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HEAT OF CLAY

CLAY WALKER'S OVERNIGHT SUCCESS TOOK FIVE YEARS TO HAPPEN

''Beaumont is a gold mine for talent,'' says Clay Walker of his Texas hometown. ''I'll guarantee you, every label in Nashville could go down there and camp out for a couple of months and find at least four or five entertainers.'' Now, don't expect to see a bunch of ponytailed A&R men gathered around a campfire with their cellular phones. But if word gets out and the Holiday Inn fills up, that scene might not be so far-fetched. The town that spawned the legendary George Jones has also produced chart-toppers Tracy Byrd and Mark Chesnutt. Add Clay Walker to the list. Last month the 24-year-old's self- titled debut album broke into the top 10 and went gold, while his second single, ''Live Until I Die,'' went to No. 1. He has also done what every country singer in Texas has dreamed of: toured with state treasure George Strait. Not bad for a kid who until last year didn't have enough spare change to buy a Gibson guitar. Walker grew up the oldest of five children of welder Clay Walker Sr. and his wife, Danna. Clay Sr., a part-time musician, taught his son to play guitar when he was 9, and soon young Clay was obsessed with stars like Jones and Strait, as well as Lionel Richie and the group Boston. At 15, he caught the bug and started entering talent contests. At age 18, Walker got serious and went to work at the Goodyear plant in Beaumont to raise money for equipment. There he did everything from scrubbing toilets to taking out the trash. ''So I have a lot of respect for the blue- collar worker,'' he muses. ''The first time I loaded up my equipment in that U-Haul, I put my steel-toed work boots in the corner of the trailer and hung my hard hat on the door. And later, every time I thought that I was sick of playing music, I just took a look at that hard hat and them boots and I got my butt on stage!'' That butt wound up on stages in clubs throughout the southern U.S. and Canada. The business of playing music in bars was a baptism into real life for the then 19-year-old. ''I was my own accountant, my own agent, my own everything. I ran into a lot of cutthroat club owners, and got cheated out of money, and stayed in the rattiest hotels. It was a rat race, and what good is first place in a rat race?'' Deliverance came in November 1992, when James Stroud, president of Giant Records' Nashville division, heard Walker in a Beaumont club. ''I knew he could sing and perform,'' recalls Stroud. ''But what really sold me was when we sat down and talked, because I knew I had me a real artist. This guy lives it, he's studied it, and he's committed to it. He talked me right into a deal.'' Walker concurs, saying, ''I'm not the greatest singer or writer, but I realized what it takes to put an artist together.'' Location, for one thing. Walker moved to Nashville, where he now lives with his wife, Lori, a 24-year-old former rodeo queen. He also handed over his career to professionals like his producer, Stroud. ''James has molded me musically,'' he admits. ''For the first time I was able to hand somebody the reins and just forget about everything.'' The result is a solid contemporary country album, with a nod toward radio-friendly pop. In short, a programmer's delight. Then there's The Look. Ever since the Cyrus virus of 1992, Nashville has been tripping over itself to sign beefy young boys whose 8 x 10 glossies outshine their music. It seems as if every label has been working from the same checklist in the Country Music Handbook for Success-Resistol hat, sturdy cowpoke face, and very tight jeans. The dashing Walker ignores the danger of being dismissed as just another hunk in a hat. ''I've never gone to media school or learned how to dress. What you see of me is exactly the way I am.'' Which, these days, is an aw-shucks guy facing the pressures of success. ''You talk about pressure now-I was my own bandleader and agent and everything,'' he chuckles. ''I ended up with an ulcer but also ended up with a record deal. I guess I'd swap an ulcer for a record deal any day!''

Originally posted Jan 28, 1994 Published in issue #207 Jan 28, 1994 Order article reprints
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