'I'm the Applebee's Guy': It Took 11 Years, But Walker Hayes Finally Has a Crossover Hit

When Walker Hayes and his family of six are out and about, he’ll often put their dinner destination to a vote.

“If we’re on a road trip, I address the whole car: ‘Do you guys want Sonic, you want McDonald’s, or do you want to sit down? Hey, we could be fancy and go to Applebee’s,’” he says. “With a large family, that is quite fancy. That’s a lot of money.”

It was this idea of “fancy” that came to mind when Hayes sat down with Josh Jenkins, Cam Bartolini, and Shane Stevens earlier this year for one of their first in-person writing sessions since the pandemic began. Hayes and his collaborators had been recounting heavy stories about gratitude and grief — the Alabama native and his wife Laney had lost their seventh child at birth in 2018 — but he was also intrigued by the way fans were reacting on social media to his ordinary, unostentatious home life.

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“I’ve noticed people noticing their lives in mine,” Hayes tells Rolling Stone. “Like, ‘Hey, I drive the same Altima,’ or ‘Hey, I love how y’all live in a normal house.’ My thought process is like, ‘Where did you think we lived? I’m not Luke Bryan or anything.’”

Hayes and the songwriters ended up with “Fancy Like,” a giddy and goofy celebration of reasonably priced pleasures that has become one of the biggest country singles of 2021. It’s now spent more than 10 consecutive weeks atop Billboard’s Hot Country Songs chart and is presently at Number Five on Rolling Stone’s all-genre Top 100 Songs.

In the writers room, Hayes had the framework mapped out in an hour’s time. Later, he added acoustic guitars, a booming 808 bass drop (“I love bass. That’s all I care about,” he says), and a plethora of vocal ad libs. He was pleased with the results, but wasn’t convinced he was sitting on a hit. “I had no idea that anybody else was gonna like it, but man, I loved it,” Hayes says.

 

After more than a decade of working in and around country music, Hayes finally has a breakthrough hit — at 41 years old. Casual listeners know “Fancy Like” as the “Applebee’s song,” thanks to a nursery-rhyme chorus that prominently name-drops the casual dining establishment. “We fancy like Applebee’s on a date night/Got that Bourbon Street steak with the Oreo shake/Get some whipped cream on the top too/Two straws, one check, girl, I got you,” he sings, in a “Hokey Pokey”-like cadence. Naturally, Applebee’s embraced the song and used it in a TV ad, making “Fancy Like” all but inescapable.

But aside from the instantly memorable hook, the song’s appeal lies in the knowing way that it looks at class. Not every lyric works (there’s a line about his partner dipping Hayes like French fries in a Wendy’s Frosty that doesn’t compute), but Hayes’ assessment that working- and middle-class suburban families like his gravitate toward affordable comfort is spot on. While they might aspire to filets and champagne, the budget allows for Bourbon steaks and shakes. There’s also an inherent nostalgia in “Fancy Like,” especially for kids from small towns and suburbia who frequented Applebee’s and other easy escapes with their parents and saw a world of endless possibility when they opened the oversized menus.

Hayes’ own family played an important role in launching the song, which has provoked visceral reactions of intense dislike from some corners for sounding too much like a prepackaged commercial jingle. It’s not: “Fancy Like” originally appeared on Hayes’ 2021 Country Stuff EP, which dropped in June and included collaborations with Jake Owen and Lori McKenna. As a way to deal with Covid boredom (and extend his fanbase), Hayes and his oldest daughter, 15-year-old Lela, had been learning TikTok dances and posting them on his account. They created their own for “Fancy Like,” choreographing the moves on their modest front porch. It was an instant success.

“You could watch it in real time,” Hayes says. “You could refresh and that dance would have 5,000 more views.”

Copycat videos of people doing the “Fancy Like” dance exploded on TikTok, and the song rocketed to Number One on Apple Music’s all-genre chart. Walker wishes he could take credit for being the maestro behind the whole thing, but he was simply hanging out with his daughter.

“I wish I’d have known magic was happening, but then I think if I knew, I probably would have messed it up,” he says. “We had zero expectations. Like most artists, it’s not like I had some bangin’ tour scheduled for this fall.”

Less than a decade ago, Hayes’ music career was, to put it generously, moving slowly. He had lost his deal with Capitol Nashville and was working hourly shifts at Costco to pay the bills. His second chance came in the form of songwriter Shane McAnally, whose SmackSongs signed him and put out two volumes of his 8Tracks EPs. McAnally eventually signed Hayes to the revived Monument Records and produced his debut Boom., led by the single “You Broke Up With Me. His streaming numbers were great, but try as he might, Hayes had not been able to get past the Top 10 on country radio.

“I was in a place where I needed some music to get some traction and I wasn’t really counting on it,” Hayes says of “Fancy Like” and the dance that gave it a shot of adrenaline. “I was hoping I still had a job in the music biz and could maybe find my way on country radio pretty soon — I needed to.”

But tragedies like losing his newborn daughter had taught Hayes that putting too much stock into a plan could be foolish, and that the idea of being able to direct any of it was an illusion.

“I just really learned the futility of life and how we plan but yet we have pretty much no control over what goes on,” he says. “Case in point, ‘Fancy Like.’ I have tried really hard in this business to no avail. And I have not tried really hard, and ‘Fancy Like’ happens. There are things that are not accidents; I feel like God allows them or orchestrates them.”

Initially slow to start on country radio, “Fancy Like” is currently inside the Top 5 after only 14 weeks. Before October is over, it’ll likely have made it to Number One. The song was never a sure bet for country radio, though — with its emphasis on groove, pop production, and novelty feel, it could have been written off as too different. Even Hayes’ label had concerns.

“The first time I heard the song I was like, ‘This is Walker — it’s cute, it’s clever, it’s fun,’” says Monument VP of Promotion Luke Jensen, who joined the company in July as the song was going viral. “At that point, I was in transition moving from that job to this job and was watching myself thinking, ‘Holy crap, this feels huge but also, holy crap, radio will never play this.’”

Monument succeeded in getting some early adopters to play the song enough for it to chart, which eventually led to a new group of stations adding it to their playlists. “Fancy Like” is now accelerating at a furious pace: Last week, it made the biggest leap on the Mediabase country airplay chart since Gretchen Wilson’s “Redneck Woman” in 2004.

As it rises in popularity, other versions of “Fancy Like” have begun to appear. Latin pop performer Carin Leon hopped on for an Amazon Music remix, while pop star (and Nashville native) Kesha added a verse in another edition. “Walker was speaking straight to my heart,” Kesha said in a release. “I’ve always been more at home in a honky-tonk in my boots than on a red carpet in heels. This song took me right back to my roots. Working with him on the lyrics was so fun — getting to yell and celebrate the most magical things which are usually cheap, dirty or free.”

Advertising executives were paying attention too. Applebee’s produced an entire TV commercial around “Fancy Like” and its TikTok dance. And, in a bit of art influencing commerce, the chain brought back its Oreo shake because of the song’s popularity.

“I get a lot of hate from their waiters and waitresses. They’re like, ‘We’re breaking blenders over here making Oreo shakes,’ or ‘If I serve another Bourbon Street steak…,’” he says. “I’m like, ‘That’s good for the head honchos there! You’ve got customers, be grateful.’”

Hayes freely admits that country songwriters often drop brand names into their lyrics in hopes of sponsorship or advertising deals, but it almost never works out the way it has with “Fancy Like.” “Trust me, I’ve tried to get cars for my family by dropping Chevrolet,” he says. “The problem is most of those companies have really, really credible artists that work for them, so it’s not like they need a C-level country singer to write a song for them.”

As “Fancy Like” continues to climb at radio and new listeners discover it during commercial breaks, the question now becomes, How does Hayes follow up something that has so thoroughly saturated the culture? Simple answer, he doesn’t — though that’s a tough pill to swallow.

“It’s really hard to be OK with finishing a song and going, ‘It’s not going to do [what ‘Fancy Like’ did],’” he says. “And it won’t. There’s not even a possibility.”

His label is more bullish. “I was listening to what’s next about five minutes ago,” Jensen says, “and we’re onto something with this guy.”

Instead of worrying about a follow-up, Hayes is taking to heart the lessons he’s learned with his viral hit. In past songs, he’s offered glimpses into his personal life, including his struggles with alcoholism. “Fancy Like,” he says, increases his ability to keep doing that.

“It opens future music up for me to tell you exactly who I am,” he says. “I don’t have to dress really nice. I don’t have to act. I don’t have to pretend I’m younger than I am. I’m just a dad who happens to sing songs. That’s a really freeing space to create from. I’m just being myself. I’m the Applebee’s guy.”

He’s also determined to let his non-linear path to music success be an example for his children.

“The cultural norm of graduate and do one thing for the rest of your life is stupid,” Hayes says. “My daughter and I just learned you can make up a 30-second dance and it can change the world.”

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