Walker Hayes broke onto the country scene with his creatively cheeky move-along tune “You Broke Up With Me” earlier this year, and now the 37-year-old singer-songwriter is gearing up for his debut album release, boom., which arrives Dec. 8. The most recent pre-album-release arrived Nov. 3, and its title is almost even more impudent than its predecessor: “Shut Up Kenny.”
Yes, that is a direct reference to the one and only Kenny Chesney. But if you think Hayes is hating on Kenny, think again (or just listen closer): Hayes actually loves Chesney so much, he had to write a song about how deep the superstar’s lyrics can cut — even when he may not want to feel something.
The resonant piano-tinged track is the narrative of a moment Hayes experienced while in the car with his wife in the middle of a fight a couple of years ago, when they couldn’t escape a now-fateful Chesney song. “I was like, ‘Man, shut up Kenny… why you gotta do that,” Hayes recalls to Billboard. “And [then] I’m like ‘Man, shut up Kenny, what a great idea.”
Hayes’ lightbulb moment spawned a full 3-minutes worth of an ode to his favorite country singer — which was even approved by Chesney himself — and today (Nov. 10) the rising country singer premieres the car-set video for “Shut Up Kenny.” Ahead of unveiling the video, Hayes chatted with Billboard about what makes Chesney so special; the influence Chesney has had on his career, relationship, and family; and his approach to writing that song that (hopefully) helps him avoid being labeled “a younger dude doing some pop shit.”
Watch the “Shut Up Kenny” video, listen to Hayes’ favorite Chesney tracks, and take a look at an edited transcript of our interview with Hayes below.
“She’s Got It All” was [Kenny’s] first song I ever heard, and I was like “I dig this guy.” Obviously “She Thinks My Tractor’s Sexy” was a bomb. I loved that kind of stuff — that was the first sort of country that I was like, “I dig this.”
He had an album out that had this song “How Forever Feels” on it, and it was basically the soundtrack of summertime for me and my wife, Laney, [who was my] girlfriend at the time. It was just a nice soundtrack to that beach life, coastal living in Mobile [Alabama]: Cold beer, beach, all that stuff.
Kenny, what he means the most to me is, his songs sort of define little moments of our relationship. My wife and I started dating in 11th grade. His life as an artist was so spot-on timeline-wise with me and Laney that we just have a special thing with Kenny.
I think every couple should find an artist that they dig together. There’s so many songs that literally define the birth of a kid, when we moved to Nashville, or when we were in high school. That’s been a fun thing for Laney and I to share. It’s cliche to say Chesney’s song “I Go Back,” but I do — I think of some of my high school buddies when I hear these songs. His songs just give me such vivid memories that I can almost smell the car I was in when we listened to it.
I have no idea why, but before I even knew that I wanted to be a songwriter, I was just kind of infatuated with Kenny — I liked his vibe, I liked all of his music, I liked his lyrics. He’s my Beatles, as far as country music was concerned.
Around 2000, Laney and I were both in college, we came up and saw Kenny Chesney play New Year’s Eve at the big civic center in Nashville. We saw him play this ridiculously amazing concert. I still didn’t know I wanted to be a songwriter, but when we saw him, our minds were completely blown. And if we hadn’t already fallen in love with his vibe and his music, we fell even deeper in love. It was another level of devotion to his music.
His charisma on stage — this guy has more energy than my 5-year-old, and that’s saying a ton. I watch him on stage and I’m like, “What is this guy taking?” He’s a jumping bean, and it is remarkable to sit and watch him in a stadium, and up in the nosebleeds everybody is up on their feet like they’re in the front frickin’ row. That’s a gift. I think, “How does Chesney do that?” I think he does it through his songs. His songs are all nostalgic, they are all those melodies that bring back all those memories. We can all learn from him.
Kenny Chesney’s music cuts. He gets into those massive ballads like “There Goes My Life” and “The Good Stuff” and things like that that just crush you, and delivers them so well. Some of that you can’t really put your finger on, it’s just magic.
The year we moved up [to Nashville], Kenny’s song “Anything But Mine” came out, I think it was ’04. And that’s a special song for me and Laney, because that’s one we loved by him and loved that line, “I tell her I love her and we both laugh because we know it isn’t true.” When I hear that, I think of the U-Haul that we attached to my car, drove up and looked for apartments together. We knew nobody, we knew nothing about Nashville — we didn’t know where the grocery store was. Neither one of us had jobs.
One night, we had gotten into an argument and we were in this minivan. We were past the point of yelling, we were just silent. We were kind of doing that thing where you’re not trying to act happy, but you’re trying to act like you’re not affected by the fight. We’re riding in silence, we were almost home, and I was like, “I’m gonna turn on the radio.” I turn on the radio, and “Anything But Mine” comes on.
In my head, I was like, “Shut up Kenny,” because that’s not really what I wanted to hear right then. It was on Big 98, and I changed the station — the same song was on 95.5 and I was like “Shut the — you gotta be freakin’ kidding me.” I just started thinking, it’s funny how songs are going to remind you of what they remind you of no matter what — you can turn it off, but it’s still going to take you where it wants to take you. You’re kind of at the mercy of that memory. And you’re like, “Aw shit, why you gotta do that?” I’m sitting there and I’m like, “Man, shut up Kenny, what a great idea.” I took it to AJ Babcock and Pete Good, writers that I really trust, and we wrote it that day.
I wanted to write it like a tribute, but I didn’t want to be like, “Ah, I love you.” I thought that would be kind of creepy and weird [Laughs]. And also, I thought a “Hey I love you” song might make it sound like Kenny’s not killing it anymore — like, “Oh, you’re legendary.” I paid attention to that while I was making this song and really tried hard to make it sound like he’s a badass. He’s not a has-been, he’s not in the past, he’s very much the Kenny Chesney I saw in 2000, if not bigger. I wanted to write a badass song, like Kenny does, that people my age, people older, people in high school would crank it up in a field like, “This is badass and it’s about a badass dude.”
When you see the title, “Shut Up Kenny,” I feel like in today’s age what you could misinterpret is someone could easily go, “Ah, here’s a younger dude doing some pop shit and he’s saying ‘Shut up country.’” But we were very conscious of keeping the true emotion of the song — where the song came from. That’s what I said, “Shut Up Kenny,” and I feel like that’s what any human being would say it’d be like if [a song] reminds you of… like, “shut up, I really feel this way, I don’t want to hear about it.”
[There are] two lines I love that are perfectly honest, that I feel like say my emotion for Kenny. One is, “Even your sad songs are fun to make out to.” It’s like, you would make out to “Come Over” or “There Goes My Life” — those are heartbreaking songs but like, you’re getting it on in the backseat. I will never forget those moments.
We also had a line that said, “C’mon Kenny, I got nothing against your music, but I hate the way I love the way…” But instead, we wrote, “C’mon Kenny, man you know I like your music, but I hate the way I love the way it hurts when I listen to it.” That was actually a request by Shane [McAnally, Hayes’ producer]. He was like, “Man, I don’t want anybody to be able to go, ‘This guy doesn’t love Kenny Chesney.” To me, the beauty of the song — and again, sadly, people are going to hate this song. And that’s one thing I’m kind of excited about: I do think it’ll be talked about, and I think seven people will love it and three people will send me hate mail. I do think that if we’re all honest and just listen to it, the hurt that Kenny is making happen in the song is just a reflection of how much I, as the singer, appreciates the music.
The last thing I wanted to do was write a song that would make Kenny Chesney mad. Especially if, Lord willing, I’m able to do this to feed my family, I definitely didn’t want Kenny to be like, “Here’s some young punk using me as a stunt.” I’ve never met Kenny face-to-face. I’m almost afraid to meet him — people will always tell me, “Careful which heroes you meet, because they may not be as cool as you thought.” [But] I’d love to just shake his hand and say I did. I’d love to open for him, stuff like that.
Shane, though, has written many songs that Kenny has cut, so they’re buddies. Shane was the first person to be adamant that this song had a place on my album, and that felt good coming from him — he’s my hero writer. He sent it to Kenny once we were kind of done with the recording process, and it wasn’t really like a “Hey, what do you think?” It was more like, “Man, I really love this song, I’m working with this kid Walker. I just wanted you to hear it, out of respect, before we put it out.”
Kenny texted back, and it was all positive, like, “Wow, this is a really cool song.” He did dig it, which just blew me away because I was so nervous when it was out there and we put that message in that bottle.That was also one of those moments where I was like, “Wow, 15 years ago I was listening to this guy that’s about to pop.” And now, my producer just sent him a song with his name in it, and he liked it. It made me feel really good.
I think it showcases my phrasing and my songwriting, and it kind of details what we’re doing as a team. The last thing I want to do is just be another voice on country music radio. I want to be that Chesney that people turn on and they go, “This is Walker, I know him, what is this about?” And hate it or love it, they know it’s me. I feel like “Shut Up Kenny,” just the nature and vibe of the song, it’s a great piece that stands next to “You Broke Up With Me.” It’s going to do good things for us.
Kenny’s music, it’s amazing how it’s stood the test of time. He’s still around, he’s still relevant, he still sells the crap out of shows. What other career can you think of — maybe Tim McGraw — but so many people have come and gone. He has his finger on the pulse: He knows what his fans want, and he’s still growing his fan base. I got six kids and they all love Chesney. His audience, they’re probably 100 all the way to 8 years old, and that’s a huge demographic. He does so well at evolving, but staying him. Kenny is one where he’s never lost me. I’ll always have amazing memories that go along with Chesney’s music.