Song Review: Walker Hayes, “Don’t Let Her”

Apparently the best way to improve a Walker Hayes song is to remove all of the Walker Hayes from it.

Hayes has a bad habit of foisting slick, sleazy tracks onto the public (see: “You Broke Up With Me,” “90s Country”) and talk-singing his way through them like he’s doing a bad Sam Hunt impression. However, when he stops trying to hit on people and comes up with a decent story like on “Craig,” he’s surprising tolerable  as an artist, though he’s generally still a long ways from being any good. After the hit-or-mostly-miss album Boom. ran its course, however, Hayes spent some time poring over Thomas Rhett’s playbook, and has returned with a new single “Don’t Let Her” that’s (I can’t believe I’m saying this) genuinely heartfelt and endearing. Yes, there’s a fair bit of the old Hayes formula left over in the sound and delivery, but overall this is a huge step forward for one of the genre’s most polarizing artists.

The production is nothing to write home and is far more slick and sterile than it should be, but at least it sets a suitable mood and doesn’t get in the way too much. Most of the song is handled by a simple R&B-styled guitar and a drum loop (although some real drums ump in starting on the first chorus). There are some strings and synth tones that pop up in the background on the chorus and bridge, but for the most part this is a sparse, relaxed arrangement that keeps the focus on the writing without ever dragging or leaking energy. The instrument tones are generally bright here, countering the clinical feel of the drum loop and creating a relentlessly-positive atmosphere that helps the narrator shift the focus from the tragedy of their death to the greatness of their partner. No, it’s not the warmest or most sentimental mixes, but it does the job well enough to let the writing shine through.

Hayes is…well, he is what he is at this point, which is to say he’s not the most charming or charismatic vocalist in the universe (in fact, he’s one of the least effective singers I’ve heard). Just like with the production, however, Hayes does just enough to avoid getting or the way and keeps his half-talking delivery in check enough to let his songwriting do the talking. As usual, his voice has absolutely no tone and he just has to cram extra syllables into places where they don’t fit, but overall his flow is tolerable and he’s good enough of a storyteller that he’s able to avoid his usual creepy pitfalls and make his tale feel sentimental and earnest. (The writing deserves a lot of the credit here, which we’ll discuss later.) Despite his past turns as a vindictive ex or a leering should-be-an-ex, his Rhett-like fawning over and devotion to his wife are surprisingly believable, and for once he’s able to allow the listener to share in his affection. Again, it’s not the greatest performance is the world, but it’s good for what it is, and it’s a lot better than it had any right to be.

Just like on “Craig,” the writing is the real star here. The narrator finds themselves pondering what might happen if they died and left their partner alone in the world. It’s not a terribly novel idea (see: Garth Brooks’s “If Tomorrow Never Comes” or Darryl Worley’s “If Something Should Happen”), but instead of overloading on the sappy sentiment and focusing on the morbid truth of the situation, the song composes a letter to their partner’s next lover, describing all their quirks and offering advice on how to best love them. It’s the crazy details that really make this song, from the honey in the coffee (instead of the alcohol everyone else sings about) to the strict grammar rules to their love of “The Office.” Lines like “Don’t ever say she’s acting just like her mother” and those that advise this lover-to-be-named-later how to address the woman’s insecurities about her body make the characters feel more three-dimensional and thus make the song feel more real and impactful. (Also, with the narrator being dead and mostly not present in the subject matter, Hayes is somewhat blocked from letting his usual slimy persona ruin the sentiment of the track, although describing his partner not finding love again as “a waste” feels a little iffy to me.) By fleshing out this incredible character that is the woman they love, Hayes writes a song that really feels like it could be adapted to the audience: Even if the details don’t all match, enough connect to make people smile and think about the special someone in their own life.

“Don’t Let Her” is easily the best song I’ve heard from Walker Hayes, and might actually be one of the best song I’ve heard all year. Even with all of Hayes’s vocal flaws and his same-old, same-old arrangement, the lyrics are strong enough to lift the whole things and make it an enjoyable listen. While I have no doubt that Hayes will revert to his usual annoying self on his next single, but I will definitely take this one for now.

Rating: 7/10. This one’s even more unbelievable than my 7/10 on “Simple.”