Night crept toward morning in the Texas hill country, and Clay Walker's tour bus hummed softly, its darkened windows reflecting folks who were slowly-reluctantly-putting an end to a night of revelry in the adjacent rodeo arena. A yellow moon teased from behind the clouds now and again, and a nearby fire pit seemed to energize a silly gaggle of kids despite the late hour.
For Walker-music star, Texan, budding roper-this must have been the end of a perfect day. After spending his night singing to and laughing and dancing with a clearly appreciative crowd, he sat in his bus-snuggly parked next to a rodeo arena-and talked about another of his great passions: roping.
For a singer who loves roping, this had to be at least pretty close to as good as it gets. Walker was feeling especially blessed on this night, and why not? He had performed for nearly two hours only minutes from his future home, and now he sat in a leather chair on his bus, chewing the fat about roping, golf and growing up on a farm in south Texas.
It was nearing midnight, and Clay Walker was wide awake.
The 37-year-old has had his share of good days since growing up as the oldest of five children in Beaumont, Texas, and certainly this was one of them. He had just performed as part of the grand opening of the real estate development Estancia at Thunder Valley in Boerne, where the 1st Annual Rich Skelton Team Roping would be held the following day. He was surrounded not by music critics or media photographers, but rather by the people around whom he seems most comfortable: his family, his friends and dozens of the greatest ropers in the world.
"I love being here," said Walker, his black hair still sweating after the raucous set. "I'm from Beaumont, but I love this part of Texas."
And clearly he enjoys being in the realm of ropers. But before he linked into the world of rodeo, Walker staked his claim to a dream that was born soon after his dad placed a guitar in his hand at the age of nine. He's the first to admit that he's not riding around in the tour bus-graced with leather chairs and a flat-screen television-because of his roping skills.
No, Walker sits in the bus because of his music. After graduating from Vidor High School in 1987, he began his trek to stardom in the tradition of his fellow Beaumont native and country music legend, George Jones. He wrote songs and played his guitar in local clubs, and worked plenty of honky tonks in Oklahoma, Arkansas, Louisiana and various parts of Texas.
He ultimately became the top draw for Beaumont's club, Neon Armadillo, where he was seen by producer James Stroud, who ultimately helped Walker gain a contract with Giant Records. His debut album went gold, then platinum, featuring his number one hit, "What's it to You."
His second album became a top seller as well, with videos that placed in the top 10 on Country Music Television and CMT Europe. Neon Armadillo was a long way away. He scored big with "Live Until I Die" and "Where Do I Find the Picture?," and in 1993 he was named Top New Artist by Radio and Records.
He has been described as "tireless" and "energetic," and both adjectives fit him well. His seventh album, "A Few Questions," included another single (by the same title) that landed in the Top 20. The second single released from the album, "I Can't Sleep," soared into the Top 10.
But though his life and career have obviously risen to great heights, he has also experienced great lows both professionally and personally, giving him some perspective that will serve him well as he matures as a roper. Having been with the Giant record label his entire career, his album "Say No More," had been released for only two weeks before the label folder.
Personally, he was rocked with his diagnosis of multiple sclerosis in 1996. In 2003, he founded the Band Against MS Foundation, a non-profit organization that raises money for research into a cure for the disease. The University of Texas Medical Center in Houston received a $150,000 grant from the foundation. In 2004, he performed in a 15-city "MS Road Trip" to bring awareness to the disease, and to raise even more money for research.
The disease is now in remission with Walker, yet another reason for the joy he obviously felt in Boerne. A physically active man, Walker stubbornly refuses to yield to the disease, and might love golf as much or more than roping. And he quickly-and easily-compares the two sports.
"You know, I love golf, and roping is a lot like golf," Walker says. "It can be so frustrating. The last time I roped, the horse would put me in perfect position, and I would just flat-out miss. When you aren't doing well, it's more frustrating than fun, and that's exactly the same thing with golf.
"With golf, I was a 15-handicap with a homemade swing. But I worked with a guy, a great teacher, and he had me down into single digits real fast. But he told me, 'You have to forget everything you thought you knew about the golf swing.' So he broke me down, re-taught me, and now when I'm in some pro-ams, the T.V. guys will break down my swing because I'm improved so much."
He's hoping to have the same success with roping, though he's also realistic enough to know that becoming a top-notch roper takes more than simply getting good teaching. To say the very least, Walker is hanging around the right people, in regards to roping.
He counts singer/roper George Strait among his good friends, and has also spent time getting to know-and watching-a number of other roping talents. The roping bug bit him early, and it continues to trail him, to call to him, especially when he is on the road.
"Some friends of mine roped, and I just enjoyed it," Walker says. "The first winter we were in Hempstead, we stuck some horns in a hay bail and just roped, starting from the ground up. I always had horses. I grew up on a farm in Beaumont, and we always were playing around with goats and sheep when I was a kid."
He's wanting to increase his roping time now, no easy task for a performer with label commitments, fans to see and songs to sing.
"When I met Joe Beaver, that really made me want to start doing it more and more," Walker says. "With the music business, and being on the road, I haven't been able to spend the time with it that I'd like. But I've built a good arena, and I'm passionate about it.
"And I feel like I'm pretty good at it, though I'm not nearly as good as George. I've watched the last couple of NFRs from George's box, and I've just loved it. And there are so many good people involved in roping. Matt Tyler is just a wonderful human being, and I've enjoyed getting to know Rich (Skelton) and Speed (Williams)."
Roping, and rodeo, has been and will continue to be a big part of Walker's life.
"I'm a huge rodeo fan," Walker says, stating the blatantly obvious. "There are really just two sites that I go to when I'm on the compute-the ESPN ProRodeo site and the PGA golf site. I love them both. And I'm a big tie-down roping fan, too. Cody Ohl, Trevor Brazile, Roy Cooper…I just think the world of all of those guys. And Joe, he's such a good man."
In addition to his time constraints, Walker is also handcuffed by horse limitations.
"I lost my roping horse, Brandy, a couple of years ago, and I've been on the road quite a bit," Walker said. "I'm so competitive that I want to make sure I get a horse that will work for me, so I've had some time off from roping. Plus, I got my arm hung in a coil, so that was kind of scary. I'm just not going to rope with any horse, and a good roping horse is hard to find.
"The lifestyle just makes roping so hard," says Walker, who also likes to play pick-up basketball. "But there will come a time when I'll be able to settle down and do more of the things I want to do. I want to spend time with roping, really lay a foundation and build good skills. You can get into so many bad habits, and that's the last thing you want to do. The last few times I've roped, it just hasn't gone well, and I don't want to get into any bad habits."
So now Walker will slowly "re-introduce" himself to the sport, at a pace that will ensure success. There will come a time, after all, when he'll want to park the tour bus a little more often. He'll want to get off the stage for awhile, off the road and out from in front of the crowd. He'll want to come home.
When that time comes, he'll be here, in Central Texas. He'll be the small, yet strong, man on the back of a good roping horse, running steers. And instead of a guitar or a microphone-or a Sharpie-he'll have a rope in his hand.
And a smile on his face.
"I need to start all over, break down my mechanics, get a good horse and practice," Walker says. "Now, instead of getting frustrated, I'm going into it with my mind fresh, and that'll give me more happiness than just trying to fit roping into my schedule, then end up getting frustrated because I'm not giving it the time it deserves.
"The first time I roped was probably 12 years ago, and I was foolish enough to think that it would be easier than it turned out to be. I'm looking forward to getting back to roping a lot more often. And I'm so competitive…I want to do it the right way."