Meet the Ooltewah High School alum who changed the life of 'Fancy Like' singer Walker Hayes

When country singer Walker Hayes met Craig Cooper, the singer was, by his own admission, an "alcoholic atheist."

Their wives had met and struck up a friendship while sitting in the stands at their kids' basketball games. Laura Cooper invited the Hayeses to a service in the new church plant her husband was pastoring. After forcing her husband to go, Laney Hayes drove the family there because the singer had been drinking that day.

Here's how the singer described the scene in his hit song "Craig."

I met Craig at a church called Redeeming Grace

It's like he understood my "I don't want to be here face"

I felt out of place and I smelled like beer

But he just shook my hand and said, "I'm glad you're here."

So began the unlikely friendship between the atheist and a pastor that Hayes first revealed in his song "Craig" and further expounded on in his new book co-written with Cooper, "Glad You're Here" (Moody Publishers, $16). Cooper, a former Chattanoogan, is founding pastor of Redeeming Grace Church in Franklin, Tennessee.

The book describes how the bond between these two fathers grew over six years to the point they bought houses next door to each other and tore out the fence dividing their backyards, hence the book's cover art. It's written in two first-person voices with Hayes and Cooper each describing their thoughts and perspectives on specific events in each chapter.

But most importantly, it shows the impact friendship can make. Never once judgmental or preaching, just accepting his friend and leading by example, Cooper showed his pal God's love. Four years later, the singer said, "Craig, I believe. I believe it all," in a sushi restaurant in Franklin.

"This is definitely not a one-sided relationship," Cooper stressed. "Over COVID I was struggling with anxiety, depression, failure because people were depending on me.

"I said at the table one night that I felt low. Walker said, 'We love you low.' That crushed me in the best possible way. I felt God's love and care for me in my lowest state. He's a very encouraging friend."

Long before the ubiquitous "Fancy Like" was topping country radio charts and hyping date nights at Applebee's, Hayes was a struggling artist who had been kicked down by setbacks over and over. After he lost a record deal, his van was repossessed by the dealership. He and his wife and six kids were sharing a Honda Accord and the singer writes he had "taught his kids to duck down at red lights since there weren't enough seatbelts."

(READ MORE: Country music superstar Kane Brown making his own way back home to Chattanooga)

One night after a son's baseball game, the Hayeses found Craig and Laura waiting for them in the parking lot with a van and the title ready for Walker to sign and turn over to him. Embarrassed and ashamed, the singer kept refusing until Cooper finally convinced him to accept the van by saying "Hey man, somebody did this for me once."

The song "Craig" was Hayes' thank-you. "Craig" is an emotional tale of a gift shared through God's love written by a man who was an unbeliever. In fact, Hayes said he refused to use the word God in the song. The song sparked a groundswell of "pay it forward" gifts of cars from fans to folks in need.

Country music fans knew "Craig" was a true story, but nobody knew who the benefactor was, not even the Coopers' children or other family members.

Until the book was released.

"Craig" turned out to be a former Chattanoogan who grew up in Hurricane Creek subdivision in East Brainerd and graduated from Ooltewah High School. He and his twin brother, Stu, were two of multiple valedictorians of the OHS class of 1995. Stu was senior class president, and Craig was vice president. Craig also played football and wrestled. His parents, Larry and Alice Cooper, now live in Cleveland, Tennessee.

"The song was never intended for public use," Cooper said in a telephone interview. " I didn't even tell my kids about the song until Walker's kids told them.

"I was five years into the church plant, and I was getting discouraged and starting to doubt if my ministry was making a difference in anybody's life. I asked God if my life was making a difference to anyone, and that night Walker sent me the song. When he wrote 'Craig,' I felt God singing over me through my unbelieving friend."

"Craig" was the last track added to Hayes' album that celebrated Nashville songwriter Shane McAnally was producing. As "Craig" climbed the charts and media requests were coming in to talk to the pair, Cooper maintained his anonymity. At the urging of Hayes' manager, he finally agreed to do the Bobby Bones radio show with Hayes - but only if his last name was never used. He wasn't seeking fame for his generous gift. It wasn't a look-at-me moment. He had simply helped his friend through a hard time.

A remix of the song features contemporary Christian band MercyMe on Hayes' newest album, "Country Stuff."

"The original is Walker singing as an atheist. The new version is Walker singing as a believer; it's celebratory," Cooper said.

As the book progresses, readers will discover the friends' lives had many similarities. Both lost their first jobs: Hayes' record label dropped him; Cooper's first church let him go. Both had to humble themselves and take jobs outside their career plans in order to feed their families: Hayes stocked coolers at Costco; Cooper sold cellphones in a mall. Both have large families. Both have a distinctive voice to reach people: Hayes through his music, Cooper through the pulpit.

Cooper said that although they never discussed these similarities, "I felt a kindred spirit with Walker as a companion in a broken world. I felt we understood each other as we both were pursuing our dreams.

"At one point I asked ' You don't believe in the Gospel, so why do you continue to encourage me to preach?' Walker said, 'I know you believe it, and if it is true, it's the greatest news in the world and everyone needs to hear it.'"

"Glad You're Here" has lots of humor in Hayes' outlook on life and encouragement for dads in Coopers'.

"I am so blessed to have had not a perfect dad, but an amazing one," he said. "For fathers who are feeling discouraged, for those who are mourning or longing for strength, our hope is in Jesus. If there is anybody feeling like a failure, I am too, and I hope they find comfort and strength in Christ through our words."

Email Susan Pierce at spiercentn@yahoo.com.