Walker This Way
A far-ranging conversation with the man behind 11 number ONE hits, including “Live Until I Die.”
Thursday, February 7, 2013
Clay Walker’s supposed to be answering the questions. But he’s got one for me: “Am I a little philosophical today? I’m sorry.”
Our talk travels from golf’s life lessons to tear-jerking stadium shows to the joy of horticulture. But it remains in a relatively philosophical place the whole time:
• • •
Dream foursome, alive or dead?
Ben Hogan. Bobby Jones. And probably Tiger, just because I’d like to see how he would stack up against those two guys. I don’t think he could beat ’em.
Favorite AT&T memory?
The 3M Celebrity Shoot-out win Bill Murray and I had. Him being such an iconic figure, not just to the tournament but to the world, made it special. It was fun – and funny – and something I’ll tell my kids about when they’re old enough to understand. Memories are our greatest treasures, whether we realize it or not.
There’s an informal power network that’s grown out of AT&T. What’s that like?
There is a spirit of good will. It’s a tournament of givers, not takers, and I’ve enjoyed meshing with those people. Celebrities are a part of that. We’re passing along happiness. A lot of people underrate the power of happiness. When your soul feels good, your body feels good.
This week is all inclusive. The longer I’ve done it the more I love it, and there’s a deeper appreciation of the inner goings-on.
I’ve seen you at the Clambakes and know you appear at the volunteer tournament on Fridays. There are other things you could be doing.
Humanity is the most precious thing on Earth to me. The greatest thing about humanity is involvement. That’s why I love golf, and the AT&T in particular.
What are some of your favorite golf-to-life lessons?
All of life can be compared to golf. The most important beliefs that have affected me came from [Bing Crosby friend and colleague] Jackie Burke. We were having lunch one day and he said, ‘Whether you’re cheating on your wife or cheating your fellow man out of money, you’re either in bounds or out of bounds.’ I love that. You’re either in bounds or out of bounds. No gray area. If you do bad things, you’re gonna feel bad about yourself. Do good things, feel good about yourself. I like to keep it simple.
Favorite Clambake moment?
George Lopez was doing this improv about Brokeback Mountain and he started talking about me and my cowboy hat. The audience was in hysterics. I just thought another celebrity even recognizing me is pretty cool.
What does country do that no other genre does?
These are my people! (Laughs.) Country doesn’t have the pretense of other formats like pop and rock that are more worried about being cool or keeping up with the fads or language of the day. Country people are real people who are not changing a lot. They’re not looking for shock factor. I watch E News all the time. It’s entertaining. Not knocking some of those artists, but do I want my kids to imitate it? Hell no.
Country there’s not a lot of front or facade. That’s why AT&T has ramped up its [country star numbers]. (Laughs.) I think there are four new country music singers in the field. I might be getting squeezed out.
You seem to thrive in the spotlight.
You can start a spark, but you can’t have an explosion without audience reciprocating. What I’ve found is the fans are going to feel what’s real. If you have a negative attitude or spirit about you on stage, they’ll feel that hugely. Come out excited you’re in their presence, that spark will happen. It’s up to you to fan it. About as simple terms as I can put it. I personally crave the attention and adoration that the fans give at a show. I’m a person who wants that, and needs that. I also feel like I return it at least in equal parts, and that’s been a key to doing it 20 years.
Take me into the songwriting process that gives you a line like, “Sometimes I want to be Jesus, sometimes I want to be Jesse James.”
(Laughs.) You had to go there. Co-writing can be easy or difficult. There are weaknesses every writer and artist have. How will that writer deal with your weakness and you with theirs? I like to write with people who are strong in areas where I may be weak. My strength is the opening line – I’m more of writer with a thesis-based form. State it in opening, again in middle, again at the end. Some people are more about poetry and rhyme. I don’t get too lost in that.
I’ve enjoyed writing alone recently. My first album, I wrote most by myself, then I got involved in Nashville culture, with great writers, learned the craft, and got codependent. I’m starting to write again.
Take me into your most insane concert moment.
Craziest ever. Astrodome, maybe 12 or 13 years ago. We did maybe six or seven songs, didn’t speak a word in between. We stopped after the seventh song, and it sounded like an earthquake was about to happen. Literally. People were stomping and clapping and screaming. My grandmother was there. So was my dad. Dad passed away almost two years ago. March 8. A buddy of mine saw a tear roll down his cheek when I sang “A Cowboy’s Toughest Ride.” My dad didn’t know he saw it. But, as far as performances – though my Texas friends will say I’m crazy – nothing compares to California. People go crazy.
You grew up “dirt poor,” with a family raising vegetables and hunting to survive. Now you’re farming again – but it’s vegetables and flowers?
I’ve taken it for granted that flowers are clean. But a lot of flowers are full of pesticides, and individuals are handling those flowers and we never give it a second thought. Just because something says organic doesn’t mean it’s been naturally grown. It would benefit people to learn more about the difference between what FDA says is organic or not.
Fortunately folks on the West Coast are very astute about that. The more knowledge you gain, the more good you want to do with it. I love nature. I love learning about the science of it. I love horticulture. I’m not a botanist by any means, but I’m learning how to live healthy.
How’s life hosting Trophy Hunters?
It’s been a shocker to me. When I was offered the job [for the Outdoor Channel], I was both excited and nervous about it. The conservation side has really appealed to me. If you have a garden, or a forest, and take a few trees out, there’s more sunlight, air, circulation and you reduce disease. If you didn’t have people – and hunters in particular – who were interested in consuming animals, eating deer, our government would have to come in and exterminate animals. I don’t love to shoot guns, but I love the beauty of nature, I love animals and see the power in conservation. Responsible conservation is important on a lot of levels.
You’re riding horses around and golfing with some of the best in the world and chasing game through the brush eight years after a doctor told you you’d be dead.
Without medical science, I wouldn’t be in position I’m in. Number two, there is more than one way to skin a cat. I talked to another doctor. You can figure out for yourself what’s going to work for you. I do look at my faith – even in the face of hearing that information, I wasn’t in denial, I just knew in my own heart, mind and spirit that a man can’t make that call for me. That’s something between me and God. Having that faith foundation – I know it’s not a real popular subject these days – but that’s who I am. I didn’t believe I’d be dead in eight years. That’s not how I’m made.
How much did a lean childhood brace you to confront challenges that came later?
Struggle builds strength. I look at it like a muscle. Growing up, we had to struggle a lot. It reveals your character. I don’t think it creates or builds it, just exposes what is there. Character is built early in life… We didn’t have a lot of food in the house, but there was never any anger from being poor. We were just taught, work hard… I’m blessed I had a blue collar family. Those are the folks my music pertains to.
How do you explain your condition to your kids?
They’ve lived with me right alongside it. Sure they may have realized a struggle or two with me, but I don’t parent any different, and I don’t expect them to treat me any different. They learned through me, if something knocks you down, get back up and learn how to deal with it. There are living lessons.
Where does the battle stand?
We do know there are a few therapies. I take a daily injection. The biggest thing we do know: If you do find something and get a groove, a routine that’s working, stick with it. My biggest message: Get with a neurologist, find something that works and keep working. I’m blown away that half of those who have M.S. don’t take a medication. I’m like, “You’re kidding me.” It’s too devastating to let it go untreated. Where we are with a cure? I think we’re inching closer as doctors start to examine genes of people. The closer we get to understanding the DNA the better.
What are its most dangerous misconceptions?
Most people fear stuff they don’t understand. M.S. is not contractible. M.S. is not contagious. It’s not a death sentence. Another misconception: People who have it feel like if it’s not presenting symptoms, nothing is going on. Medical science has shown that’s not true – which is why it’s so important to treat.
In becoming an icon for M.S., you can inspire others to confront it.
I understand why people are scared to come out and announce a disease of any kind. But it shows just because someone gets something, they’re not worthless. If anything, they’re more valuable, because they give more, love more, more deeply, and are more compassionate.
How conscious are your crossover efforts – Rachel Ray, The Bachelor, Martha Stewart?
It’s a very conscious effort on my part to grow not only my audience, but to grow country music. My predecessors – Garth Brooks, George Strait, Shania Twain – all grew our format, a format that reaches beyond the space and shape people try to put it in.
For a world beater with 32 charted singles, what’s most humbling about the disease?
Before I was diagnosed, I can’t tell you if I was arrogant or not, I can only say the tenderness and compassion I have for all people since being diagnosed has been greatly magnified. I look at all race, creed and religion in a much different light. Being judgmental is not in my makeup. I’m constantly looking for the good of the person I’m in the company of. If people were more tender and accepting of others, then we would have a much better place to grow up in. I know I’m getting pretty deep. Sorry.
Where do you find hope?
In children. By the time someone’s 20, they’ve kinda decided. If you can get to them before they get too big and teach them love and understanding and compassion, that’s where I find hope.
You’ve been given a certain perspective on life. How has it changed what you want to do before you head to the country concert in the sky?
The thing I have learned is that we clutter our lives up so much with doing things and cramming so much into a day or with people that don’t really enrich our lives. It’s very important to use your time in a way that is the most you can get out of it.