Walker Hayes can’t ignore the hardships that came as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Still, he’s grateful for the precious time it gave him to be with his family, which affected him both personally and professionally.

”I think, sometimes, you can be deceived in thinking that more is better, and it actually isn’t,” Hayes shares over Zoom. "I think, overall, when you find a balance, it causes you to be better at both sides.”

The pandemic offered a welcome break for the artist, and the sudden pause of touring life compelled him to take pause in his personal life as well. Hayes realized that he had been "painting by numbers” each night onstage and taking the exuberant crowds for granted, and recalls the lack of fulfillment he felt after receiving a platinum plaque for his Top 10 hit “You Broke Up With Me.”

"Maybe I thought it would fix me, or I'd wake up with that in my hand and look in the mirror and that guy in the mirror would just really love me, and it didn’t,” Hayes admits. “He was still like, 'That's not enough.’"

Hayes had an even greater revelation when one of his children made a sobering remark that put his frequent absences into perspective: "One of my daughters, she woke up in week two of COVID and said something to the effect of, 'Dad, you're still here,'" Hayes recalls. "And it broke my heart. It was like I'm like the fun uncle that visits my own home."

Throughout 2020, the time that Hayes would’ve devoted to the road was now spent with his wife Lainey and their six children. It rewarded him with a present mindset that translated into songwriting.

"I have to pull from life experiences, and you're truly not living life a lot as an artist when you're on the road,” Hayes says, calling songwriting "fuel." ”That’s been good to just come home and collect life to write from and store it in the vault.”

His writing sessions became more “introspective” and “thoughtful” during the pandemic, leading to the melting pot that is his new EP, Country Stuff, out Friday (June 4). "The EP and its diversity came from a little frustration, in that one of my least favorite things to do is pick a lane,” Hayes explains.

“There's a lot of lanes, and there's lanes that haven't even been invented," he adds, "so why should someone be the same person five days a week, because we're not. What human is?”

The EP’s title track delivers a “shoutout” to Hayes Mobile, Ala., roots. Hayes describes his childhood self as an athlete surrounded by friends who hunted and fished, but says he wasn’t fully immersed in country life until his future father-in-law purchased property in Greenville, Ala., and showed him the ropes. He and Lainey now take their own family to that same property, where their sons have learned bow hunt and shoot skeet.

Hayes was working on “Country Stuff” with Shane McAnally when the idea formed to turn it into a collaboration with Jake Owen -- a full-circle moment for the singer. Years prior, Hayes was a struggling musician working at Costco when he got a call that Owen wanted to cut one of his songs.

“We didn't have one iron in the fire,” Hayes recounts of the desperate time. “My family, that was like a warm fire that we gathered around, and it was like, 'There is hope in this town.’”

Though the song ultimately didn’t make it onto Owen's project, he personally called Hayes to praise the track and apologize for the missed opportunity. Owen has remained a supporter as Hayes’ career has blossomed.

“I don't know if there's a song more fitting for a dude like Jake than "Country Stuff,"" Hayes says of the clever track, which references green tractors and duck hunting, while Owen nods to dogs named Jack and Daniel and his appreciation for flannel. "I have a lot of respect for Jake."

But the Country Stuff EP may not have existed if not for “I Hope You Miss Me.” Hayes started humming the song's melody at the end of a writing session with McAnally and pitched the idea for the song, which is about Hayes' daughter Loxley, whom he describes as a “natural performer.”

After the demo was a hit among his team, Hayes was compelled to turn the songs he’d been writing into a larger project. "That birthed the EP idea,” he confirms of the track.

Hayes' family shows up multiple times on the EP: He shines a spotlight on his wife in “Cry” and “What If We Did,” the latter of which explores their journey of falling in love after coming out of serious relationships with other people, getting engaged and forming a life together. It features supporting vocals from Carly Pearce, who lends strong harmonies as Hayes ponders, “Now we probably ain’t gonna make it to the honeymoon suite / Settle down in a house on Beechwood Street / With a porch and a swing and a dog / And a couple of kids / Baby, what if we did?”

“There is a wisdom and maturity when she sings. There’s a woman there, and there's life in it,” Hayes says, praising Pearce’s voice. “She has lived life, and I appreciate that about her voice, and that's what I wanted on that song.” 

But where the 41-year-old Hayes truly dives deep is in “Briefcase,” an ode to his father, who died in March. Hayes penned the song with Lori McKenna, who also lends her voice to the track, as an exploration of the “competitive spirit” he shared with his "workaholic" father.

The singer goes back to his childhood days of watching his father walk out the door each day for work with a briefcase in hand, leaving him to play baseball and learn guitar on his own. He admits now that he misunderstood his father’s reasoning at the time, until he found himself in the same position, as a father of six kids chasing dreams of his own.

“Even if he was my hero as a kid, I might not have been excited to say that he was. I resented him as a child,” Hayes reflects. "I didn't really know how to communicate that as a kid ... but as we grew older, I began to understand him."

Hayes calls "Briefcase" "the most special song I've been a part of in years," adding, "His thing that he held was a briefcase, and I held a guitar case, but I ended up being just like him in many ways. As a kid, I said, 'I'm not going to be like him,' and now when somebody says, 'You're like your dad,’ there's this sense of pride that I fill up with.”

“Briefcase” concludes a project that reflects Hayes’ desire to show fans the multifaceted nature of his artistry. On the Country Stuff EP, he balances the introspective number with the quirkiness of “Country Stuff” and “Fancy Like,” an ear-catching ode to the Applebee's Bourbon Street steaks and Oreo milkshakes that he equates to fine dining. It sets a new tone for an artist who’s entering post-pandemic life with a refreshed perspective, dedicated to his passion as much as he the family who inspires it.

“I used to try a lot harder as far as to appeal to the masses, and I think when you're younger, there's a temptation to do that for the wrong reasons," Hayes says. "My tendency to do that is dwindling, and I'm not looking for false affirmation as much as I used to. I think that's a healthier way to wake up and do this job.”

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