"I learned that prognoses are not always accurate," says the singer, who has battled MS and an increasingly exclusive country format
BY STEPHEN L. BETTS Rolling Stone Country
Clay Walker has released the romantic new single "Right Now." Scott Dudelson/GettyImages
From 1993 to 2009, Texas-born Clay Walker enjoyed a nearly unbroken streak of Top Five singles, including six Number Ones. The singer, whose material often showcases his rich, romantic vocal style, scored his last major hit with "She Won't Be Lonely Long" in 2009, and looks poised to return to the charts — and perhaps country radio — with the brand-new "Right Now."
Walker's first release in three years, "Right Now" was a collaboration with veterans Shane Minor and Wade Kirby and is currently enjoying airplay on SiriusXM's the Highway. In spite of Walker's absence from terrestrial radio, the song is undoubtedly well-suited to today's fickle market. With a sweet, soulful vibe and a message of romantic urgency, the singer who landed back-to-back chart-toppers with his first two singles, "What's It to You" and "Live Until I Die," has what he believes couples will refer to as "our song."
"Wade asked me what I was looking for," Walker tells Rolling Stone Country of the origin of "Right Now." "I said something like a song I had out a long time ago called 'This Woman and This Man' [a Number One for Walker in 1995], but modern-day. I'm a person that likes one- or two-word titles and I think it was Wade's idea to repeat the phrase, 'Right now, right now.' We just had a really cool groove going.
"This one seemed to be the one that stuck out among women," Walker continues. "Of course, I'm a sucker for women, so…[laughs]…that's how it became the first single."
Walker, who has been with his wife Jessica for 10 years and married for eight, says the song's urgency reflects his personal experience with her, noting that the best songs are what he considers "memory makers."
"I am a 'right now' kind of guy," he explains. "When I first laid eyes on my wife, I knew that she was the one and if I didn't do something about it right now, it wasn't going to happen. It's a take-action kind of song. I think it's really going to get to the heart of people who are passionate and are in love. There's nothing like a song to make you remember when."
The single is the first from an upcoming LP that Walker has completed and plans to release in two to three months. Rather than work around the timetable of a major label to issue the single and then potentially wait a year or more for a label to get an album out in the marketplace, Walker is taking the bold step of releasing the single with the hope of capturing a label's attention.
"Terrestrial radio," the 46-year-old Walker acknowledges, "seems to be a little bit jaded to what they call 'older' artists. I'm by no means old. You can come to one of our concerts and the front five rows are nothing but 18- to 30-year-olds screaming their heads off. . . . I think that's the best way to judge [an artist]. Who's at the shows and how do they react? It's pandemonium. I've always been a believer that one day this industry will wake up and realize that that actually matters the most."
Along with a confidence that the industry will begin to better embrace and acknowledge well-established artists, Walker is also outspoken about what's been missing in the format.
"Sincerity of lyrics, sung with soul and putting the dressing on it with modern production. That's the key to winning back over a lot of fans who are really on the fence about where country music is today," he says. "To ignore that and say, 'Oh no, just keep feeding them what we're feeding them. They're gonna buy it,' that is complete horseshit. They're not buying it. The music was becoming stagnant, very generic-sounding. At least now there's some character to it — even though it might not be that palatable. I think it'll work out in the end, but we need to get there faster than we're doing."
Walker also understands the positive effects of immediacy better than many, due to his own battle with multiple sclerosis. In March 2016, the singer will mark 20 years of living with the disease, in which the immune system eats away at the protective covering of nerves.
"It's been a credit that I've been able to sustain and really manage MS," says the artist who in 2003 founded the not-for-profit BandAgainstMSto help educate people and hopefully one day eradicate the disease. "The main worry with multiple sclerosis is having a relapse and having damage done that is irreparable. We don't have a cure for MS, so the best thing people can hope for is to get into a situation where you're having a reduced amount of relapses, or not relapsing at all. I've been relapse-free for 18 years. I think that's very exciting for a lot of MS patients who look up to me and want to have that degree of success in managing MS."
In addition to his hefty concert schedule, Walker, whose initial prognosis was that he would be forced to use a wheelchair in four years — and dead within eight — hits the road several times a year to share his experience of living with MS.
"When you receive a diagnosis of any kind where your health is concerned, no matter what the diagnosis or the prognosis, the key factor in determining the outcome is what are you going to do about it? It took me a while to take ownership of how I wanted to deal with it," he says. "I learned that prognoses are not always accurate. Am I in a wheelchair? Am I dead? Absolutely not! I'm doing all the things and then some."