Why Has 'Fancy Like' Blown Up? Walker Hayes Is Still Trying to Figure It Out: 'Wasn't Supposed to Happen!'

Powered by a homemade TikTok dance video, the irresistible song has turned into a national craze, leaving the singer-songwriter baffled — and delighted

Behold the "Fancy Like" juggernaut: Since its June release, the impossibly irresistible song has racked up nearly 180 million streams, platinum certification, No. 1 notches on a host of platforms (and now No. 8 and climbing on country radio), not to mention its star turn in those adorable Applebee's commercials.

Standing at the center of this musical sensation is Walker Hayes, amazed and baffled by it all.

"Let's be honest," the singer-songwriter tells PEOPLE for the latest issue of the magazine. "This wasn't supposed to happen to a 41-year-old dude with a wife, six kids, two dogs and two gerbils."

But then again, Hayes' life is exactly what the song celebrates — and surely one of the secrets to its success. Could anyone who hasn't lived it possibly have written lyrics populated with fast food, blue jeans, kitchen smooching, a six-pack in a Styrofoam cooler, and, of course, the all-American restaurant that takes its star turn in the catchy chorus: "We fancy like Applebee's on a date night / Got that Bourbon Street steak with the Oreo shake / Get some whipped cream on the top, too / Two straws, one check, girl, I got you."

Hayes says an Instagram comment he spotted recently sums it all up: "It's a love song for people with mortgages and kids."

"That's it — that's what we accidentally did," Hayes says. "We wrote about everybody who lives in a strip-mall town, and they're fine with it. And you know what's cool about it is, that's me. My wife and I live in a cookie-cutter suburban neighborhood with a ballpark and a Y and some schools and strip malls — Chick-Fil-A, Kroger, Burger King, Waffle House, Applebee's. That's what it is. We're obviously like a lot of people, and really, it's freeing because, wow, there're more dudes out there like me."

Walker Hayes
Walker Hayes. Robert Chavers

But the song doesn't just celebrate a lifestyle. It also has an underlying message, and Hayes believes that's another reason it's resonating so strongly.

"To me, what it says is, 'I'm okay if tomorrow looks just like today," he says. "It's a beautiful, peaceful feeling, like, this is life and it's good enough."

That contentment has been hard-won for Hayes. After being dropped by two labels, he resorted to a job at a Costco to make ends meet for his family, while also soothing himself with too many six-packs. (Now five years sober, he says, "Alcoholism is a huge part of my narrative that I love to be wide open about.") In 2018, just as Hayes was finally enjoying the success of breakout hit, "You Broke Up with Me," he and Laney lost their seventh baby, a daughter, Oakleigh, in childbirth. Her death shook Hayes to the core and left him questioning why he'd even pursued music. His career, he says, felt "so dumb."

But over time, the grief has been eased by a deepening gratitude for what he still has. "It's just hard not to be grateful for a day," he says. "If I wake up and I've got six kids that are alive, and they walk down the stairs, and my wife is alive, and she comes down the stairs, and we're together, and we've got a roof over our heads, and I'm writing a song — man, that's about as good as life gets right there."

Oakleigh's death also compelled Hayes and his wife to rethink the family's role in his public life. For years, they had been advised to guard their privacy, says Hayes, "and some of it felt like to me, oh, we're so special that I need to hide it. And then, I was like, but are we? Also I think losing Oakleigh broke us so publicly, it was freeing to go, we're not invincible. We hurt, and we've got stuff to deal with. It sounded exhausting to keep that suppressed. And it was so freeing and therapeutic to let it go. Best-case scenario, it'll help somebody today to see that our house is a frickin' wreck."

Indeed, if you've dropped into Hayes' socials the past couple of years, you'll have experienced the delightful mayhem of his family's life — impromptu games and contests, kitchen-counter conversations, skateboard feats, and singalongs with his wife, three sons and three daughters, ages 6 to 15. Increasingly, over the quarantine, Hayes and 15-year-old daughter Lela have been choreographing his songs, as well as other artists', and posting the dances on TikTok, all just for fun.

"My socials are not label-run," Hayes proudly declares, "and they're rarely curated."

This past June 13 was just another day when Lela suggested "Fancy Like," a cut off Hayes' latest EP, Country Stuff, needed its own dance. Hayes was all in. Father and daughter had already come up with a TikTok dance for his label's choice for a radio single, title track "Country Stuff," but "Fancy Like" is Hayes' favorite song on the project.

"We just threw it together," Hayes recalls about the dance's genesis. "It was my job to keep it easy enough for the old folks. And it didn't take us long. I mean, we probably put it together in 30 minutes. We did two takes and just threw it up."

Within 24 hours, the ensuing viral explosion had reached seismic proportions. To date, the 26-second video has been viewed more than 30 million times, and it's inspired over a half-million more homemade videos, expanding its influence exponentially. In the four months since the video's debut, Hayes' number of TikTok followers has grown from 85,000 to 1.9 million.

The video's reverberations continue to power the song's so-far ceaseless momentum. "Every week is the biggest week we've had, and I swear, this has gotta be the stopping point," Hayes says incredulously. "There's no way we can get more streams. There's no way we can sell more records, and sure enough, I'm wrong. I'm kinda like, when does this ever go backwards?"

Last week, six-time Oscar nominee Amy Adams offered the song its latest boost when she TikTok-danced and sang the chorus on Late Night with Seth Meyers — risking her daughter's embarrassment, she admitted. "I think the word she uses is 'cringe,'" Adams told Meyers.

Applebee's management also has stepped in to join the craze, naturally wanting to capitalize on the popularity of what's now often shorthanded as the "Applebee's song." Hayes was happy to partner with the restaurant chain that he's frequented since high school, when he and Laney went on Applebee's dates in their native Mobile, Alabama.

"A thousand Bourbon Street steaks and Oreo shakes" later, Hayes says, "Applebee's is like a piece of furniture in my life. My kids get excited when we're on the road, and I go, 'Hey, do y'all want to sit down instead of doing fast food?' That's one of the rare places they all want to go."

Hayes sees an important distinction between the concepts of "fancy" and "fancy like," and to him, the restaurant is the epitome of the latter.

"It doesn't break the bank," he says. "Like, hey, 'I got paid. Let's spend it. Where do you want to go?' Applebee's. Why? I know what I'm gonna get. I know where it's at. There's probably not a line, probably nobody there I don't want to run into. And then we're out, and we're full and we're happy. This is what 'fancy like' is to me because we're totally fine in that not-fancy life."

Hayes and his family now make cameos in two Applebee's commercials, and photos featuring him, Laney and Lela are gracing every restaurant menu nationwide. It's a particular point of pride for Hayes that "Fancy Like" has also compelled the chain to return — by popular demand — the Oreo Cookie milkshake to its menu.

What's next for the artist? His label is working to generate more traction on Billboard's all-genre Hot 100 chart, where the song now sits at No. 5, with a new remix and verse featuring Kesha. With Nashville roots of her own, she was Hayes' first choice for a collaboration, and he reached out to the pop icon to explore the possibilities.

"The first time we talked on the phone," Hayes recalls, "she said, 'My best girlfriend got in a fist fight at Applebee's.' And I was like, 'Kesha, you just sealed the deal. That's it. You're perfect for this.'"

Naturally, Hayes is also working on new music. "We're in an awesome place with five tunes," he says. "I know we are eventually building an entire project that will be paired with Country Stuff."

Hayes insists he's feeling no pressure to duplicate the success of "Fancy Like." He knows better.

"It's such a universal aligning of a million stars that it would be foolish to ever start working to orchestrate that on my own power," he says. "It's just undoable."

He also realizes he will forever be associated with the song, and he's fine with that.

"I don't care if someone says I'm the 'Applebee's guy' or the 'Fancy Like' guy," Hayes says. "I don't hate it when someone's like, 'Man, I'm so tired of it because radio plays it every hour.' That's good, bro! That's not a bad thing!"

He knows, as well, that he's going to be singing "Fancy Like" for the rest of his life. Will he ever get tired of that?

It's a quick and easy answer: "Nope."

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