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Cardinals great Adam Wainwright soars into a new career: playing country music

Chris Hollo
Grand Ole Opry
Adam Wainwright performs on March 9 at the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville, Tenn.

Adam Wainwright joined the St. Louis Cardinals organization in December 2003, part of a five-player trade that sent budding slugger J.D. Drew to the Atlanta Braves.

Less than three years later, as a rookie closer, Wainwright secured the final outs of the National League Championship Series and the World Series, as the Cardinals earned their first title since 1982.

Two hundred wins later — a tally good enough to place the Georgia native as the franchise’s third-winningest pitcher — Wainwright retired last year.

His final weeks in MLB included the kickoff of his next pursuit: professional musician. After the Cardinals trounced the Cincinnati Reds in September in front of a packed Busch Stadium on Sept. 30, Wainwright performed a three-song set from the batter’s eye in center field.

Listen: Extended interview with Adam Wainwright on 'St. Louis on the Air'

Wainwright released his debut country album “Hey Y’All” in April. It includes 13 original songs, co-written with industry veterans Gary Baker and Greg Barnhill. Baker, a Grammy Award winner, produced the album. Wainwright’s musical adventures so far have included a debut at the Grand Ole Opry and an opening slot for Zac Brown Band at Chaifetz Arena.

The Cardinals great will suit up with guitar and ten-gallon hat on Aug. 10 at the Washington County Town & Country Fair in Washington, Missouri, opening for Travis Tritt with Niko Moon.

St. Louis Public Radio’s Jeremy D. Goodwin spoke with Wainwright about the deeply personal inspirations for his songs and closing down an 18-year big-league career while shifting to musician and baseball analyst for network television.

Jeremy D. Goodwin: What was it like launching your musical career in front of 40,000 of your closest friends at Busch Stadium?

Adam Wainwright: I was nervous all day leading up to that, and I'm not a nervous person. So I didn't really know how to act. I was trying to, you know, hide that from people I've been telling for years that I just don't understand nerves, I don't understand why people get so nervous. And then I'm out there shaking like a leaf in the fourth inning, knowing that I’m going to play three songs after the game in front of 40,000 people. But right before I went on, I looked up at the crowd, and it just felt natural.

Goodwin: Is there a song on “Hey Y’all” that you’re maybe almost a little nervous about putting out because it's so personal?

Adam Wainwright's lyrics reflect the pain of an absent father, and the son's determination to be a positive influence on his own five children.
Micah Kandros
Shore Fire Media
Adam Wainwright's lyrics reflect the pain of an absent father and the Cardinal veteran's determination to be a positive influence on his own five children.

Wainwright: There's a song on there called “If You Would Have Stayed.” When I was 3 years old, my dad left home. It was a pretty traumatic experience for me as a kid. I still remember the night that he left home. Things that transpired that night were just not good for a kid to see.

As a young kid I always wanted to be the kid that had a dad that would come and pick them up for field trips or come to the game. So I just never had that.

And now, being a dad to five kids, I think it helped me to be a better dad, because mine wasn't good. That could go two different ways. I could have followed suit and been an absent dad like him, or I could have said, ‘You know what, I'm going to be the opposite.’ And that's what I've tried to do.

Goodwin: And there's another song, “A Song Will Bring You Back,” which is about just being a music fan. And you sound like a real music fan. Are there songs that you associate with particularly important moments in your life?

Wainwright: “The Thunder Rolls” [by Garth Brooks] was a song that my brother made, put on a mixtape of country music when I was 9 years old. And I still have that tape. And I listened to that cassette tape over and over and over and over again, and fell in love with country music.

My mother bought me a red Jeep Wrangler, and I thought it was the coolest car that there was in the world. Driving to see my girlfriend – who is now my wife – one grade above me at Georgia Southern University, when I was a senior in high school, I would drive up and put a George Strait album on and listen to that thing all the way.

All the songs that I mention in my song, those were songs that took me back to a certain place in time in my life that were just crucial to who I am today.

Goodwin: I imagine there's a lot of emotions that come into play when you're closing out an 18-year career. But you knew you were segueing into something totally new. Knowing what was around the corner for you, how did that enter your headspace in those last months?

Wainwright: Last year was the first year that I played that walking away was like, a good thing. It was the right time. In 2022, everybody thought I was retiring with Albert [Pujols] and Yadi [Molina]. I did not pitch great in September. But I wasn't ready yet to be done. That bad month made me want to play and prove that that was just an anomaly.

Then in 2023, it just didn't work. My body was just, it was toast. I couldn't do it anymore. I had tried everything. I tried new diets, I tried new workouts and had made so many different adjustments through the years to be able to continue to pitch for as long as I did. I knew I left it all out there. I also blew my shoulder out completely and had to have multiple things repaired after the season. Trust me, I wanted to pitch a lot better. I pitched as good as I possibly could. I just wasn't healthy enough to be good.

And I also was coming into broadcasting. I was coming into music and releasing this really cool album, and so I was excited about these new chapters in life. I don't get sad about leaving. I get glad about being able to do it.

Jeremy is the arts & culture reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.