Clay Walker details how he became a country music hitmaker while bravely battling MS

Listen to the full conversation on our podcast “Beyond the Fame with Jason Fraley.”

WTOP's Jason Fraley chats with Clay Walker (Part 1)

He famously sang, “If I could make a living out of loving you, I’d be a millionaire in a week or two,” and if his fans could make a living out of loving his music, we’d all be set for life.

This Friday, country music hitmaker Clay Walker gets back out to make a living amid the pandemic at Hollywood Casino at Charles Town Races in Charles Town, West Virginia.

“It was a trying time and I gotta say a lot of good things came out of being more or less locked down,” Walker told WTOP. “I got to spend a lot of time with my family, which was really awesome. My whole career I’ve been traveling. … We’re back at it again and that’s great, I love that piece of it, but I’ll never ever take for granted what it did afford me.”

He took the pandemic seriously as a high-risk Texan battling multiple sclerosis since 1996. His nonprofit Band Against MS is now rebranding as the Clay Walker Foundation for MS.

“It is a comorbidity, so I had some additional concerns that I talked about with my doctor,” Walker said. “He highly recommended that I get vaccinated because of the MS. … When I was first diagnosed, I was terrified. The prognosis was hard to swallow. Most doctors said it would be a pretty horrific road, but it turned out not to be. I thank God and my family.”

Born in Vidor, Texas in 1969, his family was constantly playing country music.

“I grew up on a piece of land that had been passed down in my family since Texas was still a republic, before it was even a state,” Walker said. “We grew up ranching and farming. It was a way of life. All of my uncles and aunts and their children on this property in different houses, so I grew up in a close community of family. They would sit around, pick guitars.”

In 1992, he was discovered by the president of Warner Music Group’s Giant Records.

“I got noticed by some people in Nashville that were passing through; they liked the way I sounded,” Walker said. “The person that noticed me just happened to be James Stroud, the No. 1 producer in Nashville who was producing Clint Black, Little Texas. … I went to Nashville and it was way different than I expected. I was like a deer in headlights.”

He cut his teeth as an opening act for two legendary performers.

“It was like hitting a super highway moving at the speed of sound,” Walker said. “George Strait invited me to go out on tour with him for the first year, so I did that. Alan Jackson invited me to go out with him, so I did that. After two years of opening for George and Alan … I went straight into headlining and we were selling out arenas all over the country.”

His self-titled debut album in 1993 featured the hit single “What’s It To You.”

“I was so young, 22 or 23,” Walker said. “‘What’s It To You’ was a great crossover song for a lot of people who were just coming into country music; youthful kids. To this day when we do that song, it’s wild. I’ll see 15-, 16-, 17-year-olds singing it at the top of their lungs.”

The album also featured No. 1 hits “Dreaming with My Eyes Open” and “Live Until I Die.”

“‘Amarillo by Morning’ by George Strait is probably the greatest country music song of all time … so when I recorded ‘Live Until I Die,’ I wanted that big fiddle intro,” Walker said. “I wrote the song ‘Live Until I Die’ and even wrote the melody for the fiddle.”

His next album, “If I Could Make a Living,” featured a title song for the ages.

“I knew immediately when I heard that song that it was a hit,” Walker said. “It was written by Alan Jackson, who sent it over to me. I was shocked. … I said to my producer James Stroud, ‘Why is he sending it me?’ He said, ‘Clay, he wants you to have it.’ I said, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me. This is a smash. That’s a career song. … Alan is going to be sorry!'”

Indeed, “If I Could Make a Living” remains his children’s favorite song.

“Every time my 3-year-old goes by, she says, ‘Alexa play ‘If I Could Make a Living’ by Clay Walker,'” Walker said. “It’s so funny that they’ve gravitated to that song. … That song has transcended time. … I’ve got 12 albums and they could pick any song.”

The success continued with “Hypnotize the Moon” (1996) and “Rumor Has It” (1997).

“‘Rumor Has It’ [is] the only song that I’ve ever taken pen to paper and wrote it straight through without stopping,” Walker said. “I don’t think it took more than an hour to write. Every song has taken multiple days, sometimes years, but that song almost wrote itself. It’s so fun to sing. I’ll be on stage and hold the mic out, they’re singing it louder than I am.”

It also featured the hit tropical-sounding song “Then What?” written by Jon Vezner.

“I was affected by ‘Margaritaville,’ Jimmy Buffett,” Walker said. “[Vezner] came onto my bus, I got him a guitar and he started playing ‘Then What?’ but it was real folk sounding. I said, ‘Jon, would you allow me some liberty? I’m hearing like a Jimmy Buffett beach beat.’ … A steel drummer player came in [and] says, ‘That is my favorite song I’ve ever played.'”

In 2000, he delivered a pay-it-forward gem with “The Chain of Love” written by Rory Feek.

“The first time I heard the song, I only listened to the first verse and chorus,” Walker said. “[The publisher] said, ‘I noticed you passed on ‘Chain of Love’ … I suggest you listen to the end of it. Garth Brooks has a second hold on it and he wants it.’ … So she plays the rest of the song … it hits the last line and my jaw dropped. I’m stunned that I missed it.'”

Still, his deepest song remains “A Few Questions” (2003), asking God why there are tragedies in the world, applicable to his own MS diagnosis and even the pandemic today.

“I do question things like the song: Why is there so much war?” Walker said. “When I was diagnosed with MS, I read the Book of Job. I had never read it. It was so deep and I thought, ‘Who would I be to complain about having MS? Look at what this guy went through.’ … It’s blessed my life. I don’t look at my life and say, ‘Golly, I have MS, poor me.'”

WTOP's Jason Fraley chats with Clay Walker (Part 2)

Listen to the full conversation on our podcast “Beyond the Fame with Jason Fraley.”

Jason Fraley

Hailed by The Washington Post for “his savantlike ability to name every Best Picture winner in history," Jason Fraley began at WTOP as Morning Drive Writer in 2008, film critic in 2011 and Entertainment Editor in 2014, providing daily arts coverage on-air and online.

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