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October 16, 2018

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Courageous cowboy

Strummin', struttin' and survivin', country music star Clay Walker belts out hit tunes while keeping a debilitating disease at bay. But that ain't nothin' to this good-natured Texas boy who takes it all in stride.

The four-time platinum country crooner performs at 10:30 p.m. Thursday and Friday in the Bellagio Ballroom. A third performance is closed to the public. Walker's Las Vegas performances coincide with the 41st National Finals Rodeo.

Along with his hit singles, soaring popularity and sold-out shows, Walker, 29, has found a way to balance his success, family and living with multiple sclerosis, a degenerative disease that affects the central nervous system. He was diagnosed in 1996.

His latest album, "Live, Laugh, Love," which came out in August, has received rave reviews, and the title single just hit Billboard's country music chart's Top 20. Walker strays from what he has called in past interviews "cowboy songs" by introducing a little Latin influence in that song.

In "Live, Laugh, Love," Walker enjoys a bit of humor compared with the serious tone of his past ballads.

"For every album that you do, you look for 10 songs that are good songs, that are different from each other," Walker says during a phone conversation from his ranch in Behman, Texas.

The words in the song's title really fit what's going on in his life right now, he says.

"I don't think there are many things more important than those," Walker says. "Life gets complicated enough because we allow it to."

MS has been more of a blessing than a curse, he says. It's simply easier to be happy than to wake up mad at the world.

Months before he sought medical attention, Walker thought he was injured: a kink here or a spasm there that needed to be set straight.

"I had symptoms, quite a few actually," Walker says. "I thought it was a pinched nerve in my neck because I had a loss of feeling in my right arm from my elbow to my hand. My right leg was weak."

But it didn't go away.

"Probably the thing that triggered me going to the doctor was a loss of balance," Walker says.

One of the more visible signs that worried Walker was a facial spasm -- also on his right side.

A brain scan showed it was more than a pinched nerve. Walker's physician thought it could be one of three things, none of them good. Walker was told it was either hardening of the arteries into his brain, which is fatal; a virus in the brain, again fatal; or multiple sclerosis, which can be managed.

"The MS looked really good at that point," Walker says with a laugh.

Since the diagnosis, Walker says no scarring of his brain or tissue has occured. He is in remission, and the constant monitoring, medications and faith have kept the illness under control, he says.

Infrequent naps are Walker's only true concession to the disease. A weekly shot of Avonex, a neurological drug, quells attacks and decreases visible symptoms.

"I pray a lot," Walker says. "I thank God every day that I'm able to walk and run and play guitar. (MS) enriched my life quite a bit because (I have) the appreciation to pick up a fork and sit down and eat."

What really got him through dark days?

"Believing in God and that things can be used positively," Walker says, and ponders what he has just said. "Positive is not a good word, it's deeper than that. I thought I was stopping and smelling the roses before, but now I really am."

He notices other people with illnesses or those who are simply struggling with life, and that makes him thankful that he can see the good side of things. Either you live life mad about what you don't have, or move on and enjoy the ride, he says.

"I see kids with cancer, and they are still smiling," Walker says. "When you see those kids smile, you go 'How could I not smile? How could I be that selfish?'"

Instead of exhaustion, the frequent touring inspires Walker. In every city, he says, he meets people who enrich his life.

"You get to know someone and they teach you something new," he says. "Like now, (for instance,) I know roast beef is good with a little bit of horseradish."

All kidding aside, he truly feels every person has the ability to touch another person in a positive, funny or spiritual way. For example, a suggestion from a nurse Walker met only once gave him a boost. She told him the long, thick needle he used for his weekly injections could be thinner, reducing the pain.

"There," he says. "I found that. Had it not been for me going on the road, I wouldn't have known there's a needle that caused me a lot less pain."

Walker and his band just finished a six-city tour and are looking forward to spending time at home. He helps rope cattle and manage his 500-acre ranch. He lives there with his wife, Lori Jane Lampson (a former runner-up for Miss Texas Rodeo), and daughter, MaClay DaLayne, born just three months before Walker was diagnosed with MS.

Walker considers his concerts in Las Vegas a vacation, albeit a working one, because many of his buddies live in Las Vegas.

"It only happens once a year, it's kind of like the Super Bowl," he says of the NFR. "The whole town becomes a cow town, it's like a stampede."

He also prefers to croon at more intimate venues, such as the ballroom at the Bellagio, than the 18,000-seat stadiums he usually plays.

"Vegas is like a playground," he says. "It's a smaller crowd. I get to play with the audience."

Before taking the stage, Walker takes time to assess all he's accomplished to get where he is at that moment.

"Crowd noise is very relaxing to me," Walker says. "Part of it is gratification for working a lot of years to get there in the first place. Even more so than an ego rush--it's a lot deeper than that. I (think) about why (the audience) came there, to enjoy themselves, so I think that I have a personal responsiblity to make sure that happens."

Although he could be resting on his laurels at home with his wife and 3-year-old daughter, Walker keeps up the rigorous pace of concert tours because, simply, that's who he is.

"One of the reasons my wife ... and friends would like to be around me is because I do have pride, dignity and self-worth, and it makes me feel good when I do these shows and accomplishments," Walker says. "If I quit doing that then I quit being me. Part of my personality will dwindle away."