Walker Hayes' Jubilant CMT Awards Debut Is Also Bittersweet: 'That Twinge of a Little PTSD'

The "Fancy Like" hitmaker remembers his first invitation, in 2018, to appear at the show, the same date that he and his wife lost their newborn daughter

Laney Beville Hayes and Walker Hayes
Laney and Walker Hayes. Photo: Jeff Kravitz/Getty

Walker Hayes made his debut appearance at the CMT Awards show on Monday night, lighting up the stage with a joyful performance of chart-climber "AA."

But it was impossible to forget that this was actually the second time Hayes had been invited to appear at the CMTs. He was forced to abruptly cancel the first — where he was expected to perform breakout hit "You Broke Up with Me" — after losing his daughter, Oakleigh Klover, in childbirth on the same day, June 6, 2018. His wife, Laney, who suffered a ruptured uterus, also almost lost her life that day.

Now, four years later, both Hayes and his wife were walking the CMT red carpet, and he admitted to PEOPLE that, "yeah, being here has that twinge of a little PTSD." Still, he added, "so much redemption has happened since. We lost a child, but Laney and I gained so much since then."

Out of this grief, Hayes has cemented his place in country music as the consummate family man, the father of six (ages 6 to 16) and a musical celebrant of simple dreams. His mega-hit "Fancy Like" attests to his love for life's real and fleeting moments — and those, too, were on Hayes' mind amid the sequins and finery of the night.

"We are continually reminded, in figuring out what matters, it's not this," he said. "It's you and me, but it's not the glamour and the clothes and the awards or the success."

Still, no doubt Hayes also admits to enjoying the accolades this year. At the CMTs, he was nominated for male video of the year. Earlier this year, he received five ACM nominations and a Grammy nomination, and last week, he learned he leads all country nominees as a finalist in six Billboard award categories.

So far, he's yet to take home a top prize (he lost to Cody Johnson on Monday night), and he conceded there's not much joy in going home empty-handed.

Check out PEOPLE's full CMT Awards coverage to get the latest news on country music's big night.

"You're just grateful, grateful, grateful to be nominated," he said, speaking particularly of the Grammys, where "Fancy Like" was up for best country song at the April 3 event. "But it also hurt to lose. It was weird. I even prayed right before it. I was like, 'God, win or lose, you get all the glory.' And then we lost. And I was like, dad gum it."

Walker Hayes
Frazer Harrison/Getty

Hayes said he found quick consolation with his wife after the ceremony when they went to dinner and "had some growth. It was good re-centering for us."

Laney Hayes recalled the perspective they latched onto during their conversation. "Most people were in the same boat," she said of the award nominees. "You go to this thing, and you feel honored to be there — and then you publicly lose. It's such a weird phenomenon, right?"

Once the couple returned to their Nashville-area home, 16-year-old Lela, their oldest child, also knew how to lighten the mood when they walked in the door.

"She was like, 'Hello, Grammy loser,'" Hayes recalled, "and so it made me laugh."

Hayes and his family continue to be out on the road on his "Fancy Like" tour, which kicked off in late January. Laney, the six kids and their two dogs have filled Hayes' bus, and after years touring by himself, he couldn't be happier.

"When we get on the bus on Wednesday night, Laney and I truly feel like we're reunited with family," Hayes said. "It's such a good feeling. And my team has embraced the kids as their own — and the dogs!"

Laney and their three daughters and three sons are usually stage-side for his shows, and the kids have been known to make occasional onstage appearances, including last weekend at the Tortuga Music Festival at Fort Lauderdale Beach Park in Florida. The sextet turned Hayes' signature "Fancy Like" TikTok dance into a family affair, and of course, the tens of thousands in the crowd went wild.

"They're never scared," Hayes said of his kids, "but they were nervous because of that crowd. It was so big. Lela said, 'Dad, I'm never nervous to go do the dance, but I was today.' But they were great. It's just one adventure after another. I am so grateful that Laney loves the road and so do the kids."

Laney concurred: "They love it. They're like, 'When are we leaving again?' every time we get home."

After the "Fancy Like" tour ends later this month, Hayes & Co. are set to join the tours of Brooks & Dunn and Kane Brown.

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