Walker Hayes Earns His Rite of Passage at Country's Mother Church: 'This Is a Huge Deal for Me'

The "Fancy Like" phenom celebrates his long journey to stardom with a sellout show at Nashville's Ryman Auditorium

walker hayes in concert
Walker Hayes. Photo: jared olson

At his pre-show meet-and-greet on Friday night, Walker Hayes crouched to meet the eyes of one of his youngest fans, a little boy whose parents had brought him to the concert at Nashville's Ryman Auditorium.

"Have you ever been to a show at the Ryman?" Hayes, 42, tenderly asked the boy, who mouthed a quiet "no."

"Never?" Hayes replied with playful surprise. "Well, it's my first show, too!"

Inarguably, it was a big night for both boy and man, but Hayes was the one there to make history. Almost two decades into his road-less-traveled career, he'd finally reached his baptism at country music's Mother Church. For almost 100 years, its stage has been made sacred by the presence of every single country legend who's ever lived, and a headlining sellout has become a rite of passage signifying full stature in the genre. On Friday night, Hayes well knew how easily this day could have never come.

"I feel like I've always been that artist that maybe country music has tried to shut the door on, and somehow, we've just kept a foot in it and wouldn't let it close," Hayes told PEOPLE a couple hours before the show, which sold out months ago.

walker hayes in concert
Walker Hayes fields questions from the audience at his pre-show VIP event. Nancy Kruh

Since he arrived in Music City in 2004, no one has been more knocked around the town than Hayes as he's chased his dream. After losing two record deals, he went for broke and began writing strictly to his own beat, creating a catalogue of stylish, quirky, pop- and hip-hop-infused songs.

In 2016, it finally caught the ear of hitmaking songwriter-producer Shane McAnally, who gave him one more shot and signed him to his Monument label. But — with the exception of 2017's top 10 single "You Broke Up with Me" — country radio's kingmakers decided to mostly take a pass on Hayes' singular sound. It also attracted considerable criticism from self-appointed purists who decided the music fell outside the definition of country.

walker hayes in concert
Walker Hayes. jared olson

By now you had to have been in a coma if you don't know the rest of the story: how a homemade TikTok dance Hayes recorded last year with his teenage daughter, Lela, blew up the internet and turned his tribute to simple things, "Fancy Like," into a triple-platinum hit. The irresistible song not only became Hayes' first radio No. 1, but it also sent millions of new fans on a deep dive into the rest of his music and his life, where they discovered a devoted husband and father of six, ages 6 to 16, who really is living out the "Fancy Like" life. The resulting synergy has since fueled Hayes' sold-out tour — the Ryman show was the next-to-last date — and the rise of another sure-fire hit, "AA," now a top 10 single. It also, no doubt, has turned him into country's newest star.

Still astonished by it all, Hayes is taking it in with a boundless sense of gratitude, which he brought with him to the Ryman on Friday. "It truly is a beautiful thing," he said, "when an artist can be who they are, and that is actually what the world wants. It truly is miraculous when that lines up."

Hayes is still having to adjust to his newfound celebrity. His tour bus, which he shares with wife, Laney, the kids and their two dogs, pulled up to the Ryman early Friday after an overnight drive from his previous date, in Knoxville, Tennessee. The plan was for everyone to hang out downtown before the show, but when Hayes, along with his 12-year-old son, Baylor, went across the street to grab a morning coffee, he was quickly mobbed.

"I thought a couple people might notice us," Hayes said. "Everyone was so sweet, but it turned into madness."

The family ended up retreating to their suburban Nashville home, where he and the kids spent the afternoon playing on new scooters. About 50 fans were already lined up for the meet-and-greet when he arrived back at the Ryman around 5:30 p.m. In a darkened corner of the auditorium, Hayes took his time with each, greeting them warmly, signing anything they'd brought, pulling out guitar picks from his jeans pocket for the kids, and enduring a long succession of camera flashes.

"Oops, I think I might have blinked," he said more than once, making sure another shot was taken.

Around 6 p.m., he grabbed his guitar and took over a stool onstage for a VIP performance and Q&A for about 125 fans who filled the Ryman's front pews. He introduced "Fancy Like" with a disarming reflection on its birth during the difficult pandemic days off the road: "Over those two years, I was honestly like, what in the world am I gonna do when it's time to go back to work? Will I have shows? Will people remember 'You Broke Up with Me'? And they do remember it — because we wrote a song about Applebee's."

The comment evoked knowing laughter over the restaurant chain's starring role in the "Fancy Like" chorus. "And that was it," Hayes added. "I feel like I've been riding a wild horse just hanging on to its tail for the last year."

walker hayes in concert
Walker Hayes. jared olson

The "Fancy Like" performance, of course, turned into a big sing-along (and gesture-along), and then Hayes spent the next half-hour answering questions that told just as much about his life as how much his audience has been paying attention to it. They knew his children by name, that he'd grown up in Mobile, Alabama, and that his father had passed away last year. They knew he writes Bible verses on the walls of his family home, and that he bought each kid a yard blowup for Christmas last year. They referenced old album tracks, and they quoted back his own lyrics that he himself had forgotten.

Later, Hayes told PEOPLE that he cherishes this level of intimacy, and the connection has brought a new sense of ease to his performing. "I'm so comfortable in my own skin right now," he said. "So much of me is exposed, and there's nothing I'm really hiding. I don't worry anymore about whether I'm gonna be able to hit certain notes because I don't think people care. They're here to get what they get and see what they see, and what they already have embraced, like a member of their own family. There's not some unrealistic expectation they have at the show. They just want to come hang with us for a night. There's no pressure tonight. It's just celebratory."

walker hayes in concert
Walker Hayes. jared olson

And that joy was palpable all the way up to the Ryman's famed balcony. So was the love being returned to the stage as the rapt audience — many who had brought their young children — stood, cheered and often effortlessly sang along to Hayes' complicated lyrics.

"I'm so happy that each and every one of you is here," Hayes said at one break between songs. "Thank you for coming. Every time we put a show on sale, I'm afraid nobody's gonna come — and you came! This is a huge deal for me." He also offered his own disclaimer: "If you're here for 'Fancy Like,' it's last so I don't want anybody to leave."

walker hayes in concert
Walker Hayes. jared olson

The 98-minute show featured seven songs off Country Stuff, Hayes' January release that peaked at No. 2 on Billboard's country album chart and No. 9 on its all-genre album chart. He also brought out seven tracks from his 2017 album, boom. — and one song, "Craig," that appears on both albums.

Though it landed with a thud on country radio in 2018, the unique song has taken on a life of its own over the years as listeners have resonated with its Christian testimony, which tells the true story of a selfless act by Hayes' friend and neighbor, Craig Allen Cooper. Hayes collaborated with popular contemporary Christian band MercyMe to re-record it for Country Stuff, and the reimagined version was a particular crowd favorite. (Hayes and Cooper have since written a book, Glad You're Here, due out this week, on their friendship, and Cooper was in the audience Friday night.)

Hayes dug deeper into his catalogue for 2016 release "Your Girlfriend Does," and there was no better place than the Ryman stage for him to indulge in this cheeky retort to a particularly nasty social-media insult: "Well, I read what you wrote underneath my video / and I tried to let it roll off my shoulders ... I get it, you don't dig it / Hey, it's all right, 'cause / guess to the what? / Your girlfriend does."

Every single song had a personal basis, but none so much as "Don't Let Her," a poignant portrait of his wife of 17 years, whose faith in him never wavered through the trying times. Hayes also performed "Beckett," one of several songs he's written that were inspired by his children. Ten-year-old Beckett Hayes could be spotted in the wings with a camera, taking photos of his dad as he sang.

The entire evening, in fact, was something of a family affair. Eight-year-old Loxley Hayes also found a place stage-side, fangirling through the entire set of show opener MacKenzie Porter. And Baylor Hayes was there at the meet-and-greet to help out his dad with fans' phones for picture-taking.

As they have at several other concerts, all six Hayes children appeared onstage to dance along with the final choruses of "Fancy Like," drawing a roar from the crowd. The stage also filled up with Hayes' friends and colleagues, including Shane McAnally, who gamely attempted the TikTok dance. And this time — for the first time — Hayes' normally stage-shy wife joined the gang. Hayes shouted his bliss: "Oh! Momma's out!" At song's end, the two held onto the moment in a lengthy embrace.

walker hayes in concert
Laney and Walker Hayes. jared olson

Returning to the stage for an encore with just his acoustic guitar, Hayes stood in a single spotlight and treated the crowd to "Briefcase," a bittersweet tribute to his late father that brims with all the three-chords-and-the-truth spirit of any country classic. Then just to top things off, he reprised "Fancy Like" solo — because, let's face it, with this crowd there was no such thing as too much "Fancy Like."

Hayes wrapped his tour on Saturday night in Louisville, Kentucky, and then he's set to support Kane Brown and Brooks & Dunn on the road; later this summer, he'll play various fair and festival dates. Come fall, he'll be headlining his first arena tour, moving from 1,200- to 3,000-capacity rooms to up to 12,000-seat venues.

Hayes admits he's still in disbelief about that leap. "Everything is impossible that we're doing right now," he said, grinning at the thought. "So, let's go!"

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