Clay Walker makes the cut with horses, music and his battle with MS
November 21, 2003
Fort Worth Business Press
“I’m a gardener,” Clay Walker says. “One of the things about trees and shrubs is you need to get some cold weather on them. The cold hardens the wood and makes the tree stronger. Then when it grows like crazy, you have to prune it back and make it grow in the right direction. That’s the way I’ve always looked at my career.”
When first diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, Walker’s biggest fear was that he would not be able to continue the active lifestyle that was so important to him. Eight years later, he continues to perform to sold-out crowds, ride horses, play golf to a seven handicap, and run on the beach in Galveston with wife Lori and two young daughters, MaClay and Skylor.
Early in December, Walker, 34, will be active in Fort Worth. On Friday, Dec. 5, the multi-platinum country music sensation will compete in the NCHA Celebrity Cutting event at Will Rogers Coliseum. He was the “Celebrity Cutter” winner in 2001. On Dec. 8, he is the headline performer at the prestigious Charles Goodnight Gala at the Renaissance Worthington Hotel.
“I feel blessed to continue to be so healthy,” Walker says. “Sometimes I feel guilty because I know not everyone who has MS is that lucky.”
Earnest Clayton Walker, Jr. was born Aug. 19, 1969 in Beaumont, Tx., the oldest of five children. He grew up surrounded by traditional country music, the love of which was fostered by his dad and uncle who taught him to play the guitar. Walker remembers writing songs from the day that he “knew enough chords.”
Walker began performing professionally at 16, and by the time he was 17, his popularity had expanded beyond the Beaumont area to include clubs in Louisiana, New Mexico and Canada. He kept books and acted as his own agent, manager, publicist and roadie until he was noticed by James Stroud, who had produced hit albums for Tracy Lawrence, Clint Black and John Anderson. Stroud, who headed Giant Records at the time, signed Walker to the label, and the two began work on the album that would be the artist’s national debut.
His first single, “What’s It To You,” released in 1993, was a No. 1 hit. Since then, Walker has sold more than eight million albums, and recently released his seventh studio album, A Few Questions, his first for RCA Records. It debuted at No. 3 on Billboard—the highest debut of his career. With eleven No. 1 singles and five No. 1 videos, Walker is a major force in the music field. He is the only artist to have one of his songs included five years consecutively in Billboard’s year-end Top 10 Country list. He also has been one of the country’s Top 10-grossing touring acts several times.
Walker, however, pushes these accomplishments aside. “I haven’t had a new single on radio in a couple of years,” he says, explaining the extended hiatus between singles as a combination of the demise of Giant, sorting through deal offers and recording a new album. “But now, I’m on the best label in town. Whether I fumble or not is up to me.”
Walker says this launch is a fresh start, though an unexpected one.
He was to have taken his remarkable career to greater heights with his last release, Say No More. “I was on Giant my whole career,” Walker says. “The last record we did, the label folded two weeks after it was released. That stung me. But I’m proud of the music we made, and that’s the only way I’ll look back.”
Walker has poured more of himself into his new album, he says. The accumulated experiences that have shaped his life and music trace back to teenage years spent performing in and around his hometown of Beaumont. They include the devotion he has to his wife and two daughters, his ongoing fight with MS (currently in remission), and, most importantly, his abiding, life-long faith, which Walker continues to embrace and explore.
Even the new album’s title reveals Walker’s evolving perspective. He calls it, “The first introspective record I’ve made.”
The centerpiece is “Heaven Leave The Light On,” a song about divine grace and featuring one of the album’s most impassioned vocal performances. “If I see the river,” Walker sings. “I’m not afraid to die. Cause I know I’ll find the other side.”
“That’s my life basically,” Walker says of the song. “Heaven leave the light on for me, because I’m a sinner for sure. It isn’t trying to sell you on a certain religion. But there’s honesty there. We all need help.”
Shortly after having completed his fourth album at the age of 26, Walker was diagnosed with MS, and had to come to grips with the fact that he had a chronic disease that was to affect him the rest of his life. At that time, there were only two therapies available and not a lot of information. He educated himself about MS, and decided that instead of focusing on the disease, he would “focus on living each day to the fullest.”
This year, Walker decided to make his private battle with MS public. He formed The Band Against MS Foundation to help others by establishing a resource to provide information on the disease and funding for multiple sclerosis research. “I hope my position in the entertainment industry will help draw attention to the disease and the need to continue to focus on finding a cure,” he says.
On Nov. 12, Walker received one of the National Multiple Sclerosis Society’s most prestigious awards—Ambassador of the Year. The honor is based on merit, and Walker is only the fourth person in the society’s 57-year history to be honored. “When people are touched by this disease, either personally or through relatives and friends, they become a sort of special family. And, it is always gratifying to be appreciated by one’s family,” Walker says.
Mike Dugan, president and CEO of the National MS Society, says Walker has used his celebrity status to “help the public, the MS constituency and legislative decision makers understand that an MS diagnosis does not necessarily mean an end to a promising career and a fulfilling life.”
Earlier this year, Walker went to Washington, D.C. to speak to Congress about the need for long-term prescription drug coverage for those living with MS. The Medicare bill Walker spoke out in support of is being reviewed by Congress. If signed, it would provide full coverage for MS patients taking a drug therapy beginning in January.
“Living with MS hasn’t been easy,” Walker says. “It’s changed the way I look at every person in the world. But, I never let MS stop me from fulfilling my dream of performing or recording. I want people to know you don’t have to give up on your dreams with this disease.”
Walker says he has been true to himself and completely honest as a recording artist. “There’s no safety net,” he says. “Everything that has happened to me gives me new-found courage. I’m dangerous right now because I feel I’ve got nothing to lose. I’m coming out swinging.”
For more information on the Band Against MS Foundation, call 1-(800)-728-8051.
Copyright © 2003, Fort Worth Business Press