You’ve gotta keep crediting the power of TikTok – it can even make a journeyman country singer in his 40s one of the genre’s biggest names and crossover smashes. Walker Hayes has attracted quite a lot of jokes and general derision for his biggest hit “Fancy Like,” a song that would be a lot more disagreeable than it already is if it didn’t seem like Hayes was completely in on the joke, and a solid chunk of the material on Country Stuff The Album continues to build Hayes up as a genuinely upbeat and likeable guy – whether it’s more (possibly?) satirical riffing on country’s pandering empire or unexpectedly heartfelt songwriting. Of course, the other half of the album displays about as much novelty as you’d expect, as some cringeworthy country-rap tracks and overdone concepts and instrumentation begin to weigh it way back down in the other direction. Still – this project might be what he needs to prove he’s more than a one-hit wonder.
The project opens with one of the more faceless modern country tracks in “Drinking Songs,” but Hayes making a clever reference to smoking “ciga-regrets” almost instantly certainly previews the kind of lyricism both funny and poignant that’s to come on a couple songs. The big bar-room stomp and clap and same twangy guitar progression you’ll hear if you flip the dial to your local country station doesn’t do as much as other tracks to help convince listeners that Hayes is singing this with a knowing wink – he even diverts his attention to a country girl sitting in the bar during the 2nd verse, because of course – but luckily, it leads into new single “AA,” a different take on the alcohol-driven country anthem. With more of a laid-back beachside twangy vibe – it reminds me of some of Kacey Musgraves’ best tracks – Hayes spins a humorous and self-deprecating tale of just trying to make it through life healthy and happy, while watching out for his family in the same way. When Hayes gets into his upper range and softer head voice he sounds surprisingly great, and “life’s hard, family’s weird, sometimes you just need a beer” is about the best generic beer lyric there is. The other singles don’t fare nearly as well, especially “U Gurl,” the first time we’re subjected to Hayes’ rapping. I don’t want to meet the type of person who can get through this uncomfortable catcalling anthem without feeling like they need a shower afterwards. The melody is built around obnoxious falsetto whoo-hoos, and both the guitar chords and layering on the gang vocals make the whole thing feel blown out.
When Hayes enters full-on country radio pandering mode, he often does ride an engaging line of taking some satirical jabs at the genre while simultaneously indulging in some of its more tried-and-true thrills. “Fancy Like” has been played to death, and it sounds like an advertisement, but a guy that can do his own joyful ad-libs and belt something like “gotta have that whipped cream” is a good time. It’s pretty awful, but this is a party track to laugh along to. The title track “Country Stuff” is a little more ambiguous, but it has to be in on the joke too. Humorous casual conversations between Hayes and fellow country star Jake Owen underscore the whole track – he even mocks him for making it clean to fit on the radio – as Hayes hits every single country buzzword under the sun then centers it with the chorus “I like country stuff.” Hayes cuts through it with enough real, likeable personality that it becomes endearing rather than annoying. The rest of the early tracks continue to be a mixed bag. “Life With You” features what sounds like Hayes’ beatboxing on a twangy Pachelbel’s canon, as well as some of his worst lyrics on the whole project, falling back on things like “time flies like time does” instead of his later poetics and specificity. “Delorean,” however, is a highly enjoyable twist on the “here’s a list of highly specific things that I like or dislike about a situation” country trope, as he compares the memories that rush back when he smells a certain perfume or hears a song to the titular time machine, then adds to the theme by reminiscing on some car-centric romantic activities.
As the album progresses, Hayes gets surprisingly wholesome on a couple occasions. The track “Craig,” although soundtracked by another overbearing and crunchy guitar hook and some more awkward rapping from Hayes with no regard for rhyme scheme, is simply a touching dedication to a friend who helped him through hard times and helped him get more in touch with his spiritual side. Hayes adds a couple embers to the dying spark when it comes to the overwrought theme of following your dreams on “What You Don’t Wish For” and especially “Briefcase.” The former feels like it could soundtrack a Hallmark movie, but does contain another clever lyrical flip on a phrase we’re all familiar with, as Hayes instructs younger musical dreamers “be careful what you don’t wish for” during a starry-eyed acoustic ballad. “Briefcase,” however, might end up be one of the best written songs of the year. Hayes compares his guitar case to his father’s briefcase that he always resented, examining the confusing dichotomy between having to work so hard to give your children a good life that you don’t get to be around for them much. It’s a poignant tale of understanding as Hayes reconciles with his idea of his father.
The album fades out with a string of somewhat generic romantic ballads. “I Hope You Miss Me” is the best of the bunch due to that lyrical specificity, Hayes running through extended metaphors as he imagines the lifestyle of a romantic interest who left to LA to chase stardom while bringing back that nice upper range. The album closes with “Make You Cry” and “What If We Did,” two dedications to his wife and marriage that feel a little underwritten in comparison.
While it’s mostly a mixed bag – with some true extremes on either side – there’s a lot here to make music fans excited about what Hayes might do in the future past his one-hit wonder status. Who knows – if he can’t make it back onto the radio, it’s strange but possible to believe that the guy who wrote “Fancy Like” could settle into that more critically appreciated indie role with some of the talents he displays here.
Favourite Tracks: AA, Briefcase, Delorean, Country Stuff
Least Favourite Track: U Gurl