Walker Hayes on Fatherhood, Loss, and Putting It All Into Song

The family man and country star reflects on life, loss, and fatherhood.

by Donna Freydkin

When you’re about to talk to a dad about the most agonizing thing a parent can experience, the death of a child, well, how the hell do you even broach the subject? Walker Hayes, the handsome, earnest, and forthcoming 39-year-old country singer does the heavy lifting for you. “When anyone loses a child — I’m figuring this out now on a daily basis — you would do anything to not let it be in vain,” he says.

He’s referring to the death of their newborn daughter Oakleigh Klover in June 2018, just hours after his wife Laney Beville Hayes gave birth to her. Hayes and his wife live in Nashville with their six kids, and deal with tragedy by being as open as possible with their children and his fans: “I love when people say her name and ask me about her. I love when people say, ‘You have seven kids.’” Here’s what else he had to say about love, loss, and making sense of the unimaginable.

You have been so open about the death of Oakleigh, talking about her in interviews and on social media. Why?

I can’t articulate a thing that makes losing a kid worth it. My emotions were so volatile. You want to pour life into something. You try and fix it, but you can’t. Being vocal about it, letting my scars show, just makes people not feel alone. That’s what music is really about. I’m trying to feed my kids, yes. But what I learned was that it wasn’t enough. What did matter was speaking out to and letting my music heal and exposing our tragedy. Before we lost Oakleigh, I’d been very vocal about my recovery from addiction, from alcoholism. It held me accountable and helped me recover.

Plus, articulating your feelings helps you deal with them.

Our household — we’re wide open as far as communication is concerned. I can’t let something go unspoken. I want it out there. Our kids have learned to communicate with us. I’m a big ‘feel your feelings’ person. No emotion is wrong. That’s how you feel and that makes it true.

I assume talking about her helps you and your wife, and children, at least better cope with the loss.

The more we talk about it, the more we heal and hopefully, it helps others. That said, I would take all that back to change the outcome.

What’s your approach to fatherhood?

It’s important that your father loves you and that you know it. I know it’s important from being a son. I know my dad loves me. It has helped me to grow into a man. I always want them to know I’m in their corner.

So how do you show them that?

We don’t wake up as their parents and know every single thing we’re doing. I tell my 13-year-old all the time that we’re learning as we go along. It’s important to teach them to forgive themselves and each other. I’m not sure I’ve mastered that. I’ve got a long way to go.

How do you push your kids to try new things, without being a pain in the ass parent?

To borrow a phrase from Kelsea Ballerini, I want my kids to unapologetically aspire towards things. There’s nothing cooler than watching your kid fall in love with something. Even if you don’t get it. My son is a gamer. He’s passionate about it. I don’t relate. I don’t get it. But I love listening to him love something. We do everything we can to encourage them to experiment creatively. There’s no sport they can’t try. There’s no musical instrument they can’t touch.