In only his second year of competing at junior rodeos, Clay Walker climbed into a bucking chute, sat down on a bull, took his wrap and nodded his head.
Less than 8 seconds later, everything changed.
He hung up and got stomped on.
“I lost my nerve,” said Walker, who injured his ribs, leg and face, “and I think that probably happens to a lot of people. I knew that wasn’t for me after that.”
Prior to the wreck, Walker said, “I wasn’t a great bull rider. I was probably too dumb and too crazy to realize how dangerous it really was. My mother would cry every time. She would even leave sometimes. I loved it. I really did.”
Walker, 45, was born and raised in South Texas on a ranch that has been in the Walker family since the 1800s.
There was no doubt Clay Sr., was a cowboy. There was no getting around the fact that the old man was going to raise the oldest of his five children to be tough.
“I remember each and every time I swung my leg over,” Walker reluctantly recalled, when asked to about his amateur career riding bulls, “It just, it got me going.”
He added, “The scariest part of it is when you actually go to swing your leg over the rail. There are so many things that can go wrong in the chute.”
Though he never turned pro, Walker knows what it’s like have a full-size bucking bull shift its weight and lean on his legs—pinning it between 1,800 pounds of muscle and steel gate.
“You feel how much you’re outweighed or how much you’re out-powered,” Walker continued. “The only thing you can do is out-think him and out-maneuver him. Once you nod you ain’t scared anymore.”
He likened the experience to skydiving.
The anxiety is inside the plane. The anxiety quickly becomes adrenaline once you begin free falling.
“Once you’re airborne,” Walker said, “I mean, you’re there man.”
That’s a lot what it was also like in the early days of performing.
Walker, who is among the country acts performing at the upcoming Cowboy Spring Break event, in Las Vegas, has been performing on stage since he was a teenager.
He released his self-titled debut in 1993 and since then has released 10 more albums with another one scheduled later this year. His first four albums were all certified platinum with sales in excess of 1 million copies and two others were gold.
His first ever single, “What’s It to You,” went to No. 1 on the charts and over the years he has charted 30 singles, including five No. 1s – “Live Until I Die,” “Dreaming With My Eyes Open,” “If I Could Make a Living,” “This Woman and This Man” and “Rumor Has It.”
Walker came along in an era known for hat acts.
However, he was among rare company in that he was a true cowboy with deep Western roots.
Like his father, his songs were genuine and authentic as well as raw and real. Twenty-some years later, he’s still writing those type of songs. In fact, one of his new songs – “Long Live the Cowboy” – talks about what it means to be a cowboy and epitomizes the Western way of life that his father instilled in Walker and his siblings when they were growing up and coming of age in the 1970s and 80s.
“I do think the cowboy is the last American hero,” Walker said. “It’s an awesome statement and the song says that. It’s a way of life. It’s not just wearing a cowboy hat.”
Walker still owns 800 acres in Vidor, Texas, which is the same land that has been passed down from one generation of Walkers to another, and another 200 acres outside of Nashville, Tennessee.
He has cattle in Texas and horses on both ranches.
At least once a week he rides cutting horses and loves saddling a horse as much as he does performing on stage.
“It’s still very much a part of my life,” Walker said. “I still love roping, but PBR is something that I think anybody who likes excitement and entertainment would enjoy. I admire the athleticism and the courage that those guys have. It’s really hard staying in the center of a bull.”
Walker is certainly looking forward to performing in Vegas.
Over the years, he’s had many memorable performances – Detroit and Boise, Idaho – come to mind – but one that stands out most was at Reliant Stadium during the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo.
It was sort of a hometown venue and a childhood dream from the time his father, Clay Walker Sr., gave him his first guitar at age nine.
Years earlier, the younger Walker had written “A Cowboy’s Toughest Ride” for his father.
Three years ago, his father lie dying in a hospital. Nurses pulled the bed across the room to the window and turned the elder Walker’s head, so he could look out and see the stadium where his son was performing.
“I sang that song to my dad,” Walker recalled, “and he died just a few days later. It was special. He raised me tough.
“It was just a really great way of growing up. We weren’t wealthy. We were actually very poor, but that lifestyle shaped who I am. It shaped the songs that I had written. It shaped everything about me—my character, my respect.”
Walked added, “Being a cowboy means 100 times more today, since my dad is gone, than it did before. I just always took for granted that that’s what I am. … There’s just not a lot of them left. You realize that because there’s not a lot, you have to be a good one.”
Walker is a good one.
Earlier this year he was inducted into the Texas Cowboy Hall of Fame along with Leon Coffee, Chris Cox, Johnny Trotter and Larry Mahan, who is also a member of the PBR Ring of Honor.
Walker was honored with the annual Rick Smith Spirit of Texas Award not only for his musical accomplishments, but also for doing something cowboys do well—give back. His inclusion was to acknowledge Walker’s relentless work in raising money and awareness for Multiple Sclerosis.
He was diagnosed with M.S. in 1996 and founded his own nonprofit charity, Band Against MS, in 2003.
This month’s PBR performance will allow Walker to play two or three songs that wouldn’t ordinarily be in the set—“Long Live the Cowboy” and “A Cowboy’s Toughest Ride” among them.
“It allows me to show my roots,” he said. “I feel very comfortable in that environment and setting and always have.”
Walker concluded, “To me, the sport of rodeo and the sport of bull riding is a great way of measuring, ‘Where I am?’ As a viewer, what are you getting out of it? Yeah, it’s entertaining, but the storyline is what we love. We love to watch a comeback story or watch a rookie or (a contender) going for a title. The stories mean so much.
“In this setting, yeah, I feel all that and this is going to be a great night.”
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