Walker Hayes is finding new purpose in his music after suffering the devastating loss of a child, and his family of six has a spark of new life with Hazel, an adorable spaniel-poodle puppy

By Nancy Kruh
February 25, 2019 10:00 AM
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With six kids, Walker Hayes is bound to learn his fair share of lessons about parenthood. Here’s a new one: be careful about what deals you make with your children.

The 39-year-old artist told his three daughters and three sons, ages 3 to 13, that they could get a puppy if they walked their family dog, Magnolia, every day for eight weeks. “I didn’t think they’d do it,” Hayes admits.

Ah, Walker, never underestimate the tenacity of children — or the seductive power of a pooch.

The kids did indeed uphold their end of the bargain, which is how Hazel, the most impossibly adorable cavoodle (a Cavalier King Charles spaniel-poodle mix), is now an official member of the Hayes’ Nashville-area household.

“Hazel has been the best dog,” says the “You Broke Up With Me” singer, whose latest single is “90’s Country.” “The kids absolutely can’t get enough of her, and she gets along with Magnolia. Hazel’s whole butt wags when you walk in. It’s just the cutest. She has really lit up our house.”

And it needed a spark of new life, Hayes allows, after the family lost daughter Oakleigh Klover in childbirth last June when Hayes’ wife, Laney, suffered a rare uterine rupture.

“For a time, Laney and the kids talked about maybe naming the puppy Band-Aid,” he tells PEOPLE. “But you know, the kids chose Hazel, and I’m glad.”

The dog didn’t need a literal name for Hayes to know she has been helping his family to heal — just as he knows that nothing, really, changes the fact that life will ever be the same since the loss. But Hayes has taken that harsh truth, and he’s using it to find new purpose in performing and songwriting.

It’s now going with him on his 30-date “Dream On It” tour. He’s also bringing along new music and a heightened eagerness to connect with his audiences. (Of course, it doesn’t hurt when Kelsea Ballerini and songwriting collaborator Nicolle Galyon decide to drop in on a show, as they did Friday night in Chicago.)

The peaks and valleys of the past year, Hayes says, have given him “a good focus on what’s really important and why I do what I do. And those reasons are to take care of my family, but also to make a difference in people’s lives. I’m really looking forward to my audience and who’s going to show up and what they need in their lives right now. I want people to leave in maybe a better direction than they came in.”

Walker Hayes
Nancy Kruh

Now finishing up his next album, Hayes says his new music is still as catchy, original and boundary-crossing as his last record, boom., but the fragile nature of life is much more of a recurring theme. One song, “Dad’s Sailboat,” deals with the issue of aging parents. Another, “Don’t Let Her,” imagines his wife’s life as a widow — an unwanted fate that Hayes dwelled on during a long stretch away from home.

He also has found new inspiration from his breakthrough hit, “You Broke Up With Me,” taking a 180-degree twist on the theme with the song “Better Than Me.”

“It’s when you see somebody that you recently parted with,” he explains, “and you notice that they’re doing really good, and ‘why you gotta be doing better than me?’”

Hayes openly acknowledges his music is an acquired taste, even “polarizing,” but any time he’s tempted to chase conventions, he says, “thank goodness my team can smell the BS,” he says. “They love those challenging songs because I think they believe that, in the long run, those will be why I have fans for life.”

Another thing — besides conventional country — that you won’t encounter at a Walker Hayes concert is what he playfully refers to as his “prized possession”: those sculpted abs that he flashed in his “90’s Country” video.

Concert fans, Hayes says, have started to coax him to shed his shirt on stage, but that’s one boundary he isn’t thinking about crossing.

“For now,” he says, “it’s on.”

Still, if you can’t get enough of those sculpted muscles, you can also spot them on Hayes’ Instagram feed. Earlier this month he posted a pumping-iron pic to celebrate an anniversary without that other kind of six-pack: Three years ago Hayes chose sobriety and now uses exercise as his “daily escape.” Radio personality Bobby Bones took note of the post and has turned it into a celebrity weightlifting challenge to raise money for Hayes’ Be a Craig Fund, which supports various nonprofit efforts.