A young Clay Walker was a fresh, hot face on the country music scene when multiple sclerosis came along and tried to steal his thunder.
Country giant George Jones hired the singer and guitarist from Beaumont, Texas, then 17, to perform at Jones Country Music Park, his country music theme park in Colmesneil, Texas. After hearing his sound check, Jones told him “you’re going to make it in this business.”
At 22, Walker proved Jones right and scored his first record deal. His self-titled debut album dropped in 1993, containing the No. 1 hits “What’s It to You” and “Live Until I Die.”
At 26, several records into his career, he began to experience strange numbness in his limbs, facial spasms and double vision. Doctors delivered the diagnosis: multiple sclerosis, an autoimmune disease that affects the brain and spinal cord. And a grim prognosis: probably a wheelchair in a few years, and death a few years after that. He was understandably devastated.
Walker refused to give up, though, and embarked on a drastic life change, including a diet overhaul, medication, stress management and stretches and exercises to help strengthen his legs and upper extremities. That was more than 25 years ago.
In 2003, he founded Band Against MS, a nonprofit dedicated to helping those with the disease and funding programs researching a cure.
“It’s different degrees of struggle every day,” Walker said from a recent tour stop. “Some days are pretty hard, others are kind of light. I never know how it’s going to be until I wake up. But I’ve been blessed. I can still walk and ride horses and be active and do the stuff that makes me happy.”
Walker will perform Tuesday at Cowboys in Colorado Springs. Proceeds will benefit Mount Carmel Veterans Service Center.
“It didn’t affect me negatively,” he said. “It made me more aware of what was really important in life. I don’t take a lot of things for granted anymore. If one of my kids or my wife says, ‘Daddy, come look at the sunset,’ I’m going to get off the couch and go to the porch and look at the sunset with them.”
His 11th album, “Texas to Tennessee,” dropped last year, and he’s got a new single on the radio, “Catching Up With an Old Memory.” He wrote it during the endless stretches of the pandemic, and calls it a nostalgic-feeling tune about returning to a place where you once spent time with someone special, but instead of letting it make you sad, it’s only reuniting with an old memory.
These days he’s more consumed with the melody of a song than the lyrics: “To me the melody is what has most of the emotion in it. The words flow on top of the melody. I don’t try to force things anymore. I used to count syllables and I’d want an exact rhyme, and now it’s like, ‘let the song tell you what it wants.’ ”
And what the song always wants is to be country. His predilection for the genre stems from two things, he says: his inherent soulfulness and an affinity for blues music. Meld those two together, and you have country blues.
“When I find those kinds of songs, that’s what I’d call my wheelhouse,” he said. “Country music is the people’s music. It’s not about being cool. It’s about, ‘can I see myself in that song, and can the fans see themselves in that song?’”
It’s all about telling the truth on stage, being transparent, much as he’s been about his diagnosis and health all these years.
“It’s what has sustained my career,” Walker said. “People in general have what I call a tuning fork in their soul. When you hit the tuning fork the wrong way, they know and don’t forget. When you hit it right, it resonates. Nobody’s perfect, but letting people know that piece of it, that you’re not perfect, is refreshing.”
“It’s different degrees of struggle
every day. Some days are pretty hard, others are kind of light. I never know how it’s going to be until I wake up. But I’ve been blessed.” Country star Clay Walker