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NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Several years ago, producer and songwriter Shane McAnally met Walker Hayes, a country singer from Alabama who was struggling to find a hit while signed to Capitol Records Nashville.
"He had a song or two that hadn't worked and they were like, 'We just need a hit,'" said McAnally, who has written No. 1 songs with Sam Hunt, Miranda Lambert and Kenny Chesney. "There's nothing organic or honest about telling someone that you just need a hit."
Hayes, who had a wife and six kids, left Capitol after his record fizzled with no radio success and took a side job at Costco to pay the bills. He kept returning to a 160-square-foot storage shed behind his publisher's Music Row office, where he set up a DIY studio with an old version of Pro Tools, a keyboard and a guitar.
"You find yourself writing the truth, because it's like, 'Well, I ain't writing for anyone but myself anyway,'" said Hayes, 37, as he sat in the storage shed known as The Shack. "The delivery, the style, the beats, I am going to make it all. I couldn't hire a band. So I was making a lot of this stuff here in this shack. Beating on this table, shaking that shaker, whistling. And really just having fun making music 'cause I just loved it."
Hayes went back to McAnally two years ago with a batch of new songs that were conversational, highly personal and sung like an Ed Sheeran track. McAnally said no other country artist felt comfortable singing Hayes' songs, which immediately raised a flag in his mind.
"What I am always drawn to is an artist that has songs that nobody else can perform," McAnally said.
Now Hayes is signed to Monument Records, a historic country label dating back to the '50s that was relaunched by Sony this year and led by McAnally and Jason Owen. His first single, "You Broke Up with Me," has pushed into the Top 15 on the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart, fueled by strong digital song sales. His new album "boom." was released Dec. 8.
The single isn't too much different from the demo version he made in The Shack, complete with his co-writers chattering to each other in the background as he recorded a guitar riff and beatboxed the rhythm.
Hayes doesn't write with much bravado, preferring the humor and striking honesty of a dad of six kids who has another baby on the way. He sings about taking his children to shop at the dollar store and the time a man from his church gave his family a minivan. He writes about quitting drinking but keeping that one last beer bottle in the fridge.
Country artists like Sam Hunt and Thomas Rhett have opened the door to Hayes, who finds more inspiration in loops and beats than twangy guitars.
"Growing up all I cared about in a song, before I really listened to lyrics, was that beat," Hayes said. "I didn't want a pickup with mud tires. I wanted an old blazer with as many speakers in the back as I could afford. I would even steal them out of my brother's car and pack them in there. I remember sitting in a parking lot and turning my radio up and walking down the street to see how far you could feel it."
Follow Kristin M. Hall at twitter.com/kmhall