Clay's Choice

Plain and simple, there's an ongoing love affair between Houston country music fans and singer Clay Walker. Friday's concert at Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion has been sold out for weeks, and his appearance at this year's Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo still has people talking. Though that event was more than six months ago, Walker is still giddy about his last visit to the Astrodome.

"That particular night was magic for me," he recalls. "There was some pressure before the show because I had never done a pay-per-view or a live TV concert. I wanted to make sure that I didn't overlook the audience in front of me [in] trying to appeal to the TV audience. So I just reversed it and thought, 'Well, these are my hometown people, and if I entertain them, then everybody else will feel like they're there as well.'

"It was just a magic night. I couldn't have written a script to make it go so well."

A native of Beaumont, Walker is one of country's newer success stories. He's sold more than six million albums so far and has had nine singles peak at number one on the country charts, starting with "What's It to You," from his self-titled 1993 debut. And while the commercial pull of Nashville can be overwhelming at times, Walker still considers this area his home. "I've always looked at Houston as a homecoming, because they've just taken me under their wing and treated me like an old son," he says. "The first time we played the rodeo was when we felt that."

Walker, 29, was the house singer at Beaumont's now-defunct Neon Armadillo bar when he was first noticed by the Nashville talent scouts. "It's under a new name now," he says of the Armadillo. "I did a couple shows a while back, one with Mark Chesnutt and one with Tracy Byrd [both also Beaumont natives]. I stayed up with each of 'em till the wee hours of the morning talking about old times."

Such bull sessions are a rarity these days, confesses Walker, especially now that stardom has caught up with all of them: "So much has been made of us three guys getting record deals and everything. [Back then], one of them would be playing at Cutter's cross-town, while I was at the Armadillo. Really, it's sad that those places aren't still there."

More unsettling is Walker's continuing struggle with multiple sclerosis, with which he was diagnosed in 1996. "It's a disease that they don't have a cure for," he says simply. "There are so many people that have it, that I never realized how many people did have it. I've met a lot of folks on the road with MS, and a lot of it is uplifting. Yeah, some of it is saddening, but there are a lot of people who give me encouragement, and I try to give them encouragement. Mainly because I feel blessed that I don't have leukemia or tumors or cancer -- something that is terminal."

Indeed, Walker's outlook on the subject of his disease is overwhelmingly optimistic: "It would be so selfish of me to feel sorry for myself or expect any kind of sympathy, because it's really been just a small bump in the road for me. I have a great doctor in Houston who's an excellent neurologist, and I'm comfortable with his prognosis that this will be manageable for me for a long time. There's no guarantees, but I just take every day one step at a time. Because, you know, we all could be gone tomorrow."

Eventually, the conversation turns to the subject of his music, and the inevitability of being viewed as just another country hunk with a decent voice and no memorable songs to call his own. It's an issue Walker thinks about often, but one that doesn't really eat at him.

"My feelings on that have kind of flip-flopped in the past five years," he says. "Before I had a record deal, I never felt like I was a great singer; I still don't feel like I'm a great singer -- more than adequate, but not necessarily in your top five or six singers. I always thought, 'Well, if I can't make it as a singer, maybe I can make it as a songwriter.' Well, now I consider myself more of a singer, because I don't have very much time to write anymore."

Then, what may be at the core of Walker's remarkable success surfaces: his uncanny knack for sniffing out a hit.

"I'm very cautious to make sure that the fans get to hear me sing the best songs that I can sing," he says. "If one of 'em is mine, then that's fine. But I never put my material ahead of great songs that I get, like 'Hypnotize the Moon,' 'This Woman and This Man' or 'You're Beginning to Get to Me.' I think that's the key to success -- not being greedy, just putting out the best song you can give radio. I don't think that singers lose their talent. There are people that you don't hear on the radio anymore. I think a lot of it has to do with not choosing the right songs."

Clay Walker performs Friday, September 4, at Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion, The Woodlands. Sold out. For info, call 629-3700.


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