thomas Rhett’s Home Team Tour, which kicks off this fall.

Hayes had taken over a tool shed behind his publisher’s Music Row office and made it his spot to create, beginning with his self-produced 8Tracks (Vol. 1 and Vol. 2), both released in 2016 through McAnally’s SMACKSongs. Vol. 1 contained an earlier version of “You Broke Up With Me.” The updated, McAnally-produced single version, which climbs to No. 45 in its third week on the Country Airplay chart, is the lead track from the Monument debut album Hayes now has in the works.

He has turned the shed, equipped with a ProTools rig, into his safe space to experiment. “I play a little bit of everything,” says Hayes of his recording process. “I beat on the walls. I whistle. I scream. I go outside and scream because it sounds cool when it’s recorded. I play drums on a chair. I snap, clap... just anything to build the track and make it feel like I want it to.” But that’s not to suggest the music he’s making isn’t commercial. He says of his songs, “I feel like they’re going to work in the radio format, and that excites me so much.”

While “You Broke Up With Me” sounds like a relationship song, and works on that level, it’s actually a sly dig at the music industry. “It’s honestly about Nashville,” says Hayes.

When he and his wife had their fourth child while he was signed to Capitol, he remembers the couple’s hospital room being packed with stuffed animals, flowers, food and other gifts from some of Nashville’s top songwriters and executives. When their fifth and sixth children were born, there were no such gifts, or even visitors, from Music Row. “These were friends, and they vanish when nothing’s going on,” he says of his Music Row connections. “[It’s] the nature of the music business.” But when he got signed to Monument, Hayes recalls that “all of a sudden my phone would basically fall off the table at night from [all] the texts and the calls.” That earlier experience — when the phone had stopped ringing entirely — became the inspiration for “You Broke Up With Me,” a song Hayes says just “fell out” when he sat down to write it with Thomas Archer and Kylie Sackley.

But fans have attached their own meaning to the song, and he’s hearing from some on social media who are actually sending it to ex-lovers as a way to comically rebuff their attempts to get back together. However fans want to interpret the track, Hayes is thrilled they’re responding to it.

While his Capitol singles failed to catch on, Hayes is finding fans among the programmers he’s visiting on his current radio tour, some of whom have indicated that they think 2010 single “Pants” may have just been a few years ahead of its time. That feedback “means a lot, because I got a little ashamed of that project, because people were hard on it,” he says. “You create something, and when it doesn’t work it’s kind of like people make fun of your kid or something. I took that hard.”

In his new Monument deal, however, Hayes says having a song fail is simply not an option. “It’s for real,” he says of the label’s effort to break him, in conjunction with the Arista Nashville promotion team. “Jason Owen, Shane McAnally [and me, we’re] all lying in bed thinking the same thing … ‘This has to work.’ I don’t have another choice, because if this doesn’t work, I go home. That’s it. I’m not going to drag my family any longer through those Costco days. And [Jason’s and Shane’s] reputations are on the line.”

But Hayes says the label team’s support is palpable. “They have this personal obligation and passion about my project that you can only dream of the business people around you [feeling],” he says. “Most of the time in Nashville, you’re so replaceable. Anybody can get another nice-looking guy to sing a country song. [But] they don’t feel like I’m replaceable. [They feel like] the world needs to hear me right now ... I’m so humbled that they would take a chance with me, because they want that first [single] to not just work, but [to] really make a footprint in Nashville.” Being the artist chosen to set that footprint, says Hayes, makes him “so proud.”