Clay Walker. It's one of those names, like Merle Haggard, like Faron Young, like Waylon Jennings. When a boy in Beaumont, Tex., is born with such a handle, it's almost as though a career in country music has been preordained.
But Walker--who opens for George Strait tonight at the Anaheim Arena--wasn't content to let destiny and a consummate country cognomen take the reins of his fate. At 24, he has been working hard at his singing and songwriting since he was a teen-ager, and the rewards are starting to materialize.
"This is all I've ever done, and all I ever wanted to do, really," he said during a recent phone interview. "I've been singing in bars since I was 17, in Texas, Oklahoma and Arkansas, then on up to to Canada."
His self-titled debut album, released last summer, placed him among the top new voices in country. Heartfelt, soulful vocals, strong material and crisp, radio-friendly production mark the album's sound, along with lyrics that convey Walker's simple, down-home values and outlook.
The easy appeal of his Texas-steeped singing, engaging personality and rugged good looks all helped propel two singles--"What's It to You" and "Live Until I Die"--to the No. 1 position on Billboard's country charts. He has been touring with Strait--a dream gig for any young country artist--and is scheduled to appear on "The Tonight Show" in June.
For all this, he has managed to keep his feet firmly planted on the ground. While many of country's new breed have adopted a cocky persona more in keeping with a market-conscious rock 'n' roll image, the amiable, drawling Walker keeps an outlook that is strictly, refreshingly old school.
"I grew up in a rural area. My grandmother had an 84-acre tract of land outside the city limits. We had a farm with lots of animals. It was different than growing up downtown, where you might be riding a bicycle in the street and stuff like that. The part in 'Live Until I Die' where I talk about muddy roads and muddy feet--well, I walked those muddy roads.
"That song is very dear to me, in fact. It's like autobiography. I think everybody has one point in his life when he's a child or a teen-ager that he wishes he could go back to, and that's mine. Those memories are very fond memories to me."
His songs also convey a vivid pop sensibility, with highly melodic hooks that commit themselves to memory upon first listening. Part of this, he says, is due to his own varied taste in music when he was growing up.
"I listened to a lot of George Jones (another product of Beaumont), then George Strait and a lot of traditional music, but I also loved listening to Bob Seger," he recalls. "I loved Lionel Richie too. He had a lot of influence on me as a writer. Listening to them made me a lot more well-rounded as far as my musical tastes."
Still, he added, "the one thing I admire most about George Strait is that you can't beat the country out of his voice, and you couldn't do that to me either. So when George records a song, he doesn't worry whether it's too pop or too this or too that. And my producer, James Stroud, said the same about me--'No matter what you do, it's gonna come out country.' "
Walker remains confident but humble about his talents, fulfilled but grateful for his success at such an early age. "I don't think you can plan success," he said. "I believe in doing everything you possibly can to be successful, and then you just hope for the best. And that's what I did. I wasn't making a lot of money back when I was playing clubs. I was making just enough to pay the bills. But if I had to do that the rest of my life, I'd still die a happy person."
So now he can die an even happier person?
"Yeah, that's exactly right," he answered, laughing. "I look out there and say, 'Why me?,' and it's a wonderful feeling. Sometimes, I don't even want the answer. I just accept it for what it is and live every single moment, so that nothing passes me by."
* Clay Walker opens for George Strait tonight at 8 at the Anaheim Arena, 2695 E. Katella Ave., Anaheim. $22.50. (714) 704-2500.