More than a decade after Clay Walker was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, his voice sounds stronger than ever on his first new studio album in four years.
The country singer’s “Fall,” filled with twangy honky-tonk songs and ballads that test his range, was released this week. The CD’s disturbingly funny “’Fore She Was Mama,” in which a 10-year-old discovers old photos of his mother’s bikini-clad partying days, is already a hit.
The album also includes a duet with the late Freddy Fender on his classic “Before the Next Teardrop Falls,” in which Walker croons in Spanish. He began learning the language four years ago.
“That will always be his song, but there was total magic in the studio ...,” he said in a recent phone interview. “He put his hand on my shoulder and said he had been asked to do it hundreds of time but had never done it, but that he felt that this was the right moment. ... It was the last song he ever recorded, so I’m proud to be part of his legacy.”
The duet — Walker’s first — was recorded last year. Fender, who was diagnosed with lung cancer in early 2006, died in October.
Walker, whose long string of hits include “If I Could Make a Living” and “Rumor Has It,” acknowledged an uncomfortable lapse of time between releases. “A Few Questions” came out on RCA in 2003. His six earlier albums were all on Giant Records, but “Fall” marks his Curb debut.
“Yeah, I think it was too long. There was a lot of red tape leaving one record label and going to another one. It was a process that was excruciating,” he said.
The black-hatted singer, who stays active by riding cutting horses and playing basketball, said his illness has not affected his work. He boasts never missing a show due to MS (or any other reason).
“It used to be a death sentence,” Walker, 37, said. “I’m living proof you can manage the disease.”
Some patients, including Walker, have “relapsing-remitting MS,” periods of severe symptoms after which patients almost totally recover until the next attack.
“I would say, if anything else, it has inspired me to want to do more,” said Walker, who started the nonprofit Band Against MS Foundation in 2002 to raise money for research.
Walker, who grew up in southeast Texas and lives in Houston, got his start on the honky-tonk circuit before his first single, “What’s It to You,” hit No. 1 in 1993. Since then, he’s sold eight million albums and has had 11 No. 1 country hits.
He likes the sound of his latest release. It seemingly includes something for everyone, including the heart-tugging “It Ain’t Pretty (but It’s Beautiful)” and Walker’s playful “She Likes It in the Morning.”
He said “’Fore She Was Mama” — in which the family matriarch won’t admit to having smoked marijuana — elicits a strong response on the road.
“It’s great when a song can be humorous without being hokey, and the writers made a good country song without it being a novelty,” he said. “Anytime we do it, it gets a huge reaction. I think a lot of moms are looking in the rearview mirror saying, ‘I hope the kids aren’t looking at my face right now, because I’m blushing.’ ”