Clay Walker grew up in rural Southeast Texas in an extended family of musicians; he learned to play guitar at 9 and, at 13, got a standing ovation at a high school talent contest for his rendition of Lionel Richie’s “All Night Long.” At 17, he wrote his first song, “Live Until I Die,” which he describes as “an autobiography put to music.”
The summer after high school graduation, Walker decided to put everything he had into pursuing his dream of becoming a country music star. He bought a day planner and plotted the steps he would take over the next five years, with the culmination being a hoped-for record deal.
“I mapped out precisely how I would get to the release of my first album, right down to the kinds of clothes my band would wear,” Walker tells SUCCESS. He went over the ratio of original music to cover tunes they would play, the type of venues where they would perform and how they would progress over time.
In 1992, four years later, James Stroud, a record producer and president of what was then Giant Records, saw 22-year-old Walker and his band at a gig. Stroud walked out after hearing a few songs, looking unimpressed. Walker wasn’t about to let him get away without talking to him. “I finished the last song, chased Stroud to his limousine and asked him if everything was OK. He said yes and that he would see me in a couple of weeks to start recording an album.”
Walker’s self-titled debut album produced five hit singles, including that first song he wrote, “Live Until I Die.” Since then, Walker has released 13 albums, the first four achieving platinum status. Two have reached the gold level of certification. His fourteenth work, She Won’t Be Lonely Long, was released in June.
“My mother still has the day planner and is amazed how every detail came to pass exactly as I had written,” says Walker, now 41. Although hard work, persistence and a positive attitude contributed to his success, Walker is quick to say, “If you can’t see it, you can’t be it.”
Not only did he visualize his dream, but he also wrote it down and referred to it often, giving it additional life.
“I came from a poor family, and that poverty acted as my motivation to find a different way. Some people are happy with a little, but those who are not have the power to achieve all they can envision,” Walker says.
“I purposefully strived to become what I wanted to be. Then, when opportunity presented itself, my band and I were prepared, polished and ready.”
As Walker’s music was topping the charts, something happened that he never would have scheduled or planned; in 1996, he was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. His immediate reaction was shock and disbelief. He told the doctor he must have the wrong medical charts. “I really couldn’t accept it. Everything felt like it was moving in slow motion. Then I prayed with the heart of a sincere, humble and broken man.”
After a couple of weeks spent coming to terms with the news, Walker steadied himself and regained his fighting spirit. “No matter what I have had to face in life, I do it with a positive attitude,” he says. “I deal with adversity head-on and don’t hide from it.”
He studied everything he could find about the disease, found the best MS research doctor and mapped out a plan. “When hit with the things in life that we cannot control, it is important to remember the one thing we can control—our attitude,” he says.
Walker finds it humorous that so many people tend to feel they’re in control of things, possibly because of their financial status or position. “The closest thing to me is my flesh, and I have absolutely no control over it,” he says. “Feeling like we are in control is an illusion.”
But that doesn’t mean Walker plans to let the disease control his life. Just as he plotted out his career success and took steps to make that happen, he’s determined to do what he can to raise awareness of MS, money for research and hope for others with the disease.
In 2003, Walker founded Band Against MS (BAMS), a not-for-profit organization committed to encouraging those with MS to work with their doctors finding appropriate treatment and management of the disease; funding research that seeks a cure for MS; and providing support for programs that offer assistance to those with MS. “Band Against MS has done very well in reaching its objectives and will continue to help many people in their fight,” Walker says.
As a result of his efforts on behalf of those with MS, Walker has caught the attention of several groups, including the Country Radio Broadcasters. In 2008, Walker was honored with the organization’s annual Artist Humanitarian Award. He is also the recipient of the 2009 Hope Award, the most prestigious award given by the National Multiple Sclerosis Society.
When asked what it’s like for the public to be aware of his personal struggles with his health, he admits it used to bother him. “The biggest frustration was the false information that seemed to fly everywhere,” he says. “It was also surprising to discover that the music industry assumed I would walk away from my career.”
They obviously did not know Clay Walker. Not only would he not quit, but he would continue with dogged determination.
He has since recorded several hit songs and successful albums in addition to starting BAMS. Walker’s message to people facing debilitating disease is to stand on the foundation they have built throughout life. “There is no diagnosis that has to destroy you. Your faith and inner strength are there for you to fall on,” he says. “If your foundation is weak, it is never too late to start building it and become the strong person you were created to be.”
For Walker, family is a top priority, providing strength and helping to keep him grounded. “My wife and I start each day with focused time together and end each day with having dinner with the family whenever possible. If I am watching TV and my wife or kids walk into the room and they want to talk, the TV goes off. They know where they stand,” he says. “What you prioritize will shape your future.”
Through his own determination to shape his future, Walker has inspired others to face life head-on. “I am at the best place in my life right now, and I feel healthier than ever.