The "You Broke Up with Me" singer known for his personal lyrics turns in a six-song package that celebrates his wife of 17 years, their six kids, and his "hero," the father he lost less than three months ago

Walker Hayes has a sweet love song on his new EP, Country Stuff, called "Make You Cry," inspired by his own sentimental music that brings his wife, Laney, to tears.

But which song makes the self-described "high feeler" cry?

You'll find out if you ask Hayes about "Briefcase," another new song that's a touching tribute to his "hero," the father he lost a little over two months ago.

"I really hope the world gets to hear that song," Hayes says haltingly, his voice tightening as he tries to hold back his tears, "only because I want fathers to feel an arm around them in some way. I don't want another son to lose a dad and think, man, was he proud of me?"

Walker Hayes
Walker Hayes
| Credit: Robert Chavers

Hayes tells PEOPLE that he's one of the lucky ones. Through many of his earlier years, the 41-year-old artist and his dad butted heads, unable to see eye to eye, but they were long reconciled by the time the elder Hayes died in March in Mobile, Alabama, from Parkinson's disease complications. Hayes tells his father-son story in song, describing how he grew up resenting the job that took his dad — and his briefcase — away from home. In the song, Hayes vows not to be like his father, but then grows up to chase his own career dreams with a guitar case.

"My relationship with my dad did a 180 from the time I was about 18 to 30," says Hayes, "and he got to know how much I appreciated him — and vice versa."

Thankfully, as the world shut down for a pandemic in 2020, Hayes had a banquet of time to lavish on his dad, as well as all the people he loves. Being offstage also meant whole weeks and months spent with Laney, his wife of 17 years, and their six children, Lela, 15, Chapel, 13, Baylor, 11, Beckett, 9, Loxley, 7, and Everly, 5. 

"There's a lot of pluses about getting out on the road," Hayes says, "but ... oooh ... I have enjoyed hanging with the family, skateboarding with the kids, just being a dad. I've literally gotten to wake up in my house for almost a year and a half now — that's insane for a guy like me — and I've bonded with my kids. We've spent time together, and I've cherished every moment."

And, as Hayes is always drawn to do, he's been writing songs about it. Since his 2017 breakout hit, "You Broke Up with Me," he's attracted an avid following with his personal lyrics, which he wraps around his uniquely expressive, and so often playful, music. With Country Stuff, he's mining new stores of autobiographical material — whether it's about his dad ("Briefcase"), Laney ("Make You Cry," "What If We Did"), his kids ("I Hope You Miss Me"), or simply the life he loves ("Country Stuff," "Fancy Like").

"I get to open up a notebook and basically process my relationship with my father, my relationship with my kids and my wife and my work," says Hayes. "Who else gets to do that?"

walker Hayes
Walker Hayes
| Credit: Monument Records

With its celebration of "shooting ducks and bucks" and "mud tires on my trucks," title track "Country Stuff" especially allows Hayes to plant his flag firmly in the middle of the genre — a place country radio has shown some reluctance to give him of late. While Hayes realizes the song's theme "might broaden my audience," he wrote it, he says, because he's lived it.

"I've been in Nashville 16 years, and I live in a suburb — but that was me in high school," he says about the long list of countrified subjects in the song. "That's all I cared about."

These days, he's also been introducing the country life to his children on his in-laws' 500-acre farm near Greenville, Alabama, where they've been able to hunt, fish, hike and shoot skeet. 

"Lela's favorite place is the woods," Hayes says of his eldest daughter. "All she wants to do is grow up and move to Alabama, which is funny. All we wanted to do is grow up and move to Nashville!"

For the song, he enlisted pal Jake Owen to lay down harmonies and do some country trash talk. Hayes tells why the collaboration is so special to him: Several years ago, when he had lost his last record deal and was scraping by stocking shelves at a Costco, Owen chose to record one of his songs.

"My family was hanging on to this," Hayes recalls. "We're broke. I'm working at Costco, but we have this thread of a musical career — and it is Jake Owen cutting one of my songs and putting it on an album. That was enough hope for us."

Then Hayes got a phone call from Owen, who had to break the news that the song didn't make his album.

"He was so sad and heartfelt about this heartbreaking news," Hayes recalls. "I put the phone down, and while the news was bad, I felt so good that he would call me. Artists don't owe writers that phone call. Ever since I've had such a respect for him."

Hayes says when Owen was contacted to participate in "Country Stuff," he didn't hesitate. "He said, 'Are you pitching this to me, or you want a collab? Either way, I'm in,'" Hayes recounts. "He's just a great dude."

The EP also contains two other collaborations: Carly Pearce adds background vocals on the sexy confection, "What If We Did." And Hayes' "Briefcase" co-writer, Grammy-winning singer-songwriter Lori McKenna, joins him on their creation.

McKenna is a songwriting hero of Hayes', and the two wrote on Zoom a couple of months before Hayes' father began his decline.

"I was geeking out," Hayes says about the collaboration. "I have not naturally meshed with many people like I did with Lori. That song flew out. You can imagine what that song means to my family. That is a special, special piece of artwork, and to have Lori's voice on it just makes it even cooler."

So far, Hayes has written, recorded and released songs about three of his children, Lela, Beckett, and Chapel. This time around daughter Loxley has earned a cut with "I Hope You Miss Me." (He also reveals that a song about Oakleigh, the daughter he and Laney lost in childbirth three years ago, will soon have her own song: "Yeah, we have an Oakleigh song. I think people will love that.")

Loxley's exuberant personality was Hayes' inspiration for her song: "When she wakes up, she might come down in a karate uniform, and by lunchtime she might have a princess dress on, and then she may come in and put on a gymnastics leotard and turn on a yoga video. She just follows her spirit like the wind."

Hayes fully expects Loxley to grow up, spread her wings and "be destined for greatness," and — as the song says — all he hopes is that she misses him.

Still, he adds, "I don't sit around being sad about my kids growing up, and I'll tell you a reason why I don't is because I had this year with them." 

That sweet, simple home life was Hayes' muse for what he considers his favorite song on the EP, "Fancy Like" ("we fancy like Applebee's on a date night"). If anything, songs like that and "I Hope You Miss Me" are a reminder of his perpetual irony: His family inspires the livelihood that takes him away from them. With concert dates beginning to dot his calendar, he's about to walk out the door again with that guitar case.

Hayes says he's now striving "to find a healthy balance" when he does.

"After the year I've had, after reflecting on my life and with the loss of my hero, I really want to be intentional with my time," he says. "Sometimes I secretly wish I had a job I didn't love because it's a gift and it's a curse. I love music. It has control over me."

And he's determined to share it — to a point. "I don't want to leave a dad out there without hearing 'Briefcase,' and I want 'Country Stuff' on the radio," Hayes says. "I don't want to slack. But I don't want to exhaust myself chasing success. God is enough, and I have this family at home, and I want to be with them more. Trust me, I would give up music in a blink for my family."