Walker Hayes Talks About What Loss Taught Him About Fatherhood, Faith, and Living in the Present

The country star may have appeared to be an overnight success but there is so much more to the story.

Unless you've been living under a rock for the last year, you've likely heard and can even sing along to "Fancy Like" by Walker Hayes. The bubbly pop-country tune took over the airwaves, created a TikTok dance craze, and even inspired Applebee's to reinstate the Oreo Shake to their menu. But Hayes, who recently spoke with Southern Living, doesn't want you to think it was an overnight success. That's not his story.

Walker Hayes
John Lamparski / Contributor/Getty

Walker Hayes' Long Road to Success

Hayes and wife Laney, who were high school sweethearts, married June 12, 2004. The newlyweds drove a U-Haul straight from their honeymoon to Nashville where the Alabama native was hoping to find success as a songwriter. While he struggled to find his footing over the next decade, his responsibilities multiplied. The young couple welcomed six children: Lela, Chapel, Baylor, Beckett, Loxley, and Everly. Hayes explained their large family by saying, "We love the chaos. We love kids so much." But that didn't mean things were easy for the Hayes family. Those first years in Nashville were what he referred to as "an abusive environment."

"I had been rejected four or five times a year at a major public level. I was working at Costco looking other music business people in the face every day. You know they shop in my produce section, and we had to face each other and go, 'yeah it's come to this?' And I felt like I had to act like I'm good when I wasn't," he said.

Things were just as difficult with their families back in Alabama. "Our families had really become quiet. It's almost like we couldn't be around any family members without them dry heaving the words, 'how much longer you gonna do this?' or 'when are you coming home?' And if they didn't say it, you could read it on their faces. So sadly, Laney and I were just getting more and more in that island of isolation."

To cope with this, Hayes turned to drinking. He has been very open about his alcohol abuse. It even inspired his second big hit, "AA." But he spent many years as what he has called a "high-functioning alcoholic." He told us that while the world sees Walker Hayes, country singer, as an overnight success, what no one sees are the hardships that he and his family have been through and how it shaped them as a family and him as a man. "They see us on this side of a lot of ugliness. They see us in recovery… They don't see me as a father driving drunk home not knowing how I got there, puking on the floor with my wife lying to my kids why I am sick. They don't see that stuff. They see the healing and they see what God can do."

How Losing Oakleigh Helped Walker Hayes Find Faith

By 2018 Hayes had gotten sober but then tragedy struck. He and Laney lost their seventh child, Oakleigh, at birth. It's a moment he now recognizes as a "real test down here on earth." He described it by saying, "Just holding a lifeless child. It's indescribable. I can't imagine a worse pain." He admits that for a moment, his sobriety was in jeopardy. "I'd been sober for three years when we lost Oakleigh. I was ready to not be. As soon as that happened, I was like, this is why you drink."

He described a feeling of hopelessness not only over the loss of the baby, but in watching his grieving wife, "my best friend, my favorite person, Laney and the feeling of not being able to console her." But it was that deep love that pulled him from the brink because he said she became his highest priority. To take care of Laney and then to be able to help each one of their six children navigate the loss. But something else happened for Hayes when he lost his youngest child. This too was not an overnight transformation, but the loss of Oakleigh is what he credits with helping him find his faith.

"When we lost Oakleigh, I would have called myself an Atheist," he said.

Hayes said that he grew up in a Southern Baptist church but that as a rebellious child he did not connect with religion. He grew to resent it. But when faced with a kind of grief he'd never experienced before, things began to change. "I think I found out in a roundabout way that I was screaming at somebody. I would have called myself Atheist, but I was looking for someone to blame."

But it wasn't just one thing that suddenly brought him to church. It was a series of events, a book that moved him, and the introduction of two new friends into his life. Laney had befriended a fellow mom at a basketball game for one of their kids and that mom invited the family to her and her husband's new church. Hayes describes his initial meeting with Laura and Craig Allen Cooper by saying that although he went in kicking and screaming, he suddenly felt the opposite of how he'd felt in church before. He connected with Craig and said he didn't feel judged or pushed to become a Believer. It was a gradual process.

"Craig's a preacher but outside of church I never heard him preach," he said. Hayes also spoke about how The Coopers walked with him and Laney through their pain and loss. He was realizing that he was being embraced and supported by this new community. But the final push came while reading a book late one night on his tour bus. "By the grace of God somebody recommended a book to Laney called Secrets of an Unlikely Convert by Rosaria Butterfield…This woman's testimony, it's exactly like mine except I hadn't surrendered yet…I wolfed this book down. I finished it by the time the sun came up." Hayes explained that he didn't "come to Christ" that morning but rather he bought a Bible and began to read on his own and learn. And slowly, his faith was restored. But he is confident that the catalyst for this huge awakening in his life was a direct result of immeasurable loss.

"I know for some reason losing Oakleigh led me to Christ. I would not know Jesus if I had not known the loss of my daughter. That's what it took for me."

Living in the Present Makes Walker Hayes a Better Father and Husband

The loss of his daughter also taught the country star an important lesson. "Losing Oakleigh granted me the knowledge of how much control I do not have. It gave me the freedom to just love my kids and kind of get down on their level and quit trying to imagine what I think the perfect future would look like." He added that it gave him the ability to "just look at right now, the moment I have and just enjoy it and do the best I can with it and move on."

If you follow Hayes on social media you can tell that he does practice what he preaches. Every ounce of his life is spent with his kids and his wife. They are involved in all aspects of his career from music videos to accompanying him on tour. And he's all in on the activities the kids enjoy be it making up dances for TikTok to Chuck E. Cheese outings, or video games. The father of six is living in the moment with and for his family. And it is apparent that the Hayes family has certainly come out of tragedy a much stronger, cohesive unit.

Walker Hayes Family
Robert Chavers
Walker Hayes and Laney
Robert Chavers

Hayes says that this mentality also impacted his approach to finding professional success. "It's had an impact on what I see the purpose is in my career. It's had an impact on how I write."

It turns out that this newfound way of life has served him well. In just the last year, Hayes had a smash hit with "Fancy Like," and "AA" and he's been nominated for Grammys, Billboard Music Awards, CMT Awards, ACM's, and a Kid's Choice Award.

Walker and Laney Hayes 2022 CMT Music Awards - Red Carpet
Jeff Kravitz / Contributor/Getty

His lates single, "Y'all Life" is another catchy tune that shares his upbeat, authentic take on life in the South and celebrating the every day extraordinary that life brings. We're pretty sure this one will be a hit too.

It may have taken a long road to get here, but Walker Hayes is just getting started.

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