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Interview: Clay Walker on His Battle with MS & His ‘Fresh’ New Music on the Way

Clay Walker burst onto the mainstream country scene in 1993 with his debut single and No. 1 hit, “What’s It to You.” In his early 20s at the time, Walker’s career and life were on the upswing. Three years, later everything changed when he was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis — and given a death sentence by his doctor. Walker would not only successfully fight it (and release 10 albums along the way), he would dedicate his life to helping others with the disease through his own non-profit funding MS research and education, Band Against MS.

“A lot of people say the human spirit is stronger than diagnosis or prognosis — I still believe that,” he tells Radio.com. “I refuse to buy into the concept that because I had MS that my life would be less fulfilling.”

We spoke with Walker about his foundation, his battle with MS, and when we can expect new very “contemporary” music from him. “It’s as new and fresh as ‘What’s It to You’ was back then,” he touted.

Radio.com: You were honored last night for Can Do MS’s 28th Annual Autumn Benefit. Can you tell us what made you decide to start your foundation, Band Against MS?

Clay Walker: Being honored was a surprise and I feel honored that they selected me. Can Do has a lot of the same philosophy and the same mission that we do with our charity, Band Against MS. I was asked a question the other day that really allowed me to define the essence of MS. The question I was asked was, “What about MS is it that might surprise people, who don’t know anything about MS?” I’d never been asked that question and my answer was people cannot imagine how hard it is, how difficult it is just to walk. To do the simplest task. A lot of us, like myself, make it look pretty normal. It is a huge struggle because you literally have to think about making your legs move.

If you’re not in a wheelchair people don’t see that struggle. That’s why Can Do, in my opinion is a much needed organization. They have several programs based within their charity which are designed to empower people to move and to learn how to live again. And learn how to live with power with MS. Most people who have MS and are not doing very well and feel defeated. The ones who are not defeated are battling it every single day. MS does not come with a manual. I feel that organizations like Can Do are providing crucial information for people that struggle with the disease every day. I’m honored to be part of their cause.

At 26 you were diagnosed with MS and your doctor gave you a death sentence. What has kept you pursuing music despite all that?

A lot of people say the human spirit is stronger than diagnosis or prognosis. I still believe that. The most important thing I feel a person is born with is the will to live. We’re all born with that. I refuse to buy into the concept that because I had MS that my life would be less fulfilling. Your life can be even more fulfilling because you now have a cause. We all have a cause, it just takes some of us a long time to find it. Those who have MS are more acutely aware of it.

How has your battle with MS filtered into your music? Have you written any songs about your struggle?

Oddly enough I don’t know if I’ve subconsciously avoided it or if it’s just always been there in the music. I’ve never consciously gone after a song. Maybe I felt like it’d be too self-serving. Maybe it’s time now. Now that I have adjusted and feel “empowered” maybe I should do that.

You’ve just started working on new music. Can you give us a preview of what’s to come?

The best way to describe the music I’m looking at recording right now is that it’s very contemporary. Lyrically, it’s as strong or stronger than anything I’ve recorded before. That’s imperative, especially for an artist who has had hits. The new music has a very youthful vibe to it.

When “What’s It to You” came out in 1993, that song had so much youth to it. It was so cutting edge. There was nothing on the radio that even resembled it, and I believe that’s why that song was a No. 1 that kickstarted my career. The music that I’m getting ready to record has that same power, not by design. It’s just there. It’s music I’m gravitating to. It’s as new and fresh as “What’s It to You” was back then.

When can we expect a new single?

We will without any question have a single out in the first quarter of next year, very possibly January. But no later than the first quarter. It will be out. This is the first time I’ve said this. We have four songs that are contenders for the first single. I’d rather not say the title. I don’t want to take any of the excitement off of the release of it.

Is there a song that means more to you now than when you first recorded it?

A song that Tony Arata — who penned “The Dance” for Garth Brooks and some others — wrote for me, called “Dreaming with My Eyes Open.” It was on my first record and it was a No. 1 hit for us, and it was also the most-played [country] song of the year when it came out. Back then, the real reason I cut the song was because it was going to be the title track to a movie that came out that River Phoenix was in called The Thing Called Love. That’s why I cut it, to be part of the film. As I sang that song through the years it has grown deeper. The lyric of that [song] is probably one of the deepest lyrics I’ve ever heard.

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