Wednesday, Nov. 9, 2011
How one hometown hero deals with making it big
By Emily Henagan • Photos by Scott Clause
Wearing a midnight-colored henley and faded dark denim as he’s greeted with deafening screeches from his predominately female audience at Crowley’s Rice Theatre, Hunter Hayes certainly looks the part of the next country heartthrob. He also possesses a savoir faire that is unparalleled, one that makes this Breaux Bridge native apt to handle the spotlight while still keeping his local color.
“Growing up in Breaux Bridge really grounded me,” says Hayes, who just landed a “Milk Rocks” campaign in which he will be featured on more than 25 million milk cartons in schools across the U.S. “I grew up around people with good values, compassionate people. It was critical to my songwriting; growing up in that environment just changed my life. That’s the reason I am everything I am today.”
And everything 20-year-old Hayes is today is a seasoned and triple-threat musician who writes and produces his own music and plays every instrument on his self-titled album. When asked how many instruments he plays, Hayes can not even list them.
“I think last time we counted, I played 30 instruments on the album,” he modestly says. “I am self-taught with all my instruments. I just never had a taste for lessons. I wanted to experiment and find my own way.”
Not a product of a “momager” or a musical family, Hayes found his own way toward his budding music career. “I think it was really good that my parents weren’t musical,” says Hayes. “They weren’t living vicariously through me. They let me make music and do things at my rate; they were just there. They’re excited to see that this crazy dream of mine is actually happening. They supported me all the way. They never doubted me. I am forever grateful for that.”
Hayes moved to Nashville at age 18 and ever since then has made some megastar connections. He jammed alongside Australian country crossover Keith Urban, toured with country music sweetheart Taylor Swift and wrote a chart topper, “Play,” for country mega group Rascal Flatts all before turning 20.
“It was inevitable that we would pitch the song to them [Rascal Flatts], and they liked it and ran with it,” says Hayes, who began writing songs at age 6. “The day when I had my iPod on shuffle, heard my demo then heard the Rascal Flatts’ single was the day it clicked for me. I totally freaked out. It was so cool.”
A wunderkind, Hayes began his career as an ambassador of Louisiana “swamp pop” who played at festivals and for President Bill Clinton on the front lawn of the White House. Gracing the stage alongside Hank Williams Jr., Hayes belted out “Jambalaya” and played an accordion bigger than he was at age 4.
“Where I started out prepared me in every way for where I am today,” says Hayes, who cites Adele and Mumford and Sons among his musical influences. “Back then, I didn’t know nerve; I didn’t know the risk; I didn’t know anything but music. That was what I did. The support I received wasn’t the norm, but I am so glad I had it.”
Hayes started off in Cajun music, and says he notices a lot of similarities between Cajun and country music.
“The heart of the music is very similar,” says Hayes, whose self-titled album peaked at No. 5 on the iTunes Music Charts. “It’s just all real — real problems. It’s the soundtrack to everyday life. Cajun and country music were founded on the same principles.”
And these principles Hayes portrays in his music relate to relationships and love. He says he wants to make the same kind of music he fell in love with.
“I want my music to move people,” reveals Hayes, who is currently headlining a nationwide tour. “I want it to lyrically light a fire in someone, and to evoke strong emotions. My new album is a nervous thing for me. I’m presenting myself with no walls — complete transparency. I just want people to like it. I want people to feel like it’s theirs.”
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