When the Washington State Fair Rodeo is in full swing on Friday (Sept. 5), it might have one wistful fan watching from the sideline.
“I love the sport. But I would have never made a great (professional rodeo) cowboy. I’m a rancher,” says Clay Walker. He’s also, by the way, a multi-platinum country music artist.
Walker rode bulls in high school and roped steers in his younger days. Now, he competes in cutting horse events.
“It’s hard to find roping steers up in Tennessee,” he said.
He was calling from his ranch in Tennessee where he was fine tuning his new album, “Rock the Radio.” The album will come out in 2014. Or maybe 2015.
“We’re having a meeting about that today,” Walker said.
While the release date had yet to be firmed up, Walker was clear about one thing: His first album in three years will have a new sound.
“It doesn’t sound anything, production wise, like I’ve done in the past. It’s very new, very modern. But it still has the same good lyrics and you know it’s me when I sing.”
The new sound, Walker said, will reflect where he thinks country music is headed: back toward its traditions and away from an urban sound.
“The cool part is that it needed to change and stretch out in that direction (toward urban),” Walker said. “Now, it’s going to come back to the center. I think it was cool to head that way. I have nothing negative to say about urban. I think (country) is going to be better for it.”
Walker said his longevity in the business gives him insight into where country is headed.
“We went for a sound in the last five years and probably lost a little in the lyrics … 70 percent of it is too rough. I’d say only 30 percent of it is stuff you’ll want to hear 10 years from now. I think you’re going to see room now for some really solid country artists.”
Walker has sold more than 11 million albums, including four platinum albums, two gold and 11 No. 1 singles.
“I’m probably one of the few artists of my era that can still get played on the radio,” Walker said. But that’s not arrogance talking, he said. “I was the youngest of my generation. I’m also not afraid to adapt or change. It’s going to be reflected in the production (of the new record).”
Walker has 14 horses on his ranch to help him practice cutting or separating a single cow from a herd. The horses also come in handy for parties.
“Horses have always been a big deal to me. We had friends over on Saturday for my son’s sixth birthday, and I think we had five horses out and everybody, even the kids, were riding them.”
Walker gave his son his first pony. “Just seeing the spark in those children’s eyes was something,” Walker said.
It was a sight that Walker might not have lived to see. In 1996 he was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, an autoimmune disease that affects the central nervous system. The disease can be debilitating and sometimes fatal. There is no cure.
“When I was first diagnosed, the prognosis was horrific,” Walker recalls. But he didn’t give up. “I’m a person that believes in doing everything you can to win.”
While Walker has taken the popular ice bucket challenge for amyotrophic lateral sclerosis or ALS, he said other diseases, such as MS, also need funding and awareness. He founded Band Against MS (BAMS), a nonprofit that funds MS research and education. The charity has raised more than $2 million to fund MS research.
“I know the importance of bringing awareness to a disease like MS. I know the effects a disease can have on an entire family, sometimes a community. It’s super important to learn about it. That does take probably half of the fear away.”
Walker’s disease has been arrested by the drug Copaxone. “If I had been diagnosed five or 10 years earlier, I would not be in the shape I am now,” he said. “I’m super excited about what the future holds.”