Country Stuff, by Walker Hayes
By and large, Walker Hayes is not an artist that has been taken seriously by a lot of the world of music review that I spend a fair amount of time in. Yet despite his general lack of success over his career, he appears to be going through a bit of a late-career renaissance due to the massive top-five pop success of “Fancy Like,” which was one of those critic-proof songs that critics hate but that have a wide degree of popular support. Without being greatly familiar with the artist a whole, let us see if this is an album that appeals to me, given its obviously populist appeal. What does one make of an album that is self-aware and perhaps a bit embarrassingly honest? Let’s see.
The album begins with “Drinking Songs,” where a heartbroken narrator sings about being put on a prayer list and appreciating drinking songs and drinking as a way to cope with life’s difficulties. This segues naturally into “AA,” a song that expresses Hayes’ desire to have a successful country career while keeping his marriage together and keeping his kids out of trouble, a song that appears to be a pretty successful hit of its own. “Life With You” is a genuinely sweet song that makes the somewhat jarring claim that the singer wants to do “life” with his wife, having overcome his commitment issues and cynicism about love. “U Girl” is a slice of bro country that offers a lot of cliches that demonstrate the singer clearly doesn’t take itself too seriously, which isn’t always a bad thing. “Delorean” features some pretty ridiculous rhymes but also some serious storytelling chops about the narrator’s love story, and some sweet Back To The Future nostalgia. “Fancy Like” is pretty ridiculous as well, with its homage to Wendy’s and Applebee’s and riding Vespas and things that sound and feel populist while also being rather personal to the narrator as well. “Craig” (features MercyMe) features an honest and relatable look at a positive interaction between the narrator–who is clearly the singer here–and a genuine Christian that reflects on the struggles of the life that the singer has lived. “What You Don’t Wish For” is a vulnerable discussion of dreams and a self-awareness of one’s limitations but also one’s ambitions. “Country Stuff” is a charming duet with Jake Owen that is a list song about all of the country stuff that the narrator happens to like, the sort of song that is easy to like if you don’t take yourself too seriously, and with a surprisingly funny ending. “I Hope You Miss Me” shows another honest and self-aware narrator hope that a loved one finds herself and fulfills her Hollywood dreams but still misses him. “Briefcase”, featuring Lori McKenna, is a reflective song about domestic drama in the narrator’s childhood and his own experience as a hardworking father, and how people come to terms with becoming like their fathers. “Make You Cry” is a rather honest reflection on the narrator’s knowledge that things are going well when he gives her tears of joy and deep feeling. “What If We Did” (featuring Carly Pearce) shows the narrator’s balance of longing for marriage and family with a cynicism about the difficulty of contemporary relationships, and makes a suitable closing song for an album that has a surprising amount of heart.
Without knowing a lot about Walker Hayes as a man or as an artist before listening to this album, I found this album pretty appealing. Hayes is pretty open about his insecurities, his desire to write compelling country songs and make a living off of playing them and getting airplay on country music stations while also dealing with the stress of living life as a man committed to working hard given his modest talents. The first few singles of the album showed the author’s self-awareness of music and pop culture, the rules of the genre and the knowledge of the appeal of populism, but the album as a whole shows a great deal more than that. One is left with a man struggling to be a good husband and father, deal with the stress of being in the music industry, and trying to wrestle with God and the right way to live even as one feels compelled to perform and create. By being honest about his working process and working his way through his own experiences as a musician and as a man, Walke Hayes has provided a compelling album that demonstrates the enduring popular appeal of country music and given himself an honorable place within that world.