Walker Hayes knew how music dreams died in Nashville. He’d lost his deal with a major record label. With a wife and six kids to support, he was making ends meet stocking shelves at Costco.
Then – just when he’d decided it was time to get “a real job” – the phone rang. On the other end? Shane McAnally, the Grammy-winning songwriter and hit-making producer.
McAnally’s question: Did Hayes want to sign a record deal?
A year later, Hayes, 37, is now basking in the glow of the upcoming album’s first single, “You Broke Up with Me,” an irresistibly quirky song that is gaining airplay by the day. Here are five more things you need to know about this Mobile, Alabama, native:
1. “You Broke Up with Me” was inspired by McAnally’s second chance.
The lyrics tell the story of a guy out partying when his ex-girlfriend walks in. When she starts making moves on him, his sharp rebuff arrives: “Hey, you broke up with me.”
“Honestly,” Hayes tells PEOPLE, the song “is really about Nashville. I’ve been in Nashville 13 years, and I’ve had deals and lost them. So I know what it’s like to be hot and how everybody wants to collaborate with you.” He also knows what it’s like when no one returns a phone call.
After the McAnally deal was announced, he says, so many who had abandoned him were back at his doorstep, “but my thought was, ‘Hey, you guys broke up with me.’ “
The song “is such an empowering thing,” he says. “Everybody wants to say that. … It’s not even saying, ‘I told you so.’ When people vanished, it’s not like I was saying, ‘Hey, y’all will be sorry.’ I didn’t know if I was ever gonna get another chance, either, but it definitely feels good to see these people around and think, y’all missed out.”
2. All of his current songwriting is based on his own life.
His wildly creative lyrics have inspired comparisons to legendary tunesmith Roger Miller (“King of the Road”), but Hayes says his songs are “really just journal entries from my life. They’re nothing more. I quit trying to write a song about Friday night that Jason Aldean might cut. I started writing songs about dollar stores, my kids, experiences with [wife] Laney. I just started writing about the truth because really that’s my expertise.”
3. Yes, he really has six children.
Hayes says he and his wife, who was his high school sweetheart, had always planned on four children, “but we just kept going.” Their three girls and three boys are ages 1 to 11.
His wife has been homeschooling them out of necessity because the couple hasn’t been able to afford child care. Besides using them as his muse, Hayes also stays intimately involved with his children’s lives – especially with all their extracurricular activities.
“Let me tell you,” he says, “I have not met anybody else doing what I’m doing with six.”
4. He says he owes his success to his wife.
“Everybody thinks I’m crazy having six kids and chasing this dream,” says Hayes. But he tells his wife, “You’re crazier than anybody because you married me, and you’re still around for all this.”
Clearly, though, she is a huge part of his success.
“She has a way of looking at me and remembering what’s best about me … even though it’s nowhere close to coming out,” he says. “Her faith in my gifts and my talents are beyond my own faith in them.”
5. His heart is in country music, but he’s trained in classical piano.
Though he grew up on Kenny Chesney and Tim McGraw, Hayes ended up majoring in piano at a small liberal arts college in Birmingham, Alabama. His choice, he says, had a lot more to do with picking a degree plan that got him through college than any aspiration of performing Bach.
At the same time, he was teaching himself guitar, and his real passion was lit when he summoned the courage to perform country covers one night in a local bar. “I remember being nervous that whole night,” he says, “but the rush just overtook me.”
Afterward, he says, he abandoned a career plan to join his dad in his real estate business, and he and Laney packed up for Nashville.