When Walker Hayes was a kid growing up in Mobile, Alabama, dinner at Applebee’s represented a splurge for his family — though not necessarily for every member of the family.
“My dad could get fajitas, but none of us kids could,” the country singer recalls. “We had to get, like, a quesadilla. So if you saw a couple Bourbon Street Steaks sizzle by, you were like, ‘Ooh, what’s that table celebrating tonight?’”
Decades later, Hayes — now a 41-year-old father of six himself — is the one savoring Applebee’s finest in “Fancy Like,” his chart-topping viral smash about living it up with his wife at the casual chain restaurant.
“Yeah, we fancy like Applebee’s on a date night/ Got that Bourbon Street Steak with the Oreo shake,” he sings over a low-slung 808 beat and a boot-scooting guitar lick. “Get some whipped cream on the top too/ Two straws, one check, girl I got you.”
Currently in its eighth consecutive week at No. 1 on Billboard’s Hot Country Songs tally — the second-longest run of 2021 behind Luke Combs’ “Forever After All” — “Fancy Like” took off in mid-June on TikTok when Hayes, a journeyman act with only a few modest hits to his name, posted a clip of himself dancing to the song with his 15-year-old daughter, Lela. Soon it spread to streaming platforms like Spotify (where it’s racked up more than 50 million plays) before finally landing on country radio and — hey, what do you know? — in an Applebee’s commercial that excerpts some of the countless TikTok videos inspired by Hayes’ original.
“I’ve been in Nashville for 17 years, and in the last 12 weeks my life has completely changed,” says Hayes, whose previous tunes include the nostalgic “90’s Country” and the lightly roguish “You Broke Up with Me.” “The word to describe it is ‘surreal.’”
Now he’s aiming “Fancy Like,” which just broke into the top 10 of the all-genre Hot 100, for a pop crossover with help from a remix featuring Kesha that dropped Sept. 10.
If the crossover works, “Fancy Like” will become the latest country track after Gabby Barrett’s “I Hope” and Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road” to find a place at the increasingly eclectic center of American music. Even if it doesn’t, the song’s embrace by millions of country listeners — like that of Morgan Wallen’s TikTok-powered “7 Summers” before it — has already challenged country radio’s position as the only hitmaking platform that matters in Nashville.
“Radio certainly still moves the needle,” says Jason Owen, co-president of Hayes’ label, Monument Records. “But on younger-leaning songs, discovering it via TikTok or streaming is becoming the norm.”
Last week “Fancy Like” sat at No. 19 on Billboard’s Country Airplay chart — decent, for sure, but well behind songs that have made far less of an impression in the fast-moving digital realm. Yet Owen, who also works as an artist manager for clients including Kacey Musgraves and Little Big Town, says that program directors are quickly jumping on the song now that it’s blown up elsewhere.
“It’s flying — and country radio does not fly,” Owen says. “They’ve realized they don’t want to be catching up all the time.”
For Hayes, success of whatever kind is a vindication after a long spell in which he struggled to be heard by audiences anywhere. The smooth-voiced singer was in a low place, he says, when he ran into Owen’s Monument co-president, Shane McAnally, at a smoothie shop six years ago; he’d signed and lost two record deals without much to show for it and was “working at Costco — angry alcoholic, hair to my shoulders, dip in my mouth,” as he puts it.
Hayes asked McAnally, a veteran songwriter known for his collaborations with Musgraves and Sam Hunt, if he could send him some demos; McAnally loved what he heard and told Owen, with whom he’d just teamed to launch Monument, that he’d found their flagship artist. “Then I spent the next few years feeling really frustrated,” McAnally says. “Everyone saw Walker as damaged goods.”
By the time Hayes showed up for the songwriting session where he wrote “Fancy Like,” he’d stopped trying to cater to what radio was looking for, he says. He and his co-writers — Josh Jenkins, Shane Stevens and Cameron Bartolini — sat around and talked about their lives for three hours; Jenkins used the word “fancy” at some point, which got Hayes thinking about what he calls his “strip-mall” tastes. “Then it just poured out,” he says.
McAnally was “instantly jealous” when Hayes played him the result, which ended up on a six-track EP, “Country Stuff,” that came out at the beginning of the summer.
Hayes insists he never worried that the Applebee’s shoutout — the song also mentions Wendy’s, Maybelline and Victoria’s Secret — would make him look like a corporate shill. “Those brand names, I think of them like furniture in a song,” he says. “They’re small, honest, factual details that you can put the other stuff on top of.
“Plus, is there a more sing-able word than ‘Applebee’s’ to go with that bass drop?”
Joel Yashinsky, chief marketing officer at Applebee’s, puts the name-drop in line with earlier examples by Run-D.M.C. (“My Adidas”) and Bruce Springsteen (“Cadillac Ranch”) and says “Fancy Like” presented an opportunity to tie into a popular song that “matches our brand essence.” Which is? “We’re a place where everyday people can come in their jeans and be comfortable and take a break from the day,” the executive says.
The commercial, which Ad Age recently reported was running more than 100 times a day on national television, calls to mind last year’s viral “Dreams” craze in which TikTok users filmed themselves drinking Ocean Spray juice to the sound of Fleetwood Mac’s late-’70s soft-rock classic.
“Brands are letting TikTok do the marketing for them,” says Andrew Hampp, a music marketing consultant with Berkeley-based 1803 LLC. Yashinsky declined to say how much Applebee’s paid Hayes to use his song; Hampp estimated the deal to be worth low six figures.
Beyond that, of course, lies the problem of a proper followup single, which already has McAnally worried. “People are rooting for Walker, but this town only wants you to have so much,” he says. “Everyone’s saying, ‘We’ve known him for years and this is one thing that’s popped.’”
Hayes, whose EP balances the genial good-times stuff with more introspective storytelling, feels the pressure too, though he’s been working on a new song he thinks might capture a bit more of the quirky charm that’s attracted folks to “Fancy Like.”
“I used a new word in it — ‘ashtray full of ciga-regrets,’” he says proudly. “To me that’s next-level.”