Walker, Clay (Contemporary Musicians)
Compared by many to fellow country artist George Strait, Clay Walker hit the highway out of his native East Texas running and hasn't slowed down since. Sanding his vocals smooth in the same nightclub circuit that produced fellow "hat-act" New Country singers Mark Chesnutt, Ty Herndon, and Tracy Byrd, Walker's good looks and non-stop series of Number One hits quickly propelled his first three albums to platinum status and gained him an enthusiastic fan following.
Walker was born August 19, 1969, in Beaumont, Texas. The oldest of five children, he was raised on a farm where he was surrounded by traditional country music, thanks to his extended family. His father, a part-time welder, and his uncle taught Walker how to play guitar. "My grandfather taught them," Walker told George Fletcher in Country Music, "so it's been handed down. So many people in my family sing, and we just made good music together. I just decided to take it a little further than the living room." During his school years, music would receive pretty stiff competition from sports, particularly football, but it managed to win out in the long run.
Walker began entering talent contests as a singer when he was fifteen; a year later he was playing clubs around Beaumont and had a steady job performing at a bar called the Neon Armadillo through the rest of high school. After graduation, he got a part-time job on the clean-up crew at a local Goodyear factory in order to make money to buy musical equipment and a beat-up pick-up truck. After his band was outfitted and he had transportation, Walker quit Goodyear and began to work the Texas club circuit. He performed on the road both in the Lone Star State and in Canada for five years before he was approached by Giant Records producer James Stroud. Stroud, who had dealt with such notable country music talent as Clint Black, John Anderson, and Tracy Lawrence, recognized in the young musician a surprisingnd crucialavvy for one so young. "I think that meeting had as much to do with me getting signed as my actual talent," Walker recalled of his early meetings with the Nashville producer to Fletcher. "[Stroud] saw that I was focused and I was ready... in that meeting I was already talking about my third album! I thing that was really impressive to him that an artist had enough sense to look ahead."
Though scarcely out of his teens when he landed his record deal with Giant Records in 1992, Walker had already spent half a decade paying his dues as a performer and was ready to hit the studio. Released the following year, the young singer's self-titled debut album resulted in several number one hits, including "Dreaming with My Eyes Open," "Live until I Die," and the title single, "What's It to You." Writing five of the eleven tracks on his first record, Walker received a special satisfaction when the album went gold, then platinum. "The songs that I write are normally either a true life experience, or they're things that I've witnessed from other people, friends or family," the entertainer explained to Jennifer Fusco-Giacobbe in Country Song Roundup. He added that, "When you write, you become vulnerable. If you're gonna be true to yourself and write what you really feel, that's what you have to do, you have to put down on paper exactly what you're feeling.... I make myself very vulnerable because I open up my thoughts and they could be criticized, which can be painful, or they can be accepted." The public's reception of Clay Walker was clearly an affirmation for the then-twenty-five-year-old singer/songwriter.
Studio Success Can't Keep Walker from Fans
Even after the success of his first album, Walker continued to take to the road, performing up to two hundred stage shows a year. He has credited his road experiencespecially his early years on the Texas circuitith helping to season him as a performer. Texas audiences are used to the best, and they expect it from even young performers. They also have a strong regard for the traditional country sound of George Jones, as well as newer vocalists that recall that sound, including Alan Jackson, and Strait. Walker's debt to such country traditionalists is clear in his work, but he saves his biggest praise for the man he once cited as his Number One musical influence: Merle Haggard. Walker performs a cover of the Hag's Farmer's Daughter in his live shows.
Walker's sophomore effort, 1994's If I Could Make a Living, showed no signs of slowing the artist's forward momentum. The up-tempo title track, which was coauthored by Alan Jackson, shot straight to the number one spot on the charts, followed by the hit ballad "This Woman, This Man" on the album's road to platinum. While fans flocked to his concerts in droves and propelled album sales upwards, some critics were not so enthusiastic. Country Music reviewer Bob Allen commented on Walker's similarity to George Straitright down to the great big belt buckle and the baby face"nd placed Walker in the "generic" New Country mold. Walker "simply lacks the stylistic boldness and definition of fellow East Texans Chesnutt and Byrd," Allen maintained. "As a singer, he's far more an imitator than an innovator." However, the critic allowed that "some cuts... convince me that Walker may actually survive all the relentless attempts by his label and manager to 'package' him, and may even one day emerge with a voice and style he can call his own."
Comparisons to Strait
Walker's combination of enthusiasm and marketing savvy, coupled with the continued popularity of the single "What's It to You," propelled his first two albums to platinum status. They would also fuel his third Giant release, 1996's Hypnotize the Moon, on which the vocalist had four co-author credits. The work leading up to this new album was more intensive than the singer had engaged in for his previous releases; there was greater studio time involved, and Walker estimated that he and producer Stroud listened to over two thousand songs before deciding on the eleven tracks that would comprise Hypnotize the Moon. "I really wanted this album to be more traditional country than anything I've ever done," Clay explained in a press release. "That's why I wrote and looked for songs that were more in that vein." And his version of traditional country found an enthusiastic response from radio listeners and fans alike. "On the first album I had a lot of very raw sound," Walker admitted to Richard McVey II in Country Song Roundup, "and it was a new beginning for me. The second album, I stretched out on that one and tried to find my limitations. This album is something that I'm going to be proud of 20 years from now."
However, critics and fans tended to differ on Walker's musical direction. While praising the single "Bury the Shovel" for its originality, reviewer Michael McCall noted in Country Music that "Walker's debut displayed promise, even if he presented himself as George Strait Lite." "Since then," the critic added, "whatever qualities Walker originally flashed have dimmed and faded into a faceless, personalityless blur." Noting that the vocal stylings of Garth Brooks were also now present along-side those of Strait in the Walker mix, McCall added that the artist "is a pretty, dressed-up version of a country singer; he doesn't show the grit or face the problems that separate the legends from the posers." Fans didn't appear to agree that any similarities between Walker and Brooks or Strait were a bad thing; they flocked to Walker's live performances in ever increasing numbers.
In addition to earning co-producer status on the album, Walker would write or co-write three of the ten cuts off of 1997's Rumor Has It, including the hit title track. As with his previous recordings, he selected what tunes to record with an ear towards country radio. "I try to record music that is going to be played on the radio twenty years from now," the vocalist explained to a Country Song Roundup interviewer. "It's hard to make songs stand out with so many artists and songs out there." Walker maintains that a successful artist needs "a strong song; [radio doesn't] care who you are." Perhaps because of Walker's painstaking selection of appropriate material, Rumor Has It would add to Walker's forward momentum with its danceable title cut and singles like "Hear over Head over Heels" and the Jimmy Buffet-inspired "Then What."
New Year Brings Joy and Personal Challenge
1997 would see not only a new album, but a new addition to the Walker family after the birth of his first child, daughter MaClay Dalayne. But the year also brought a down side: the singer was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. At first, the diagnosis was a huge shock to the active entertainer, but he rallied, determined to weather any changes pragmatically. "You have to put things in perspective," he told McVey. "My perspective on life is God, family and work, in that order. My priorities are in line and you've got to keep them." In dealing with such challenges, Walker's strategy has always been to get a handle on the problem by seeing it from all sides, "and then take the best road to achieve the goal," as he explained to Country Song Roundup. Quoting a line from his single "Live until I Die"I don't worry about things I can't change"alker added: "That's the way I have to deal with it. I take things as they come."
Walker has continued to exhibit both creativity and pragmatism in regards to his career, and his touring schedule remains full despite his growing family. Writing new tunes and choosing new material from other writers also takes up much of his time and energy, because he tries to take off his songwriter hat and approach each new song as a country fan would. "Radio is the greatest thing that ever happened to country music," Walker is quick to admit. "It's heard everywhere, and to be a part of that is an awesome feeling." But he has never forgotten his fans' role in his success, and considering their likes and dislikes remains important. As the singer/songwriter told Fletcher, "These are the people that are going to buy my music, these are the people that I'm trying to reach with my music."
Clay Walker, Giant, 1993.
If I Could Make a Living, Giant, 1994.
Hypnotize the Moon, Giant, 1996.
Self-Portrait (includes interviews), Nu Millennia, 1996.
Rumor Has It, Giant, 1997.
Comprehensive Country Music Encyclopedia, Random House, 1994, pp. 407-08.
Country Music, January/February 1995; January 1996; March/April 1996.
Country Song Roundup, June 1994; July 1994; October 1995; April 1996; April 1997.
People, September 29, 1997.
Additional information for this profile was provided by Giant Records.