TORONTO – Hunter Hayes will make his debut at the Canadian Country Music Association (CCMA) awards next month, but he’s hardly green when it comes to the Great White North.
The blond-haired country wunderkind spent much formative time on the East Coast in his mid-teens — “as a younger lad,” the still-fresh 21-year-old chortles — living for a month in Halifax, playing the Stan Rogers Folk Festival and Tall Ships Nova Scotia while soaking up what he viewed as a “phenomenal” country music culture.
Well, it’s just another thing he has in common with country kindred spirit Gordie Sampson.
Sampson, the songwriting guru from Big Pond, N.S., co-penned the single “Storm Warning” from Hayes’ gold-selling, triple-Grammy-nominated debut, which came out in 2011.
When Sampson’s name is brought up now, Hayes’ reverence for the Grammy winner comes through clearly.
“Dude, Gordie and I, man — Gordie is one of my favourite people to hang out with,” said Hayes, the words hanging off his Louisiana tilt.
“We just seem to have a sonic, a rhythmic sort of thing that runs (between us). With me, it’s the Cajun and the folk thing, and with him, I guess it’s sort of the Celtic vibe — we have this folk upbringing that lends itself to very different rhythmic structures within what we do.
“We both write country music, we’re each able to bring to the table some of that influence, some of those things that you find in that heritage music. And it finds its way in, just as simply as the way the words are structured and aligned. I think that’s why it’s so fun to write with him — we do these crazy syncopated rhymes, and it’s so much fun to go back and forth on.”
Sampson recently joined with Hayes on tour and plunked down to pen some new tunes, with Hayes enthusing that they produced “a lot.”
He’s certainly not hurting for quantity as he gradually prepares his sophomore record. Hayes says he has 50 songs already written and he’s still pushing for more.
Though he’s been collaborating with an array of Nashville heavy hitters, Hayes says he’s determined to enter every session with ideas of his own, and to make sure his voice is a strong element in the mix.
“I feel like the only way I’m going to find my sound is if I … go searching for it,” he said. “No one’s responsible for that but me. I can’t dump that discovery into anyone else’s lap. It’s my responsibility. I have to do it.”
Hayes seems to approach music with uncommon gravity for a performer his age, but then, little about his upbringing was common.
Reared in small-town Louisiana, he picked up the accordion when he was merely two years old, he performed with Hank Williams Jr. in front of 200,000 people at four and portrayed a child accordionist in the Oscar-nominated 1997 film The Apostle before he turned six. Screen legend Robert Duvall — who wrote, directed and starred in that film — gave Hayes his first guitar as a gift, and that’s when he began writing songs.
Hayes appeared in the films My Dog Skip and Charlie’s War before he hit his teens, performed on The Rosie O’Donnell Show and Maury as a child, and eventually shared a stage with Johnny and June Cash. He’s even performed in front of former U.S. president Bill Clinton.
But more than his bona fides, it’s his musicianship that distinguishes Hayes. On his debut, he was credited with playing a staggering range of instruments including accordion, guitars, bouzouki, clavinet, bass, mandolin, drums, sitar, mandocello, organ and the synthesizer.
He concedes that he’s worried at various points whether industry folk would take him seriously given his age, but said such neuroses were unfounded.
“I do feel like age is a barrier, but I feel like it’s more of a barrier for myself than other people,” he said. “I’ve walked in going, ‘They’re not going to listen to me.’… I felt like it was a bigger issue for me than it was for anybody else. I was expecting it to be an issue but it really wasn’t.”
Still, he said, asserting himself with industry vets two or three times his age doesn’t necessarily come naturally.
“For me, someone who’s really shy, kind of (inside) myself and very careful, music is the only place where I’m really brave enough to try something new,” said Hayes, who will turn 22 the day after the CCMAs are held next month in Edmonton.
“And I’m not always as brave as I wish I was. It’s fun thing to force myself to search for these things.”
He’s reluctant to offer many details on his new material, saying that it’s so far from coalescing into a recognizable shape.
But he’s firm on one thing: despite his wandering taste and capacity for a broad array of genres, he has planted his flag firmly in country.
“I see myself as a country music artist — that’s how I want to see myself, that’s how I’ve always seen myself,” he said. “My goal obviously is to contribute some new sounds to country…. I want to use a lot of my influences to make up a new sound.”
Hayes’ stock certainly seems to be on the rise, especially given that his most recent single (“I Want Crazy”) has reached platinum status here in Canada en route to his highest chart position yet: 14th.
He grew up in the industry and has the prematurely wizened perspective to prove it. Still, some things are new; a brief brush with Selena Gomez earlier this year spawned tabloid rumours of a romance he was eventually forced to officially dispel.
To hear Hayes tell it, though, there’s only been one major change in his life: he’s more sure of what he wants to do with it.
“The one thing that has changed is I think I doubt myself a whole lot less on whether I can continue to do this,” he said. “It’s not this comfortable, I-can-sit-back-in-my-chair-and-feel-like-I-have-it-going-on thing, because it’s not and it never will be, but there is this sense of assurance that I can continue doing the one thing I love and live for. That puts a smile on my face.
“(It’s) words of affirmation, if you will,” he adds with a burst of laughter. “That this is a reality, that this is happening right now, and that there’s good potential I can continue to do this. And you know what, quite frankly, that’s about all I can ask for.”