Wade Hayes has built a lengthy career on writing songs that reflect his life. From his chart-topping debut single “Old Enough to Know Better,” which chronicled his early time in Nashville working construction during the day and playing bars at night, to the title track of his 2015 album Go Live Your Life, which shared his renewed appreciation for life after surviving two bouts with stage IV colon cancer, Hayes has never shied away from sharing his truth.
Hayes does that again on his new album, Who Saved Who, a 10-song collection out Friday on his own Conabor Records. The Oklahoma native has been cancer free now for nearly seven years and in January will celebrate his first anniversary with his wife, Lea. He admits these are happier days and the new music reflects it. “This album is a lot more positive than what I’ve done in the past. I am happier these days,” he tells Billboard. “I’m happily married, which I never thought that could ever happen again and it did. It feels good. I feel like life has calmed down some and I’m enjoying it.”
An avid dog lover, the album’s title track is a salute to his four-legged friend Jack, a rescue dog who was a source of comfort during Hayes’ cancer battle. “I couldn’t believe it,” Hayes says of the song’s reception. “I see grown men crying in the audience every time I do it. That song will always be very, very special to me.”
Hayes produced the album with Dave McAfee and Lonnie Wilson (George Strait’s drummer), and serves up a diverse menu of traditional country fare. “I like a lot of different types of music and different types of country,” he says. “The older I get the more I’m attracted to swing stuff, so there probably will always be a swing song on the rest of the records I make, but there are songs too like ‘Ask That Girl To Dance’ and ‘She Made it Look Easy.’”
Hayes wrote “Ask That Girl to Dance,” a poignant ballad which Billboard premieres today (Dec. 12), by himself while reflecting on things he’d learned after his health crisis. “Like the second verse says, I realized that I’m getting older and this life is flying by me and I’m just trying to take my own advice and Dr. Berlin’s advice: Go live my life and quit being so afraid of everything,” he says, referencing the advice given him by his oncologist Dr. Jordan Berlin after he beat cancer a second time.
“When I was younger, I just had zero self-confidence and didn’t think much of myself. It bothers me now that I’m older,” he shares. “Looking back, it makes me wonder what I could have done if I just had a little more self-confidence, and that was a feeling that lasted most of my life until these last few years. Looking back, I’m realizing that I wasn’t as bad or stupid or not talented—just all those negative views you have of yourself that maybe are unrealistic. I think a lot of people suffer from that problem.”
The album also includes fun up tempo numbers like opening tune “Ex Factor,” which Hayes penned with Roger Springer, and a buoyant cover of Radney Foster’s “Just Call Me Lonesome.” Hayes concludes with a country cover of “Revelation,” the chart-topping single and title track of Christian rock band Third Day’s ninth album in 2008. “I listen to gospel a lot on the radio. This song came on and it blew me away,” he says. “I loved it. It’s a great melody and not your typical sounding gospel song or gospel message. I knew I wanted to record it when I heard it for the very first time. I didn’t do the song justice. The Third Day guys that recorded it, they killed it, but we tried to do a country version with steel guitar all over it.”
“Behind This Guitar” sounds as though Hayes wrote it about his own life, but it was actually penned by Phil O’Donnell. “I did a writer’s night with him years ago. He did that song and I said, ‘Golly! Is that not me or what?’” Hayes says of the song that talks about the life of a traveling musician.
Hayes is wrapping up this year with his annual tradition of donating his time to perform for people in nursing homes and homeless shelters before he rings in 2020 with a New Year’s Eve gig at the Hurricane Creek Saloon in Melbourne, FL. In January he’ll return to StarVista’s Country Music Cruise, which departs Ft. Lauderdale Jan. 25 bound for St. Maarten, San Juan and Half Moon Cay.
“I’m thankful to still be around, and that God let me hang around to make another record,” Hayes says. “I’m very thankful that my life is calming down for a minute. I’m enjoying this moment. I’m very, very thankful to get to play music and still be alive, and that folks out there let me do this for a living.”
Listen to “Ask That Girl to Dance” below.