Two decades have passed since Clay Walker's 1993 debut single “What's It to You” also became his first No. 1 hit, but he still remembers the moment he got the good news.
“Oh, yeah, you don't forget those moments. I was in Cincinnati, Ohio, doing a show ... and right in the middle of it, this radio guy walks out, and I still remember his name, his name's Tim Clausen, of WUEB-Cincinnati. He walked out and he made an announcement and he had an early copy of Billboard. He handed it to me and it said ‘Clay Walker, “What's It To You,” No. 1.'
“And it just absolutely floored me because we had been touring and everything had gotten crazy and I didn't even know what day of the week it was,” Walker said in a recent phone interview from the road in Washington state.
“It doesn't make me feel old. It actually makes me feel aware of how fast the time does go by. When I look back on it, I just try to think ‘what were the most significant moments,' and it's hard to define. Cumulatively, I can say that there hasn't been much that I haven't enjoyed about my career and that's a really good feeling.”
The Texas native's follow-up single, 1994's “Live Until I Die,” also topped the charts, and he eventually garnered six No. 1s, including “Dreaming with My Eyes Open,” “If I Could Make a Living,” “This Woman and This Man,” and “Rumor Has It”. Over the past 20 years he has recorded 10 albums, with his latest, 2010's “She Won't Be Lonely Long,” debuting at No. 5 on the Billboard Top Country Albums chart, earning largely positive reviews and scoring a Top 5 single with the title track.
Walker, 44, will bring his deep stable of hits Saturday night to the Oklahoma State Fair, where he will perform in Jim Norick Arena following the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association Xtreme Bulls Tour action.
“I believe in music being a great way of celebrating and having a good time. You know, I'm very blessed in my life to have this kind of career. God has been great to me, and I believe in sharing that,” he said.
The singer also is celebrating his newfound freedom. After spending his entire career on various labels, Walker got his release from Curb Records back in March and is working as an independent artist for the first time.
“I've been writing and looking and talking with different producers and listening to what's happening right now. I think it is a very unique time artistically in our format especially, and you can turn the radio on and hear it. And it sounds very, very different, and I think it's so different because it's mirroring the release of and the gain of control of the reins. It's gonna take a little while for it to settle down, but it's representing a very good period.”
While some of Nashville's old guard may not like the “rawness” of current country music popularized by the likes of Jason Aldean, Colt Ford and Jamey Johnson, Walker said he appreciates the brawny new sound.
“It kind of reminds me of what Hank Jr. was to the '80s. You know, he said, ‘This ain't my daddy's music.' And I think he (Aldean) has come along and done it his way, singing about tailgates and pickup trucks and mudding and bonfires, and it just had a rawness to it, to the sound, that wasn't your cookie cutter Nashville sound either. You know, he used different guitars, and that in itself, even if he didn't start the trend, he was the pinnacle of it,” Walker said.
“Country was really exploding in the '90s whenever I came out, and everybody became a sage overnight. You know, these business guys ... were sages on what music should be recorded, how it should be recorded, and then after you would start recording, they wanted to come in and change it,” he added.
“That's what was going on for the longest of time, and it just reached this very ugly head about seven years ago. And then I started to see it turn because the record labels started to shrink, the money stopped coming, people stopped buying an entire album, and they were able to choose off of iTunes especially a single song. And that changed everything when the music became readily accessible to the fans. The fans could actually dictate ‘OK, this sucks, and this is good. I'm not gonna buy nine songs that suck for this one song that I want.' That's what record labels had over the artists and over the fans. Now, all they can do is sit back and watch — and I like that.”