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Hunter Hayes: Back for more
The young country phenomenon expands his debut's winning streak with an expanded reissue and high-profile collaborations

By Alan Light
Special to MSN Music

During late June, Hunter Hayes had a mighty busy few days promoting an album that's been out for more than a year a half. Along with the release of a deluxe "Encore" edition of his self-titled debut album (which includes eight new songs, including the current top 10 country hit "I Want Crazy"), he made stops on both coasts, to appear on the season finale of "The Voice"; on the "Today" show's summer concert series; and to play at the New York club Webster Hall, before a room packed full of screaming teenage girls, as an MTV "Artist to Watch."

"The week looked great on paper beforehand, but then you live it and it's, like, hyper-speed!" said a slightly breathless Hayes in an NBC dressing room following his early-morning performance. "You could say we already did this for this record, but this is a totally different thing."

For a while now, it's been one totally different thing after another for multi-instrumentalist Hayes. The onetime child performer (at age 7, he played for Bill Clinton at the White House) had already toured as an opener for Taylor Swift and had one of his songs recorded by Rascal Flatts before his own album was released in the fall of 2011. Since then, the single "Wanted" made him the youngest male artist to have a No. 1 country hit, and he was also the youngest male country singer to be nominated as Best New Artist at the Grammys. He's recorded with Brad Paisley and made several television appearances playing alongside Stevie Wonder.

Having wrapped up a lengthy tour opening for Carrie Underwood, 21-year-old Hayes is now gearing up for his first headlining jaunt. Though traditionalists may grumble about his pop appeal, think about this: Can you name another young star who not only features his own instrumental work, but can make girls swoon with a guitar solo? Hayes, though, insists that he doesn't feel like he's swimming upstream in today's beat-driven musical landscape.

"Let's face it," he says, "I don't dance very well, and there's other things I don't do well, but that's my thing — the music and the writing and however it's defined. I don't see that as a challenge at all. It's what makes me me."

MSN Music: Does this expanded version of the album show something different or something extra than the original version?

Hunter Hayes: There's a lot of new little dimensions that we introduced. Retrospective songs like "In a Song" or autobiographical songs like "Better Than This," those are kind of new for me. And working with other musicians was really the fun part, because I've been working by myself my whole life. "Crazy" is actually the most recent song on here, and it felt weird to put it on this record — we were thinking it was for the next record, but I've got a lot of stuff for that, and it felt appropriate here. The encore is crazy, so it fit the theme. It's a good bridge to whatever's next.

Do you write all the time or just when it's time for a new project?

I've tried to figure that out the last couple of years, because first I wrote for three years dedicated to the record and that was all that I did. I went into the studio ready to make the record, and then I didn't want to write another song for at least a year. I needed to clear my head, I needed to live a little bit and figure out what I was going to say.

I don't like to write for purposes necessarily. I've done it for soundtracks and things, but writing for me, I like to give myself time and kind of chill. I sat down yesterday and said I was going to write a tune and it just wasn't happening. I jammed a little bit on the guitar, but I didn't force it. I got some ideas down and saved them on my phone, and I'm becoming more comfortable with that. I used to believe that if I didn't write it all at once that it shouldn't happen, but I'm learning that the best things happen over time.

What is this rising generation of country stars — people like you, Taylor Swift, Miranda Lambert, maybe Kacey Musgraves — all bringing to the audience and the country community?

More flavors, more ideas, more thoughts. The more vantage points you have, the more you understand certain things and the more different styles everybody tries to evolve into. I listen to a lot of different things — with the amount of stuff I listen to, my music should literally be all over the place, and there are times when it is, but it always does come back home.

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What I love that's happening now is more people are finding country music through all kinds of different avenues, through things like "The Voice" and Blake (Shelton) and all the contestants. I'm glad to see that, and to see all these different styles taking place. All those people you mentioned have a totally different sound, and I think that's what makes it feel more like home — you have more records you can pull out at the end of the day and sing along with.

What do you think keeps your music in the country category?

It's like I don't even have to try, it's just what comes natural. I've noticed that in demos lately, I find myself trying radical things, but we end up trying them with a mandolin or a steel guitar part. The tones that I work with, the colors that I paint from, are all based on what I've always worked with and listened to and what's ingrained in me. Lyrically, I think it's the transparency of it, the directness, the approach. But if I had it figured out, it would probably get boring.

Tell me about your time with Stevie Wonder.

Man, hanging out with Stevie — it blows my mind that I can say that — spending time with him, I was really blessed. At the ACMs, he came in for run-throughs, and the plan was to go back to the hotel and get a good night's sleep. We finished and he gets on the mic and says, "I got something I want you to check out." And he starts playing me some brand-new stuff and we started trading ideas, and I took it back that night and wrote a whole song's worth of lyrics to it.

What do you take away from an encounter like that — especially with someone who was also a star at a young age, also plays so many instruments ...

The fact that he just loves making music. The guy just loves to make noise. And he builds his own soundtrack, just like I feel like I try to do. That was encouraging, to sit there and go, "I'm not crazy for always wanting to do this; this is not unhealthy!" It worked for somebody. And to know that that's an acceptable lifestyle, to live to make music.

After I'd said my goodbyes, Mom and Dad wanted to say goodbye, so they went in his dressing room and Stevie called me in and asked if he could pray with us. So we prayed all together, and that was heavy. He's a great example, an inspiration in a lot of ways.

My son is 10 years old and plays the guitar. What advice do you have for someone at that age?

I say go for whatever you want. I say dream. I have screen-savers full of dreams and that's what I look at every day, that's what inspires me. The cool thing about music is there are so many things you can do, so many avenues you can take your art down. Dream as big as you want, because you can only be as big as your dreams.

Alan Light is the author of "The Holy or the Broken: Leonard Cohen, Jeff Buckley and the Unlikely Ascent of 'Hallelujah.'" A regular contributor to MSN Music, he is the former editor-in-chief of Vibe and SPIN magazines. He is the director of programming for the public television concert series "Live From the Artists Den," and contributes frequently to The New York Times and Rolling Stone. Alan is a two-time winner of ASCAP's Deems Taylor Award for excellence in music writing.

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