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Clay Walker is a man on a mission. And that mission is to raise awareness and funds to battle multiple sclerosis.
The country music entertainer, who has sold more than 11 million albums during the course of his 18-year career, was diagnosed with the disease in 1996, and since that time has raised more than $2 million through his Band Against MS nonprofit foundation.
“A lot of people suffer with this disease,” Walker said in a recent interview. “There are some 500,000 people in the U.S. alone. That’s not as huge a number as cancer or AIDS, but it’s a definite problem that it has not been brought to the forefront. We’d be a lot closer to a cure if there were more awareness.”
Walker has been in remission for the past 13 years and still records and tours around the country. In fact, his single “She Won’t Be Lonely Long” reached the top five on the Billboard charts last year, and he’s currently working on a greatest hits album expected to be released in 2012.
Once he went public with his diagnosis, he admitted that “a lot of people in country music radio had written me off, and I didn’t expect that kind of response. But I’ve never missed a tour date and I’m in great health. A lot of people with MS are in wheelchairs, but I walked to this interview. I still golf, ride horses, tour. There’s a positive message here.”
Unlike others who might have kept the diagnosis secret so as not to jeopardize their singing careers, Walker was up front about it immediately. “Being someone with some celebrity, I felt it was important to use that,” he said. “A lot of people who have this don’t even know it.”
When Walker first started experiencing numbness in his arm, he thought it was just a pinched nerve. But when the symptoms didn’t go away, he sought medical advice. A top neurologist in Houston said there was no treatment for the disease and they were just going to observe him. But Walker did his own research and found that a new medication, Copaxone, had just been approved that was effective in reducing MS attacks. He switched doctors and now the daily injection regime has put Walker’s symptoms into remission. “I had many lesions and I was not supposed to do well, according to medical science,” he said. “So I want to make sure people know it can be managed. I’m living proof of that.”
He also knows firsthand the psychological effects of having a life-threatening illness. “I know about depression,” he said. “I know the dark place you can get in. It’s not healthy to stay there. But giving MS a voice has been uplifting. It has changed my life being able to speak out.”
While spreading the message about MS has become his life’s work, Walker is still active in the music industry. And he acknowledges that it’s a different business than when he started out.
“The most important thing for any artist is great songs,” he said. In the past, many singers would put two great songs and eight mediocre ones on their albums, but with the proliferation of iTunes and people only downloading the songs they like, “it puts a whole lot more pressure on the artist and the industry to just put out great art. And I’m a big fan of that.”
Although it takes longer to make an album, the end result is much stronger, he believes. “Great songs don’t come in groups.”
So Walker is working with Nashville veterans Paul Overstreet and Rivers Rutherford on some “traditional and bluesy” songs that are expected to be part of his next album. He’s also putting the finishing touches on his greatest hits package that he recorded with his road band. “Most of my band members have been with me for 15 years. I think there’s real magic there.”
In addition to a musician and singer — he has four platinum and two gold albums and 11 number-one singles — Walker is a snappy dresser. He credits his wife Jessica, a former model, with getting him in Tom Ford, Versace and other high-end designer brands