In the Gym and On Stage with Walker Hayes

It’s only about three miles from Chicago’s massive Allstate Arena to the more intimate Joe’s Live venue. So after Kelsea Ballerini finished up her gig as the opener for Kelly Clarkson’s arena show, she managed to get herself over to Joe’s, where her friend Walker Hayes was performing. The crowd at Hayes’ show lost their collective minds when the two artists collaborated on some songs along with singer-songwriter Nicolle Galyon.

But before all the music, there was Hayes’ workout.

Hayes has been very candid about how he traded booze for weights a few years ago, and I had the chance to join him at the gym to get him to open up even more. What was the turning point for you? Was their an intervention? Did you hit some kind of rock bottom?

Walker Hayes: I actually quit by accident. I was working at Costco, and I knew I had a problem, but my fear was, “How will I function sober? How am I gonna be a dad, a husband, an artist?” When those anxieties crept up on me, I wouldn’t be able to drink them away anymore. But one Saturday, my body just kind of rejected alcohol. I just didn’t drink. It was the first day I hadn’t been drinking in four years, I’m sad to say. But then one day turned into two and so on. I was so high on sobriety for about a week. You feel so fresh and new for a second because I’d been drunk for four years. But then when a demon creeps in and you don’t have the alcohol Band-Aid to put on it, it was scary. Were those fears when you were on stage or off?

WH: All the time. When I was performing, I wasn’t in my element, I didn’t know what to do with my hands, my fingers would shake, just like when I’d first moved to Nashville. But somehow, it became a challenge. I liked the challenge of looking at that beer in the fridge, and saying, “Nope. I’m in control. Not you. I don’t have to drink you.” So you must’ve had to fill your days with something other than drinking. Is that when you hit the gym?

Hayes: I am ashamed to say this, but I had so much free time. Because I used to write songs, then I’d celebrate the completion of a song with an hour of drinking that would turn into all-night drinking. And when you’re touring, you have so much time. You wake up in a new city, but sound check’s not until 3:00. That is a dangerous time. So when I quit, I started drawing a lot. Then I started going to the gym. Alcohol was the crutch I leaned on, but now this is. I know I traded one addiction for another, but I’m okay with that. The weight room is a church to me. I’m safe here, and my mind is at ease. It’s become a cornerstone in my mindset when I think about jugging work and home. Do you feel like the clean living eventually made you a better songwriter?

Hayes: Well, I do know this: it takes me much longer to write songs now that I’m sober. Wait, what? I would think it was the other way around. That everything got easier without alcohol in your system.

Hayes: You’d think that. But when I was drunk, I was numb. So there was only a small amount of emotions that flowed through me. Now it takes me longer to write because I feel it all. The songs are better for that. My album boom. was written when I was completely sober. And my song “Pain” is a good example: It’s about a night I came home drunk and my wife had to lie to my son about what was wrong. It is just so honest. Since quitting, have you ever been tempted to take another drink? The urge to self-medicate can be emotional as well as physical, and it would take so much willpower to recognize, avoid and cope with that.

Hayes: I was tempted, for sure. Last summer, after we buried our baby girl Oakleigh, I wanted to get messed up. I got in my car and drove to a bar in Franklin called 55 South. I wanted to get drunk. I wanted to get in fight. I wanted to just self destruct. Once I got there, though, I realized my wallet wasn’t in car. So I drove back home. Then I just broke down, and I found an AA meeting to go to. Every day since Oakleigh died, I have to wake up and tell myself that there is a purpose in this job of mine. What I thought mattered two days ago just doesn’t. I’ve been inundated with thoughts of how fragile life is.

(Hayes and his wife Laney lost their newborn daughter due to complications from a ruptured uterus shortly after she was born on June 6, 2018. She was the couple’s seventh child.) Does your sobriety have you making the kind of music country radio will play? Or does that even matter to you?

Hayes: It does matter to me. I’d be lying if I said it didn’t. I will always admire people who can be successful without radio, like Jimmy Buffett. He never got much radio love, but look at him. I know I can have a career under radio’s radar, and I can succeed and provide for my family. But I could have even more fans with radio, because it is such a large platform. When I was growing up, radio was the first place I heard music. So that’s still the pinnacle for me. My dream is to live in both worlds. That said, what I will not let it do is dictate how I create. I will never go to my legal pad saying, “I’m writing a radio hit today.”

Hayes’ next tour stop is on Thursday (Feb. 28) near Green Bay, Wisc.

Alison makes her living loving country music. She’s based in Chicago, but she’s always leaving her heart in Nashville.