A new album, a new bride, a new life
Multi-platinum country music star Clay Walker has albums that have sold in excess of 10 million copies and placed 31 titles on Billboard’s singles chart. He is one of country’s busiest touring artists. “Fall,” the new single from his eighth album, is quickly moving up the charts. Life may seem good for Walker, but the path has not always been easy. Through perseverance and faith, the country legend still stands tall.
“Growing up in Beaumont was wonderful,” he says. “My mom loved all the soul and R &B music, like Motown; and my dad, who sang and played the guitar, was stone cold country. He taught me to play the guitar. He also bought me a horse when I was two and taught me to ride.”
While the future country crooner excelled in academics, he thought his ticket to fame would be through athletics.
“I was pretty good in school, always in advanced classes; but I loved football and thought I would get a college football scholarship. I was about 16 when I entered a talent contest in the Golden Triangle area (Beaumont, Port Arthur and Orange) at Parkdale Mall that lasted three days,” he says. “There must have been 200 acts – singing, dancing – like the Gong Show. I did a demo of a song I’d written for my mom, ‘Lady with a Golden Heart.’ I won, and it was overwhelming; the defining moment of my life!”
When Walker took his demo to a local radio station, he was told that the station’s policy prohibited playing an unsolicited tune. But as he drove away, he heard his song playing on the radio. After as he graduated from high school in 1987, he began to pursue his musical career, singing in local honky-tonks.
“I knew that Mark Chestnut and Tracy Byrd, two other Beaumont artists, started by working there, and I was hoping I could do the same thing,” he recalls.
In 1992, while singing at the Neon Armadillo Bar in Beaumont, a man named Nolan Simmons walked over to him and said, “That’s the best voice I’ve ever heard. I’m sending someone over to listen to you.”
Within a week, James Stroud, Giant Record’s president, came into the bar. “I hadn’t finished my first set when Mr. Stroud got up and walked out the door,” remembers Walker. “I jumped up and followed him to his car saying, ‘Let me buy you a beer.’ He turned to me and said, ‘I’ve seen all I need to see. Come to Nashville, and let’s get started,”‘ remembers Walker.
Walker can vividly recall recording his self-titled first album.
“I’ve never been so intimidated in my life. I’d performed at concerts where there were 10 – or 15,000 people, but nothing compared to being in that studio,” he says. “I’d written most of the songs. ‘Live Until I Die,’ I wrote for my grandmom and my mom. But, somewhere along the way, I said to James, ‘Something is missing. I don’t feel the best of my energy.’ James left the studio, ran barefooted across the road to the record office and came back with ‘What’s it to You?’ Well, I heard angels singing. That song went straight to No. 1. That was my first experience in the studio.”
Just when Walker seemed to be on top of the world, he began to notice subtle changes in his health — fatigue in his right leg, tingling in his right hand and a tiredness that he had never experienced before. In 1996 he was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, a chronic, autoimmune disease that turns the body’s own defense system into a powerful destructive weapon aimed at the central nervous system.
Walker was devastated. “[I was] a broken man for awhile,” he admits, “I prayed. I remembered that I was raised a Christian; and, if I hadn’t had that faith to fall back on, there’s no telling where I’d be today. Never before was it so clear to me that my faith was not just something I was taught but something to live by. I realized why it was there, and it was powerful. I suddenly knew in my heart and soul that I’d be OK. I’m thankful for my family and friends that prayed for me.”
In search of answers, Walker came to the Bayou City.
“I came home to Houston to find out about MS first hand from the greatest doctors in the world. As you gain more knowledge, you know MS is not a death sentence, like had been suggested to me,” he says. “Until recently there was nothing they could do, no known cause or cure, just a crapshoot. Now, doctors have discovered how to slow the disease. I began to research everything I could about it.”
“I started cooking for myself,” he continues. “Instead of the steaks and shakes, cheeseburgers and fries, I began to take care of myself. [I learned] how to cook healthy meals, eating fish all the time, redfish, red snapper and steamed vegetables. I’m not so obsessive now, a little more in the middle – with a little steak and chicken, but still healthy eating.”
Walker formed the Clay Walker Band against MS foundation to help others confronted with the disease. “My goal is to educate people, to get the information in front of them and to fund research into new MS therapy options,” he says. “Each year, the foundation awards additional grants to worthy medical institutions for further MS research. I am so grateful for my success. Here I am 10 years later, and I’m probably healthier than ever. My question to myself is always ‘What can I do to give back?’ And, the answer is, ‘find a cure.'”
With his MS under control and his new single from his first album for Curb Records climbing the charts, Walker has every reason to smile. However, nothing makes his face light up more than talking about his new bride, Jessica Craig, whom he married on Sept. 28 in New Orleans.
“I had been reading a book about how I could make myself a better person so that I’d be ready to find a wife after God’s own heart. I know when your marriage doesn’t work out; it’s the fault of both people. I had finished the book two days before going to New York for the 2005 CMA awards,” he says. “Walking through the lobby of the Marriott Marquis, I saw her; there she was, surrounded by her friends. I made my way closer to her, and it just struck me to ask her where she worked. She mentioned that she modeled for American Eagle, National Verizon and National Mini Cooper, but she did not seem excited at all. I asked why. Jessica said, ‘I want to be a mom.’ I was flabbergasted. I thought to myself (literally within minutes), this is the one. There was something magical about her; she had the traditional values that are so important, and she wasn’t afraid to say that she was traditional. There was no arrogance, no ego about her. As we continued to walk together, we passed a photo of her that was life size. I laughed and told her I’d never had one that big.”
For Walker and Craig, love continued to bloom. “After a year, on Nov. 14, I proposed to Jessica on the steps of St. Patrick’s Catholic Church in Galveston, where her grandfather proposed to her grandmother,” he recalls.
“We had a wonderful engagement party in Abita Springs near Covington, La. where Jessica grew up, with about 40 family members and friends.”
“We invited 500 guests to the wedding. All the groomsmen wore Resistol hats and Lucchese boots. The colors were sage and lavender; I wore a lavender shirt and my beautiful bride wore a dress by designer Melissa Sweet, which she found at Priscilla of Boston,” he says.
With his new bride, Walker is looking to settle in the Bayou City.
“We’re in the process of looking for a house in Houston or close by on a ranch. [This city] is my home, and one of my biggest thrills is playing the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo,” he says. “There is something very special and spiritual between the audience and me. I’m not sure that feeling is shared by any other performer. One of my proudest moments came when I placed fourth in the HLSR cutting horse competition recently.”
His HLSR performances are generally sold-out.
While his music has catapulted Walker to the top of the country music world, faith and family still come first.
“The most important thing in the world to me is my family. Jessica is the greatest human being I’ve ever met and my daughters are everything to me,” he says. “I want to be sure my priorities stay where they belong. It’s God first, family, then music. Music will always be my first love. MaClay DeLayne, age 11, and Skylor Clay Anne, age 8, are the apples of my eye, and both are good horsewomen and good singers. MaClay can ride the hide off of anything.”
Walker also makes time for his beloved game of golf. He honed his talents playing with golf-pro Jackie Burke at Champions Golf Course. “I’m such a history buff, and this game has such a rich history. It’s a great game,” he says. He regularly competes in the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am. In 2005, his team won the tournament; he donated his share of the winnings to Band Against MS.
The handsome Texan points to two Southern legends as sources for inspiration.
“My favorite singer is Elvis Presley. I don’t think Elvis gets the credit he deserves for being an absolutely great singer,” he explains. “I’ve always been a big fan of Freddy Fender and feel lucky to have recorded his country classic mega hit, “Before the Last Teardrop Falls” with him on my new album. This was the first duet I’ve ever done, and when we went into the studio to record it together, it was pure magic. Freddy died of cancer just a few months after we sang. He was a great guy.”
Although Walker’s legion of fans has their own descriptions for their idol, he strives to stay down to earth. “I’m a pretty focused person. I want to do the right thing, no matter what the cost,” he says. “I read the Bible every day, and there’s always something there for me. People make religion and life too difficult; they want to complicate everything. Read John 3:16. [It] doesn’t matter if you’re Baptist, Catholic, or whatever – that one works for everybody.”