I really thought I had said my final piece on Walker Hayes when I named “Fancy Like” as the worst hit country song of 2021. Because, love it or hate it, the single was a novelty hit that rode its virality to the top and had its time; it’s virtually harmless now. It was his “Achy Breaky Heart,” and Hayes doesn’t even have the killer deep cuts that Billy Ray Cyrus had to possibly rise above the novelty.
But with “AA” somehow looking to become another hit – albeit one that’s riding off its predecessor’s momentum more than anything else – we haven’t heard the last of this guy quite yet. And unlike in 2017 when “Craig” flopped hard after “You Broke Up With Me” rose to the top ten, Hayes might have another shot or two at success. With that said, I don’t think it’ll last that long; it took him over a decade just to mine gold out of a fluke, and while I do believe that enjoyment of art is purely subjective, when you get right down to it, he’s a painfully limited performer in nearly every regard who’s tried to make up for it by adopting an “aw, shucks” attitude and everyman appeal akin to somewhere between Josh Turner and Brad Paisley (and not doing it nearly as well, I might add).
And I’ve got to say, while I initially had no plans to cover Hayes’ newest album, I wound up being surprised in quite a few ways. Not because it’s of a surprisingly quality, mind you – to put it succinctly, it’s a hot mess produced like boiled ass. But it’s a surprisingly amusing one where I can tell that, aside from “Fancy Like” or “AA,” no one on Hayes’ team knows how to properly market him for something further than the image he’s portrayed for himself thus far. Part of it is because this is an extension of an EP from last year, and considering this album is front-loaded with newer material, it’s jarring how many different faces Hayes is trying to wear to get something to stick to the wall.
To get the more obvious points out of the way, though, I’ll reiterate that this album sounds horrible and amateurish, at best. You, I, your grandmother, or your dog could hop on GarageBand right now, close our eyes, and still come up with something that sounds better than this. Though it also sounds surprisingly rushed and unfinished, as if his label team knew dropping this in late January after the buzz had died down was the best possible move for him. The guitar texture is crushed to almost nothing, the percussion – fake, real, or otherwise – never contributes to any coherent groove – and that’s before mentioning the numerous genre pileups that make no sense here.
And on that note, Hayes is a painfully weak performer in pretty much every way: his flow is egregiously choppy, his range is almost nonexistent and his delivery is breathy, his featured guest stars barely get to do anything and yet still outshine him when they do sing, and he doesn’t even have the charisma needed to make any of his come across as fun. It’s why the punchline of “Fancy Like” just never landed with me and always felt more leering and creepy than anything else. But, OK, even if we do play along and assume that the cultivated image of the all-American family dad on “Fancy Like” and “AA” is what he’s going for, there’s little else here to support that image. I mean, don’t get me wrong, I hate both of those songs, but at the absolute very least, Hayes is a detailed writer whose wack-ass charm could be seen as endearing, hence why I get his appeal to an extent. People call him the poor man’s Sam Hunt, but I think he’s more like a poor man’s version of Thomas Rhett, which says a lot.
It just all seems contradicted by the fact that it’s carried on an album that also sports “Drinking Songs,” which has the nerve to go for a hell-raiser vibe with way too many direct shoutouts to the Hank Williams family (dude, did you really listen to those songs and know why they were drank?), “Country Stuff,” which is so basic and dull in its checklist ode to the titular items that even HARDY probably wouldn’t touch it (which is why it’s a shame that Jake Owen did), or the by-the-numbers, half-rapped bro-country of “U Gurl” that would have even been too trashy for Florida Georgia Line in 2014. I mean, that’s the album at its worst, and even then, it’s so hilariously scattershot that I can’t get that mad at it, because it’s like listening to (and, by extension, watching) a hilarious implosion. The rest of it is so just so painfully dull in trying to match the romantic sentiments kinda-sorta expressed in “Fancy Like,” to the point where “Life With You” and “Delorean” just feel interchangeable more than anything else.
If I’m being honest, there are a few passable moments. The cornball humility actually works well on the inspirational “What You Don’t Wish For” that reminds me how Hayes isn’t a bad guy; he’s just a terrible artist. And the “Craig” remake … well, again, I’m just going to resort to “boiled ass” to describe the mixing, but the story of how he lost it all only to find salvation through a friend probably works better here than it did on his last project. And if there’s a legitimately good song where I don’t have to make compromises to describe why I like it, it’s probably “Briefcase,” where he recalls how he resorted to music to make up for the loneliness he felt as a kid from his father being away on business all the time, only to now resort to unintentionally inflicting the same pain to his own children as a touring musician. It’s a moment where the corniness gets set aside and, if only for a moment, lets some heartfelt vulnerability shine instead. I’ll be blunt and say that I don’t think he’s capable of more than this, but it’s the lone savior of this album.
But yeah, suffice it to say, this was pretty terrible, but not in a way that I thought it would be. I think the greatest crime of Country Stuff: The Album is that it’s mostly nondescript and generic outside of its big singles, and while that might be OK in the short-term, I think Hayes’ biggest and best commercial days are behind him. And that’s more than OK.
- Favorite tracks: “Briefcase” (feat. Lori McKenna), “What You Don’t Wish For”
- Least favorite tracks: “Drinking Songs,” “AA,” “U Gurl,” “Fancy Like,” “Country Stuff” (feat. Jake Owen)
Buy or stream the album.
(Or just don’t)