In terms of metaphors, this one was a little too on the nose. During halftime on the NFL’s AFC Championship in January, the CBS commentators started to discuss the game: “The answer is time, that’s what Patrick Mahomes … ,” Phil Simms began to say.
The commentators were barely audible for the rest of the show as Hayes’s music took over; viewers found this hilarious, and a video clip of it blew up online. (“Someone at CBS forgot to check halftime show speaker levels …”) But the situation was also oddly symbolic of the past eight months of Hayes’s life, as he has catapulted from a country singer struggling to find a lane to inescapable star.
“That is exactly how this past year has gone,” Hayes, 42, said in an interview. “You don’t plan for it, and then all of a sudden, you’re everywhere.”
Hayes, who not long ago had to squeeze in early-morning shifts stocking coolers at Costco before songwriting sessions to provide for his wife and six kids, now performs on late-night shows and morning shows and award shows and “Dick Clark’s New Year’s Rockin’ Eve with Ryan Seacrest.” Next month, he will attend the Grammy Awards, where the double-platinum “Fancy Like” — which blew up on TikTok and is an ode to life’s simple pleasures, including eating at one of America’s most popular casual dining spots — is nominated for best country song. On Monday night, he will perform at the Academy of Country Music Awards, where he has five nominations.
But much of the audience who only know him as the “Applebee’s guy” know little about his long, winding journey as one of country music’s most intriguing and polarizing songwriters. Or, they’re just starting to discover a deeper catalogue that includes songs about Hayes’s battle with alcoholism and the fear of being so broke that you can’t afford a car with enough seat belts for all of your children. Most don’t know about the past 18 years, where he tried repeatedly to launch a career in Nashville despite constantly being told that his pop-heavy music style was too offbeat to ever work.
“I mean, I’m so grateful. But I think the frustrating thing is I still don’t know how it’s all happening,” Hayes said. “You don’t expect so many yeses, especially in this town. And lately, no one’s told us no. It’s a little unnerving. You’re like: What’s going on right now? How has people’s perception of what I do changed so drastically in such a short amount of time?”
“It’s just still weird to think back. Eight months ago, there was so much uncertainty,” he continued. “And now I am certain I will have a job for at least 10 more years.”
This is not false modesty. In 2015, Hayes had been dropped from two record deals after a decade in Nashville and was starting to seriously reconsider whether a music career was a feasible long-term plan.
Then came Shane McAnally, the powerhouse country songwriter and producer who had once declined to sign Hayes to a songwriting deal at his publishing company, figuring that his quirky habits — beatboxing, unique phrasing, talk-singing, name-dropping brands, writing about extremely specific life experiences — wouldn’t fit for other artists. But in 2016, McAnally decided that Hayes’s music was impressive enough that he deserved a shot as an artist. So he signed him to a record deal at his label, Monument Records.
“The thing you get, always, with Walker, is, ‘Wow, that’s an incredible song. I don’t know what you’re going to do with it, but that’s amazing,’” said Robert Carlton, Hayes’s manager and the senior vice president of development at McAnally’s publishing company, SmackSongs. Seeing Hayes’s career finally take off has been mind-blowing: “It’s so validating, because you believe in something for so long and you’re just banging your head against the wall trying to figure out what to do.”
Hayes‘s breakout moment is almost too fitting for a singer who never followed the “traditional” country path by getting a big hit at radio. After he was signed by McAnally, the deceptively jaunty “You Broke Up With Me” became his first hit single in 2017. But his follow-up songs didn’t get any traction, and it felt like he was back at square one.
Then, last summer, he released “Fancy Like,” an upbeat track he wrote with Cameron Bartolini, Josh Jenkins and Shane Stevens, with a chorus about going to Applebee’s on a date night. (A place where Hayes and his high school sweetheart wife, Laney, have spent lots of time.) His teenage daughter, Lela, decided it needed an accompanying dance on TikTok; the two bonded during the coronavirus pandemic by learning TikTok dances together. After church one Sunday, they spent about an hour coming up with the “Fancy Like” routine before Hayes posted it.
Soon, the video was racking up so many views that he assumed there was a glitch in the app. Fans started sharing their own versions of the dance; within weeks, Hoda Kotb and Jenna Bush Hager invited him on “Today” to show off their version of the dance, too. Kesha recorded a remix. Applebee’s came calling to use the song in an ad campaign in a series of unstoppable TV commercials. The original video racked up more than 35 million views, and more importantly, translated into sales: It was the second-highest-selling digital song in the country in 2021, behind only BTS’s “Butter.”
Hayes found a huge audience of new fans, all charmed by his adorable and slightly chaotic large family, who make frequent appearances on his social media. (Hayes has explained that when you have six kids, taking everyone to Applebee’s truly constitutes a fancy meal.) That’s one reason the original TikTok exploded: It was a genuinely joyful moment between a dad and his daughter.
Carlton admitted that there was talk of an image makeover for Hayes, but ultimately, they realized his everyday-dad image is what draws people to him: “He’s 100 percent himself … and when you’re 100 percent you, other people will feel that.”
“I think if you asked my label, they didn’t orchestrate that or intend for me to go on TikTok and do dances with my daughter,” Hayes said. “But we probably wouldn’t be here right now if that song wasn’t accompanied by such a magical visual.”
Every viral hit comes with haters. And sure enough, the earworm that is “Fancy Like” (popular enough to now be officially at “overplayed” status) drives some people crazy. One viral video shows a man repeatedly punching his car radio when the song starts playing; Hayes posted the clip himself with cry-laughing emoji and the caption: “Gotta give props for the creativity.”
“I wouldn’t say he’s unfazed by [the criticism], but when you’ve been writing songs that no one has ever heard for years and years, it’s a huge compliment for someone to be like, ‘I’ve heard that song so much I hate it,’” Carlton said. “That’s the dream right there.”
Yet like with so many artists who became stars thanks to huge pop hits, Hayes’s music goes much deeper. “AA,” his latest song climbing the country radio charts, has a laid-back tone directly in contrast with candid lyrics about the challenges of sobriety. “Briefcase,” one of the standouts on his new record, “Country Stuff the Album,” was co-written with famed Nashville singer-songwriter Lori McKenna. Its heart-wrenching lyrics detail how Hayes hated seeing his father’s briefcase as a kid, because it meant he was leaving on a business trip; now, he deals with the same feelings as he picks up his guitar case to go on tour.
McKenna recalled the two of them writing the song over Zoom in the height of the pandemic; Hayes came in with the concept, and she was blown away. “I said, ‘Oh my God, this is an incredible idea,’” said McKenna, who is a featured vocalist on the song. “It’s in the heart of an incredible artist that knows how to write really well.”
Hayes has the reputation in Nashville as a great songwriter, she said, and credits it to his authenticity: “I don’t think Walker could ever write or sing something that he didn’t think was true.”
While “Briefcase” has become a fan favorite at Hayes’s concerts, it also contains the absolute truth about Hayes’s anxieties about spending time away from his children. At one point over the past year, he started to regret being gone so often. He told Carlton that although he was thrilled “Fancy Like” was paying off for the label after its investment in him, if he didn’t figure out a way to balance his family life, he was done.
“If I gotta choose between family and fame, it’s a very easy decision to me,” Hayes said. “I don’t even have to sit and think about it.”
Eventually, he was making enough money to pay for a second tour bus, bringing his wife and children (already being home-schooled) on the road with him. And while his whirlwind year is still an adjustment, he can’t help but think about what’s next; playing that NFL halftime show lit a spark, and he keeps thinking about what it might be like to headline a stadium show one day.
“When I walked offstage, I felt something. It was like, ‘I’m born to do this. That is what I want to do,’” he said. “So that’s a fun unrealistic goal for me to chase. … I love to chase the impossible ones, because look what happens when you do that.”