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Man With a View: Clay Walker on Why He’s in a Great Place to Have a Big Year in 2014

Clay Walker
PFA Media

Clay Walker is at an interesting point in his life and career. He’s a survivor. He’s lived twice as long as doctors predicted he would when he was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1996, and he’s lasted much longer than your average Nashville hat.

Walker released his first single ‘What’s It to You’ over 20 years ago, yet the Texan avoids being tagged as a “veteran” or “legend” or anything else that’s really just a euphemism for “old.” With a new baby, new music, a new movie and more perspective than the moon, Walker approaches life like he’s been born again — like a survivor.

“The ’90s was a new era of music, it really was,” Walker tells Taste of Country, speaking for a moment about his start. “And I was right there as it was coming in. It was huge. It was bigger than country music has ever been … with Garth Brooks and Clint Black and George Strait with ‘Pure Country.’ And I just came on the heels of that.”

The 44-year-old doesn’t rush his thoughts, so when he’s really feeling something he tends to leave more space around each phrase for emphasis. After pausing for a moment, he starts again. “To get through and go into this new era and I still have a chance to have a hit? It’s damn exciting,” he admits. “I gotta tell you, it really feels cool.”

Some artists are whiskey, some are Bud Light and some are wild — like tequila. Walker is a warm glass of red wine. You remember his music for its unique, flavorful notes. You feel the love rush over you. He’s confident, a good dancer, tells great stories and speaks with controlled passion.

Walker brought that same passion to a new acting career. He has a small role in ‘Alone Yet Not Alone,’ a kidnapping story set during the French and Indian War in 1755, and hopes to branch out from there. His music is better for it, he tells ToC in this interview, during which he also opens up about being a new dad diagnosed with MS. In the end, it’s still all about the music for this married father of four. He’s still young by country star standards, and his experiences haven’t left him bitter or skeptical about where the genre is headed. But that’s not to say he doesn’t have strong opinions.

ToC: On your Twitter page, you made a promise that you’d be winning a BMI award in 2014. Do you have a specific song in mind that you think is going to win?

Clay Walker: There are at least three songs on the new record that I wrote or co-wrote, and it’ll be one of those [laughs]. Obviously you have to write it to win the award. I feel confident about my writing and it doesn’t hurt to write with great writers. It just gives you a better chance. I put a lot of stock in what songs actually mean to our format, more so than production. Production is the dressing on the plate, but the meat and potatoes are the lyrics. You can’t have a classic song that outlasts the fad without a great lyric. Name any song. I value the writer more than anybody else in the town. More than producers, more than record labels, more than anything else. It really is the writer and the publishing companies that make this town what it is.

Clay Walker Quote

When you’re collecting songs for a new album, do you make an effort to check in with the hottest songwriters of the time to see if there is anything there to help you at this stage in your career?

I do. But there’s an understood — and I understand why — monopoly on the great writers and on the songs themselves. Record labels are smart business people and they know it’s all about the songs, so they pretty much join up with the powerhouse publishing companies who have the powerhouse songwriters and those songs stay in those labels. At least, they have first shot at them. Every now and then, drippings for the poor will come off the table, but not very often.

As a songwriter … it’s also hard to get appointments with those writers unless you have some kind of a track record, like somebody like myself. And then you can make some of those appointments and go write them and hope that you write a smash with them. But it’s a process, to say the least.

This will be your 9th album and you’ve evolved with each one. How much of that comes naturally and how much is you saying, ‘I gotta make a change’?

Change is inevitable. A person is not the same from one second to the next, scientifically. I feel like recognizing where music is, and it’s really cool to have this particular view that I have right now. I would call it more like a catbird seat because I can see what’s happening and I accept it. Traditional country music died. I think that George Strait winning Entertainer of the Year at the CMAs was, to me, a symbolic and a real closing of the door. It was, to me, as if the industry was saying, “Thank you George for everything that you’ve meant to traditional country music.” I’m not saying George Strait won’t be played, but I’m saying I don’t think any new acts, including myself — I’m not new, but … I think people are fooling themselves if they think for a second that the recording industry is going to accept any more traditional country music on the radio. I think that is the end of a world, the end of an era.

It’s kind of like Rome. Rome has fallen [laughs]. There’s a new world and a new era. I feel like I totally accepted that. Now I’m not saying that fans are not going to continue loving traditional country music and playing it and listening to it and maybe even downloading some of it. But I don’t think you’ll see this town record what we call ‘traditional’ country music ever again. I believe that era is completely over.

When you say that, do you say that with a sense of remorse or regret? Or is it acceptance?

No. No remorse whatsoever. I think it’s the perfect evolution and it’s the way it should be. It’s time. It’s time for that change. And, albeit rough at the moment, it’s a beautiful rough. I don’t think that we’ll be heavy metal, as some of the bands are doing and calling it country. I don’t think that we’ll be rap. I just think that we’re trying to find where the absolute limitations are and then work within those limitations. I believe that right now we’re stretching the limitations out as far as they’ll go and the fans will bring them back in.

What do you find satisfying about acting?

The part that I really like about acting is that now it’s no longer an enigma to me. I didn’t realize that there was such a method to acting. It’s a learned process and it definitely can be taught. It’s not faking it. And my perception of acting was faking it. They’re not faking it. And what is it that they’re not faking? They’re not faking emotion. It may be an imaginary situation, but it’s real emotions that are going on. And it’s very cool.

The reason that I wanted to try it was years ago my dad always said to me that, he goes, “Son, you need to go into acting. It will just be another thing that is part of who you are and it will help your music career.” So everything to me is about music and there’s a rhythm to music and there’s also a rhythm to acting. And I believe that it’s possible to learn how to translate the rhythm of singing into the rhythm of acting, and I’m working on that. What’s great is I just want to be all I can be in acting. I don’t wanna try and say, “Golly, I’m the next Brad Pitt or George Clooney or Paul Giamatti.” I don’t know what level I’m going to reach, but I do like it. Tim McGraw was an inspiration, watching him lead the way for my era and do it successfully and he is a successful actor. And that gives me hope that I could be, as well.

Do you enjoy watching yourself on the big screen?

Uhhh, not yet [laughs]. I hope that folks will cut me a little slack. I actually was in the film long before I ever had one single acting class, and now that really inspired me. I had been offered that part and had to go right away to do it. It was fun, and we got to see the nuts and bolts of the way films are made. It’s very interesting and not much different from the music as far as the way that it’s made. You do your part, it’s recorded. You may do it two or three times and then somebody picks the best of what you did.

To be honest, I think acting would help every person on Earth because you cannot act unless you do the most important thing, and that is listening. You have to listen. You have to listen to the person you’re in the scene with. And if you fail to do that, it will not come across real, it will come across as faking it, that you’re just reading lines. So having to listen to that person and let what they say affect you is one of the biggest lessons in life. Acting has improved my listening skills [laughs]. All of us could use a little help with that, wouldn’t you agree?

In some ways, you can see similarities in that and being a musician because you’re also listening to the band, but also if you’re going to perform someone else’s song, you’ve got to be able to convey those emotions. That has to be real.

Clay Walker QuoteIt also improved my stage performance. Because now during the songs, I’m letting the songs affect me. While I’m singing I can feel what is happening in the songs. I mean, I’ve always been able to do that somewhat, but acting has brought a whole new — not just perspective — but a whole lighter feeling. It deepens the feeling to the songs.

Many people don’t realize how soon after you had your first kid you were diagnosed with MS. How did that diagnosis affect you as a father moving forward? Would you be a different father today had you not been diagnosed almost 20 years ago?

That’s a very deep question. And it’s actually never been one I’ve ever been asked in any interview. Answering it honestly, I never … I mean, I was always taught to accept what challenges were before us, because that was the Christian way, by my grandmother, and to never question God. So I never questioned God about why did I get the disease. “Why me?” kind of thing. But there was a moment, right after they told me I had MS — I had been testing all day long and it came as such a shock because I felt that I had a pinched nerve in my neck, that’s why I couldn’t move my hand and why my face was spasming. And my leg was numb. Right after they told me I had MS I said, “How can you be sure?” And they said, :We have to do a spinal tap to know.” I asked the doctor how sure he was it was MS … and he said he was 100 percent sure it was MS.

We went out into the room to do the spinal tap, I was looking at my daughter who was three months old, and that’s when it hit me that I was — and I answered my own question — but I asked, “God, why? Why would you let this happen?” Because the doctor told me I was going to die! He said I had so many lesions that I would at the most have four years before I’d be in a wheelchair, and that I’d be dead in eight years. I was thinking, here she is three months old and I’m not gonna walk her down the aisle. That was the most sickening and horrifying feeling of all. I didn’t really think about myself or about … I was just really pissed off that I wouldn’t get to see that. Crushed. I prayed deeply, and I believe that because of those prayers and because of the faith, that I have and the prayers that came out around me, being family and friends and all. That was the difference maker.

Just a couple of years ago, I asked my current neurologist — I’d never really talked about that prognosis — and this is a different neurologist. He said, “I knew that one day you were going to ask me that question.” I said, “I wanna know the answer to it.” And he said, “I can tell you this. You were not supposed to do well.” And so nobody wants to hear that obviously, but I was blessed on a number of levels. One being the prayer I told you about, another being that we were on the cutting edge of therapies that you could take for MS. Right at that moment, the year that I was diagnosed believe it or not, I got on a therapy that actually came out that year and I’ve been relapse-free since I got on it. It’s crazy.

So as a father, did it change the kind of father I was going to be? It changed the kind of man I was going to be, so yes. It definitely changed the father I was going to be. I lived in fear of dying for the first two years. And now I don’t have any fear at all [laughs]. It’s like right now, I wanna find a cure. I went from devastation over my daughter to now, I’m the father of a 5-month-old son, you know. It was a very big mountain to climb and I’m still climbing it. But I definitely feel like I can see the top now.

Next: Clay Walker Gifts a Home to Veteran in Need

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