Country star Walker Hayes is surprised to be earning the Sync of the Year award from Variety for “Fancy Like,” as part of this year’s Hitmakers event. But that’s only because he’s still a little surprised at having even gotten an advertising sync with the song, period.
That he just backed into this might be hard to believe for anyone who’s heard the song’s infectious callout to Applebee’s, and especially if you’ve seen the ad campaign the restaurant chain put together around the country smash. But he swears landing a commercial tie-in for the song was not even on his mind when he came up with it… and not because he was generally naive about licensing potential. “A lot of publishers had just felt strongly that my vibe belonged in that sync land,” he says, “and I’ve even gone to sync conferences and panels where they try to help you guide you on getting syncs.” No commercial or film placement ever came of those efforts. “Honestly, I quit going to them because I was like, man, nobody goes to Nashville for syncs. How many times do you get a sync person saying, ‘Give me something mainstream-country for this ad?'”
And then “Fancy” happened… the year’s most out-of-nowhere country smash, an irresistible song about how, when an average couple of family is looking to live it up for a night of fine-dining, Applebee’s is a giant step up from a drive-through. (Sample lyrics: “Take her to Wendy’s / Can’t keep her off me / She wanna dip me like them fries in her Frosty / But every now and then when I get paid / I gotta spoil my baby with an upgrade / Yeah, we fancy-like, Applebee’s on a date night / Got that Bourbon Street steak with the Oreo shake…”)
The chain naturally took an interest in what, at the time, was the best free advertising anyone could have possibly asked for, and they struck a deal with Hayes to put together a commercial. Says Shane McAnally, Hayes’ executive producer and also one of his label chiefs at Monument Records (alongside Jason Owen): “I’ve seen and heard so many people talking about: How did a commercial become a hit? When it was really that they came to us after the song was already taking off.”
At the point at which “Fancy Like” started to break through, Hayes was the kind of artist who you might consider as being on the bubble, in terms of being a true, ongoing country star. Yes, he’d accumulated an avid fan base since putting his first record out in 2010, and he’d even cracked the top 10 once (with “You Broke Up With Me” in 2017) — almost everyone who follows the genre knew his name. But chances of making the big leap and becoming a mainstay were diminishing, as they would be for anyone who’d grabbed for the brass ring and narrowly missed it with so many singles.
Says McAnally, “We’ve put out a few things that were really strong that didn’t get it done. I think programmers were a bit numb to him, and even when we went out and played ‘Fancy Like’ for some people before the TikTok thing happened, I got the response that was sort of: ‘Yeah… that’s Walker.’ He’s made so many friends out there at radio that I think a lot of people really wanted to play him, but they couldn’t figure out where to put him, because his songs are so different. And having gone to radio with Walker so many times and hit wall after wall, I said to our team: This song scares me. And the reason is because if we can’t make this one happen, I don’t know that it’s going to happen.”
But the masses heard in the song what those programmers initially didn’t. And it couldn’t have been more immediate. Another song from his EP, called “Country Stuff,” had gone out as a teaser track, with plans to go after “Fancy Like” later. But a programmer at SiriusXM’s The Highway, J.R. Schumann, heard “Fancy Like” and immediately took that preview song off the air and started playing what he considered to be the obvious smash instead, which suggested that something was strongly afoot.
Then, Hayes and his 15-year-old daughter Lila (one of the family’s six kids), who often teamed up to do dance TikToks for his songs, gave this track that treatment, too. “I went for a run right after we posted it — I probably run 25 minutes, 30 at the most — and when I got home, I was like, ‘Oh, check it out, Lila, we got 6000 views.’ And she was like, ‘Dad, that says 600,000.’”
It exploded, and as of the third week of November, more than 880,000 different TikTok videos had been created using the tune. Off that platform, the success has translated to 100 million Spotify streams and more than 50 million YouTube views of the original music video, among other stats.
The ad campaign was a very beneficial afterthought. “The song was out long enough where you could feel people saying, ‘You’ve got to do something with Applebee’s.’ and I’m sure Applebee’s could feel people saying, ‘You gotta do something with Walker.’ When we did it, it’s almost like we scored a touchdown, and the crowd went wild. it was more me and Applebee’s having fun with the momentum that already existed, as opposed to, ‘Hey, let’s, let’s cultivate something and manipulate people into going to Applebee’s.’”
As for the appeal of the song, which turned into an unlikely crossover hit on AC and Top 40 formats? “Some lady on socials said, ‘My husband doesn’t really like country music, but he loves this song, because he says, “It’s a love song for everybody with a mortgage and kids.”’ And I was like, there it is, man.”
Is there a lesson in this for other singers and songwriters? Hayes admits it may be too much of an anomaly from which to take an easy or repeatable lesson. “I wish I could give you the eight steps to how ‘Fancy Like’ happens, but that’s not the nature of this beast,” he says. “It’s kind of baffling to be a part of something and go, ‘Yeah, it happened, but I don’t know the formula.’ It’s not ‘Go to undergrad four years, go to med school four years, go to residency and bam, you’re a surgeon and you save somebody’s life.’ In music, you just keep playing the game, and all of a sudden, one day the world is kind of moved by this dance and this song, and chances were very, very slim that this would ever happens.
“Man, it’s a lot to process. I don’t know if I’ll ever do it again, but we did it. I’ve been at this 17 years. That’s pretty much the exact time it took for something like this to happen. And I would have been fine had it never happened. I mean, I love my job; I’ll write songs forever, whether I get paid to write them or not. It’s my favorite thing to do. But it’s not lost on me that this is impossible. Truly, what is happening right now is this song is like a massive horse with wings, and we’re literally like clinging to its feathers and holding on for dear life.”
The pop crossover factor is ironic, “because when we put this out, we considered this one of the more country things that I’ve ever done, and never, never had any ambition (to get on pop or AC charts), and nothing on the horizon or in our history told us that this would cross over. Every chart that this pops on, our minds are blown by the artists that it’s rubbing elbows with. And I’m always like, man, I wonder what Ed Sheeran and Adele and all those people are thinking when they’re (looking at who they’re juxtaposed with) and going ‘What is this song that won’t go away? … Walker who?'”
Hayes knows that some of his contemporaries are behind him, just for how it exploded out of pure, populist love for the song among fans that had little to do initially with any gatekeepers. “I think we have a lot of people rooting for us,” he says, “because lthe norm is, you release a song that maybe isn’t your favorite song, but you think it plays the game well, so you put it out there. And you’re not surprised that the reaction is lackluster, but you agree that it’s safe and that it’s not polarizing. And then it hits radio and again, it’s vanilla — but no one changes the station, they just leave it on. Do they stream the song? Not really. And then you sit and you wait for 50 weeks and you get a No. 1 and everybody cheers, but you know what it took to get there. You know it was a political process and product. It wasn’t the public driving the train, responding to something great. You hit a bullseye, and the bullseye was the perfect level of mediocrity.
“But this song just blew all the walls down. The public spoke, and the audience was massive before it even hit radio. And there was not a lot of manipulation behind the song’s performance on the charts. You could tell that this song defeated some things that the artists are up against. And I think that’s why, even though there are many, many artists and songwriters that can out-write this song all day, the artist community is so behind the song, is that they would love for this to be able to happen more often.”
Somewhat puzzlingly, to some, “Fancy Like” didn’t immediately take off at country radio even after it exploded in the world of social media, memes and streams. Hayes and McAnally believe that just made some programmers suspicious… that if it was this cross-demographic of a social smash, it was really a passing fad that wasn’t for their core listeners or, worse, might be over by the time they upped it in rotation in the format’s typically slow-moving churn.
“I think everybody in the world, not just country radio, but everybody who’s a gatekeeper, wondered, with the nature of how it blew up and the speed at which it did: Is this for real?” says Hayes. “People kind of looked at it as still an adventurous play, like, ‘Am I going to be the first station to put this in medium?'” It took a bit, but eventually they all got the memo. (Or almost all; in the end, there were still three reporting country stations out of 159 that stuck to their guns and refused to add it even after it became a country airplay No. 1.)
Says McAnally, “It’s so fun when a legitimate hit grows out of something (outside the norm), and radio or DSPs or whoever go, ‘Oh, we have to pay attention.’ People just had to be sort of rattled into going, ‘Oh, people are connecting to this.’ I think it was going to be a smash either way. It obviously had the follow-through. But the TikTok thing is really what propped it up.”
The song hardly needed a remix for a boost, but it got one anyway, as a duet was crafted with pop star Kesha adding a duet part and co-starring in a new video. Kesha added the name of yet another restaurant chain in her verse, and while there was a bit of worry that Applebee’s — which by now had licensed the song for a commercial— might be jealous, no one took that concern too seriously.
“When we did the Kesha feature,” says McAnally, “she had written a verse that mentioned Waffle House in it. And I remember saying, ‘Is that going to make Applebee’s mad?’ And then someone else said, ‘Well, we already talked about Wendy’s.’ And I went, ‘Oh, true.'”
Meanwhile, for anyone who thinks hit songs don’t have real-life consequences, consider this: One of the key lines in “Fancy Like” mentions an Oreo shake — and that’s something Applebee’s had taken off the menu. Hayes didn’t know that at the time, because his local affiliate still had the ingredients on hand and was still taking orders for them. In any case, you can guess the rest. Oreo shakes are very much back, chain-wide, and probably for good — or for at least as long as “Fancy Like” remains a country radio recurrent, which may be the rest of our lifetimes.
“Honestly, this sounds silly,” says Hayes, “but that is one of my favorite things — that I’m a part of a song that changed a menu. I may not be able to change the world, but I changed a massive food chain’s menu.”
And yes, he’s still a patron, although crowd control can be a problem now. “There’s a picture of my wife and me laminated on every table at Applebee’s around the country. We steal ‘em every time we go there — maybe we’ll get in trouble one day.”