“Live each day like it’s your last” is a mantra that can be taken for granted at times, that is, until that’s the only choice you have.
Wade Hayes was given a five percent chance at survival after a stage four cancer diagnosis. In fact, doctors were on the precipice of putting him on comfort care.
Hayes wouldn’t let that be the end of his story. A story that, to that point, had included number one songs on country radio, countless performances and hours spent in writing rooms crafting his brand of country music that his fans had come to love.
Not only did he beat the disease, he took the mantra his doctor gave him, “go live your life,” to heart, with a song and album of the same name being released just four years after his diagnosis. As the 90s country resurgence began in the late 2010s, Hayes released two more albums and has continued to take the stage all over the country for fans looking to re-live country music’s glory days.
To get to that point, though, it’s important to rewind to where Hayes’ story begins; a small town kid from Oklahoma that grew up with a deeper interest in music than his peers.
“It was very common to hear Merle Haggard and Waylon Jennings at my house. The first record I ever bought was an Elvis record off of TV,” says Hayes. “It always seemed that music was a little more important to me than it was to my friends.”
While his father played in bluegrass and country bands during his formative years, Hayes wrestled with the decision to follow in those footsteps and pursue a career in music.
“I struggled for a long time with the aspect of pursuing music as a career. I always knew I wanted to and that I loved playing music,” says Hayes. “I predominantly wanted to be a backup musician and play lead guitar and sing harmonies for somebody. Being 18 to 20 years-old is a difficult time for young men. You’re supposed to know what you’re doing, and I didn’t.”
After one fateful night watching the CMA Awards, though, he did.
“The determining factor was when I was 22 years-old. I’d been through four years of college and changed my major twice. I was only doing it because I thought that’s what I was supposed to do,” says Hayes. “I was watching the CMA Awards, and Ricky Skaggs came on and said that all the young artists out there struggling should stick with it, because that’s what they’re called to do. It literally hit me like a ton of bricks, because I was looking for direction, and I had my eyes and ears wide open. It felt like he was speaking to me. I was praying for direction and guidance, and I felt like that was it. The very next day, I started making preparations to move to Nashville.”
Though there was pressure that came with leaving college to pursue his musical dreams, Hayes felt a sense of belonging as soon as he arrived in Music City.
“I was scared to death, but I felt like I knew what I was doing,” says Hayes. “I felt direction. The moment I left and moved to Nashville, my life got 100% better. Doors were opened for me. It felt like a very clear path; like I was being divinely guided.”
Within nine months of arriving in Nashville, Hayes had earned himself a record deal with Columbia Records, almost unintentionally, after performing at a friend’s record label showcase.
“I was playing guitar for a singer/songwriter friend of mine from Oklahoma, Jamie Richards, at his record label showcase,” says Hayes. “For some reason, the people in the audience noticed me and started asking about me. That chance encounter got the whole thing started.”
Soon, Hayes was in the studio recording his debut album and keeping company with musicians he revered.
“I was this kid from a small, rural town in Oklahoma with literally not a pot to pee in, and all of a sudden, I was hanging around people I idolized and was allowed to be in the same room with. Every day was new and exciting. I was hanging out with people like Brooks & Dunn, Patty Loveless and Pam Tillis,” says Hayes. “Recording that album was a surreal experience. Being in the same room and making a record with people whose names I had read on countless albums was unbelievable.”
So unbelievable, in fact, that when he heard the final mix of the album’s title track, “Old Enough to Know Better,” Hayes and his team knew they had a hit on their hands.
“When we recorded that song, I knew in my heart that it was a hit. All of us knew,” says Hayes. “It exploded out of the speakers in the studio. We couldn’t believe what we had done.”
The song soon made it from those studio speakers to the radio airwaves, giving Hayes the unique experience of hearing his song on the radio for the first time.
“I had been busy flying all over the country promoting the new record that was coming out, and I finally got to come home to see my mom and dad,” says Hayes. “They picked me up at the airport, and I heard it on their car radio when they picked me up in Oklahoma City. That was very fitting for the first time. The station that played it was running remotely out of a car lot, so I asked my dad to drive me to the lot so I could thank them in person. It was a great memory.”
Just 20 weeks later, that same song Hayes knew would be a hit in the studio proved to be a hit on the charts, as “Old Enough to Know Better” topped the country charts for two weeks.
“It was unbelievable. ‘Old Enough to Know Better’ had the most adds of any single in country music history in its first week at the time,” says Hayes. “My life changed so much in such a short time. To see the thing that you had dreamed of since you were a kid happen, there’s no feeling like it.”
The good times kept rolling when the album’s next three singles, “I’m Still Dancin’ with You,” “Don’t Stop” and “What I Meant to Say,” landed at number one, five and ten, respectively. But with that success came pressure from his record label to release new music.
“It was pretty uncommon to have something take off that fast. Things got more difficult after that record,” says Hayes. “The label was on my back to produce. We put out that next record, and it wasn’t ready. You are literally going 100 miles per hour, 24 hours a day. Trying to find time to write and find songs to record was extremely difficult. You get burnt out. I was 25 at the time, and I probably wasn’t a mature 25 year-old to be handling all of that.”
Though the pressure was mounting, when his sophomore album’s title track, “On a Good Night,” landed at number two on the charts, that pressure eased, albeit briefly, as label turnover further complicated the creative process.
“When that song became it hit, it helped things, but we knew we didn’t have as many potential singles on that record. It wasn’t ready,” says Hayes. “We were starting to experience shakeups at the label. Different people were coming in, and those who were instrumental in making my first record happen were leaving. It was increasingly difficult by the time the third album came around. It was hard to know what to do.”
Again, the lead single, “The Day That She Left Tulsa (In a Chevy)” from Hayes’ third album, When the Wrong One Loves You Right, became a radio hit and briefly eased his artistic tension, but he felt the album’s ballad-heavy approach wasn’t the best suit for him.
“Up-tempo, rockin’ country is probably what I’m best at. I like to play electric guitar and play that up-tempo music,” says Hayes. “Looking back, I think we should have concentrated more on that.”
By the time Hayes’ fourth and final album for Sony/Columbia, Highways & Heartaches, was released in 2000, much of the steam produced by Old Enough to Know Better had waned, as the album failed to produce a top 40 song at country radio. Soon after, Hayes asked to be released from the label.
“I knew things were slowing down. We were experiencing growing pains and trying to find out how to keep things moving forward. My time at the label was coming to an end, and that record was kind of the writing on the wall,” says Hayes. “A new guy at the label gave me a book and told me to read it. The book suggested that if things weren’t going your way in life, you needed to make some changes, find what’s right for you and not be afraid to leave the situation and change places of employment. I really took that book to heart, and I asked out of my record deal.”
By 2001, Hayes had decided to take a hiatus from his solo career, and just two years later, he formed a duo, McHayes, with Alan Jackson’s then-fiddle player, Mark McClurg, though the duo disbanded the following year after two single releases.
“I had been on the road with Alan Jackson, and Mark and I became friends. Mark was also friends with Tim DuBois, who was the head of Arista Records. It was Tim’s idea to put Mark and I together. He had put Kix (Brooks) and Ronnie (Dunn) together, and he thought it could work,” says Hayes. “It didn’t catch on like we’d hoped. The biggest complaint I got was from radio people asking why I would do that. They were really critical. I was trying to do something new and exciting, and we thought that might be it.”
Five years after McHayes split, Hayes ended his solo hiatus with 2009’s Place to Turn Around, his first independent release.
“I had been floating around and not knowing what to do. I was playing gigs and had a notebook full of tunes,” says Hayes. “I’d seen friends do it, and I figured heck, I should just go make a record myself and see what would happen with it.”
Just two years after making his return, though, Hayes began to feel ill, so much so that he saw doctors as soon as he finished his next show.
“I knew I wasn’t well. I knew something was wrong, but I didn’t know what,” says Hayes. “It got to a point where I was getting ready to do a solo acoustic show in Houston, and the night before, I had an episode of severe pain. I was bent over and couldn’t raise myself up. I finally got myself straightened up enough to do the show, but I went to the doctor as soon as I got home, and they recommended getting a colonoscopy after I gave them my symptoms.”
The doctor returned with news that would change Hayes’ life immediately.
“I’ll never forget the doctor coming into the room with a long face when we went over the results of the test. He said, ‘Mr. Hayes, we’re sorry to tell you that you have cancer,’” says Hayes. “They told me that I not only had a very large tumor in my large intestine, upon further tests, the cancer had spread and it was stage four. They said it was unlikely that I was going to make it.”
It was so unlikely that he was going to make it, in fact, that the doctors almost didn’t perform the surgery that ended up saving his life.
“They gave me a 5% chance at best of surviving. It was very scary. The first doctors thought it was too bad. Kix Brooks had heard that I was sick, and he was on the board at Vanderbilt. He took me to see one of their doctors,” says Hayes. “When they initially presented my case, they didn’t want to operate. They wanted to keep me comfortable because it was that bad. There was an oncologist there, Dr. Jordan Berlin, who told me later that he actually talked them into attempting the surgery. If it wasn’t for that man, I wouldn’t be here.”
After undergoing what he calls a “marathon” surgery, Hayes says it was the prayers of others and a progressive mindset that kept him fighting.
“I wasn’t strong enough to pray for myself during that time. I think it was the people praying for me,” says Hayes. “I had read about a trick for people who were in distress about focusing on when you get better. You focus and dream about what you’re going to do when it is all behind you instead of concentrating on the circumstances and pain that you’re in. You focus on when you’re okay again. I left my body for a while. That’s how I got through it.”
Hayes mental battle was also helped by meeting a man during his treatment who had survived nearly a decade with a similar diagnosis.
“He had been cancer free for eight years,” says Hayes. “Once I saw that it could be done, and I had met somebody who was doing it, it was a game-changer. I was ready to put my head down, fight and move forward. That was instrumental. Cancer is as hard a mental battle as it is a physical one.”
In the midst of his fight, Hayes released “Is It Already Time?,” a song that questioned his mortality and spread the word further about his diagnosis. The song proved to Hayes how much he was loved and helped him continue forward.
“I had read an article that said statistically, I probably wasn’t going to be around much longer. That song started coming out, and it was kind of like therapy. I gave myself a minute to feel sorry for myself,” says Hayes. “People were so supportive of that song. I had no idea that that many people cared whether or not I took my next breath until they found out I was sick. I was shocked and amazed at the wonderful things people did for me and the help they gave me.”
After a three year fight, Hayes was declared cancer-free, and was given jarring words from his doctor.
“I went to see Dr. Berlin, and he said, ‘Hayes, this is a big deal. You were stage four, and now there’s no evidence of the disease whatsoever.’ He said, ‘You need to go live your life,’ and it hit me like a ton of bricks,” says Hayes. “I knew he was telling me two things: one, it’s a miracle that I was still around. Two, he was saying that this was stage four, it has a tendency to come back, so I needed to go live my life.”
Hayes not only took those words to heart, he also took them to songwriter Bobby Pinson, who helped him create the song “Go Live Your Life,” which served as the title track for Hayes’ next album and a staple in his live show where he discusses his journey.
“I told my friend, Bobby Pinson, that story, and we wrote that song together,” says Hayes. “I need to hear that song every now and then, and it’s good for me to talk about it because I get caught up in everyday struggles like everybody does. It reminds me that things could be a lot worse, because things have been a lot worse. Talking about it helps me as much as it might help somebody else. That song is an important part of the show.”
As the second half of the 2010s came, Hayes stayed busy in the writing room and studio, released two albums, 2017’s Old Country Song and 2019’s Who Saved Who, all the while, having a newfound appreciation for the creative process.
“I enjoy writing now more than I ever have in my life. I love putting that puzzle together,” says Hayes. “When I get something I feel is worth putting some time and effort into, I love it. I enjoy the whole process a lot more than I did back when I was younger.”
Though he’s accomplished many great things in his career, Hayes says he still has one box left to check, which keeps him busy writing songs.
“I’ve gotten to realize a lot of my dreams that were literally just dreams when I was a kid,” says Hayes. “I still have one dream left, and I’m living for the day when it happens. The reason I keep writing songs is because I want to have a hit with somebody else. I want one of these young, handsome new kids in town to record one of my songs and have a huge hit with it. I just hope I can write one good enough one of these days. If I can catch lightning in a bottle again, I would really be tickled.”
As he looks forward to sharing stages with Shenandoah and Billy Dean on “The Country Comeback” tour through 2022 and into 2023, Hayes looks back on his career graciously for the lessons he’s learned along the way and the people that still come to see him grace stages in their towns.
“I’ve learned that I was very fortunate when I was a young man. I might have taken what a blessing it was to do what I did for granted. It’s not easy to have that happen. I’m very fortunate to get to play guitar for a living. I got to have some hits, and I’m still doing alright,” says Hayes. “I want people to know how much I appreciate everybody letting me still do this for a living. People still come to shows and they want to hear the old songs, and even the new ones. When one of my songs means something to them, it means something to me. I appreciate that very much.”
*We’ve added our favorite Wade Hayes songs to The Best of Pro Country playlist!*