Nancy Kruh
December 08, 2017 03:15 PM

Walker Hayes named his new album after his favorite expression: “boom.” But maybe it’s also the sound of a career taking off after 13 years of taxiing the runway.

“It’s just unreal,” Hayes tells PEOPLE about the album’s debut on Friday. “It’s almost like my team wants to slap me in the face every now and then and be like, ‘Hey, do you get what’s going on? Are you even excited?’ I think what they don’t understand is that it’s just so hard to digest. It’s just taken so long, and I just can’t believe it. I truly can’t believe it.”

But here’s one thing that the 37-year-old artist does believe: All the setbacks and hardships were worth it – the two previous record deals that fell through, the countless song pitches that were ignored or rejected, the years he was scraping by to support his wife, Laney, and their growing family (six kids and counting!).

Two years ago, at the end of his rope, Hayes decided to quit drinking (a habit “I leaned on for many, many years”) and started to write just for himself. What emerged – a deliciously catchy, deeply personal and slightly cockeyed style unlike anything else on country radio – finally captured the ear of star-making producer/songwriter Shane McAnally, who signed him to a deal.

Walker Hayes
David McClister

The new album will be riding the wave of Hayes’ single, “You Broke Up with Me,” which just earned him his first gold record. In the top 15 and rising, it’s a classic kiss-off to an ex-girlfriend, but beneath the surface the lyrics actually send a message to a record industry that wrote Hayes off after his first album, released six years ago, fizzled.

Other singles on the new album are far less cryptic: “Beer in the Fridge” describes his struggle with alcohol. “Shut Up, Kenny” is based on an actual marital squabble, interrupted by the car radio playing the couple’s favorite Chesney love song. “Dollar Store” is dedicated to the go-to shopping stop for a family living on a shoestring.

When Hayes stopped writing songs to please others and started writing from his heart, “what came out is honesty, and that honesty was kind of a new freedom that I’d never tasted in my life,” he recalls. “It was kind of, ‘Oh my gosh, I’m being me and I’m okay with it.’”

That doesn’t mean, though, that everyone else has since been okay with it. His style has proven so different that, predictably, he has received some pushback over whether it belongs in the format. Hayes has gotten comfortable with the criticism.

“Somebody told me a long time ago that if everybody loves you, somebody’s lying,” he says. “It is the truest statement you could ever say to somebody. … I never came here [to Nashville] to mimic anyone. I don’t think anybody did.”

Hayes chalks up any naysaying to “fear of change” – and no doubt the sting is lessened by the knowledge he’s already earned his most important fans, his three daughters and three sons, who range in age from 2 to 11.

“They’re so cute about it,” he says. “They look at me like I’m Adam Levine. … They’re just kids, but them being proud of me means so much to me, and I can tell that they are.”

His wife, who was his high school sweetheart, has long been his most ardent champion, and his success in recent months has left them both giddy. “Our life,” he says, “is so drastically filled with hope and actual things happening and no longer just ‘I believe in you,’ or ‘just hang in there’ or ‘maybe next year.’”

The career signs have been so promising, thanks to “You Broke Up with Me,” that Hayes and his wife had begun toying with the idea of adding to their family “if maybe this song goes to No. 1.” But, he admits, they kind of jumped the gun. Laney is now pregnant with their seventh child, due in early June.

Laney and Walker Haye
Group LA/ABC/Getty

“We do a lot celebrating,” Hayes says, somewhat sheepishly. “What can I say?”

And, yeah, he knows that’s a lot of kids. “But oh my goodness,” he says, “they are my favorite things about life. I love each and every one of these kids and I can’t wait for another one. They’re all so beautiful and incredible, and watching them grow is the best thing I get to do on earth.”

Walker Hayes
Rick Diamond/Getty Images for Innovation In Music Awards

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The baby’s birth is just one thing that Hayes is looking forward to. Now in the midst of his own solo tour, to small venues, he soon will be opening for Kelsea Ballerini on her headlining tour. He’s also excited about spending the holidays with extended family – this time, he says, with his head held high.

“I’ve got to confess there’s something different I can sense already about the holidays,” he says. “I’ve always felt very insecure being around in-laws, even my siblings – like the guy who made a bad decision, or the guy who would never just fess up that I’m not good enough to make it or I don’t have what it takes. I just feel different going home right now, you know. … It feels good to have kinda done what I came here to do. That’s a really, really nice feeling in my heart.”

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