A performance of “Restless” by The New Nashville Cats featuring Mark O’Connor, Ricky Skaggs and Steve Wariner at the 1991 CMA Awards proved pivotal in shifting Wade Hayes’ life focus towards a career in country music. He had been signed to an independent label by his father when he was eleven, but the deal fell through when the label filed for bankruptcy.
He dropped out of college and returned to Nashville after seeing that performance and became buddies with songwriter Chick Rains, who introduced Hayes to Don Cook, primarily known at the time for producing the catalog of Brooks & Dunn. With Cook working his connections, Hayes was able to score a recording contract with Columbia Records in 1994.
With Cook in the production chair, Hayes wasted no time and had his debut album Old Enough To Know Better in stores by January 1995. The record was preceded by the title track, which Hayes co-wrote with Rains. The uptempo honky-tonk rocker is 1990s country at its finest, still relevant today and boasts a killer hook “I’m old enough to know better, but I’m still too young to care” that made me take notice instantly as a nine-year-old kid when this song came out.
Hayes hit #1 with that song, a feat he wouldn’t repeat again in his career although he would come close. The fiddle and steel drenched contemporary ballad “I’m Still Dancing With You” followed, peaking at #4. The heartbreaking tale of lost love was an excellent showcase for Hayes’ ability to show palpable emotion with his voice, a talent lost on many of his contemporaries. He would have far stronger showcases for this gift, especially as he grew into himself as an artist, but he was doing very well right out of the gate.
A second uptempo honky-tonk rocker was sent to radio in an effort to repeat the success of the title track. “Don’t Stop,” which would stall at #10, isn’t as strong or relatable as the title track and peaked about where it deserved. It’s still enjoyable to listen to today although the music video seems to have been buried in the archives somewhere out of view.
When thinking about ballads from Old Enough To Know Better, “What I Meant to Say” comes to mind a heck of a lot sooner than “I’m Still Dancing With You” and for good reason. The contemporary ballad is the better song, and while both have emotive vocal performances from Hayes, this is the more believable song. Hayes makes you feel his regret deep inside of you. The song would only peak at #5, which is a shame, as it deserved to at least reach as high as #2.
Cook, as I said, was Brooks & Dunn’s producer, the architect of their now classic sound. So I know how Hayes came to record “Steady As She Goes” although I was unaware the duo released any of their songs for other artists to record. It’s a great uptempo song with an engaging melody brimming with steel guitar. Brooks & Dunn would release their version, on a limited edition, promotional bonus disc as part of the joint marketing of their If You See Her and Reba’s If You See Him albums.
Cook co-wrote “Steady As She Goes” with Kix Brooks and Ronnie Dunn, which is another likely reason it fell into Hayes’ hands. He also co-wrote “Kentucky Bluebird,” which became the title track of the first posthumous collection of songs by Keith Whitley in 1991. It takes a lot of courage to sing a song previously recorded by Whitley, and I do think Hayes was up to the task. It also didn’t hurt he got Patty Loveless to provide pretty audible background vocals on the song.
Another song with pedigree was “Someone Had To Teach You,” a Harlan Howard co-write that found its way to George Strait on his Livin’ It Up album in 1990. It’s another phenomenal song and while both versions are excellent, I’m giving Hayes the edge. He brought an authority to it I feel Strait missed.
Howard co-wrote “Family Reunion” with Rains. The traditional ballad is a killer, with a spellbinding twist. The family reunion is reuniting a dead mother with the father of her child, who the kid tracked down at a cemetery in Denver. There’s speculation this could’ve been a true story for Rains, but I couldn’t corroborate it.
Cook was the sole writer on “Don’t Make Me Come To Tulsa.” The track fit right into the line dance craze sweeping Nashville at the time and was even given a dance remix. The song kind of reminds me of Holly Dunn’s “You Really Had Me Going.” I enjoyed it, and the lyric is good, but the whole aesthetic has lost its appeal 23 years later.
The album ends as its singles cycle began, with a collaboration between Hayes and Rains. “It’s Gonna Take a Miracle” was the third of their songs together on the record, besides the title track and “I’m Still Dancing With You.” The mid-tempo ballad follows in the high quality of the rest of the record.
I can count on one hand, with a leftover finger or two, the number of debut albums I would regard as perfect. Old Enough To Know Better is far and away one of those albums. Hayes didn’t waste any time in showcasing the wide breadth of his talents as both a vocalist and a songwriter.
So many artists, I’m specifically thinking of Clay Walker among others, have let me down with debut albums that deliver in terms of singles but fail on every other level with subpar song selections beneath the artist the singles prove them to be. Hayes far exceeded my expectations and makes me regret having purchased On A Good Night when it came out but not going back and adding Old Enough To Know Better to my collection, too.
If you’ve never heard this album or need to hear it again after all these years, I highly recommend putting aside the time to do so. You’ll be glad you did.