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The country hotshot, 21, is no overnight sensation. He’s been active in the music scene since he was a toddler.
Courtesy Juan Pont Lezica
Hunter Hayes has been playing music with big stars since he was four years old.
Courtesy B. James White
Carrie Underwood performs at the Roanoke Civic Center on Saturday night at 7:30.
Courtesy of Juan Pont Lezica
Saturday, March 23, 2013
Country guitar hotshot, singer, multi-instrumentalist and hit songwriter Hunter Hayes is just 21 years old. But the recent Grammy nominee is no overnight success.
Hayes, who opens for Carrie Underwood tonight at Roanoke Civic Center, has been playing music with big stars since he was a pre schooler.
At age 4, he joined Hank Williams Jr. onstage for a version of “Jambalaya,” a song that Williams’ father had made famous. The little fellow was confident and grooving, nailing his accordion part and drawing onstage praise from Williams Jr.
He doesn’t remember much about it, aside from go-cart racing with his father on the festival grounds and seeing all the buses backstage.
“It is funny to look back, because I don’t remember it,” he said, laughing. “Looking at baby pictures is one thing. Watching videos of yourself on YouTube, [nearly] 20 years after, is kind of freaky.”
He’s been able to see his younger self on the big screen as well. About the same time he jammed with Williams Jr., the Louisiana boy was cast to play accordion in Robert Duvall’s 1997 movie, “The Apostle.” Duvall struck up a friendship with the boy and his family.
It’s a classic type of discovery story, and it led young Hayes to the guitar.
Hayes said it was a typical dinner out with his mom and dad at a restaurant near their home in the Lafayette, La., area. As usual, he joined the house band for a few numbers, “playing accordion, singing, whatever they’d let me do,” he said.
Coincidentally, Duvall was eating at the same spot, after a day of scouting locations for the flick. He walked up to the Hayes table and asked if they would like to be part of the movie.
“We sort of became friends, I guess,” Hayes said. “We got to know him really well. He’s such a cool guy, from what I remember. He actually surprised me. He came down for my sixth birthday in my hometown and showed up with an electric guitar and a little matching amp, and just gave it to me as a birthday gift.
“At the time, of course, it did not register that Robert Duvall had shown up at my birthday party and given me a guitar,” he added, laughing, “like it does now. It means a little bit more now, growing up and knowing what happened, you know, after the fact.
“But nonetheless, it’s one of the coolest stories I get to tell.”
Hayes has played Roanoke four times over the past three years. The first two times — first on the bill at the Star Country Pajama Jam in October 2011 and first on the bill in January 2012 in front of Rascal Flatts and Sara Evans — he was practically unknown.
But Hayes was already an established songwriter in his new home, Nashville, Tenn., having written the Rascal Flatts number “Play,” among others. And his energetic stage show and monstrous guitar chops were making an impression live, along with his first solo hit, “Storm Warning.”
So by the time he played Festival in the Park in 2012, this time opening for Craig Morgan, he was no secret. The crowd went wild with applause and screams as Hayes took the stage. By that night, “Storm Warning” had already peaked, but a new single, “Wanted,” was starting to get traction. And a third, “Somebody’s Heartbreak,” was on deck as the next release.
Before the Festival set, Hayes had hung around backstage, relaxing and talking to folks with no hint of attitude about him. In a phone interview with him last month, he said he loves the whole process.
“This has been my dream for a long time,” he said. “Getting in the back of a bus and going on the road the last year was the best.”
Hayes and his band did about 200 shows last year and plan to do about the same this year.
“That’s what I requested,” he said, laughing. “I was like, please don’t let me sit at home too long ; it’s gonna drive me nuts.”
“I’m really fortunate, man. I get to do what I love, and I’m grateful for that. And I don’t take that for granted a second of the day.”
Hayes co-writes his material, and he has marveled at seeing and hearing audience responses to it over the past year. He remembers 2011 and early 2012 on the road, doing spoken introductions to “Wanted,” hoping that people would like it.
“And now we’re talking about the same song that we start without an introduction, and we start the piano riff, and I ask everybody to sing along if they know it,” he said. “And the entire room sings it so loud that just every night it continues to be emotional.
“And that’s not like some canned, cool, scripted answer. That’s the truth. Every night, when I look up and I see people standing up and singing to ‘Wanted,’ it’s like, oh my gosh, it’s really all happening.”
“Wanted” peaked at No. 1 on the Billboard country singles chart, and this week is No. 9, after 56 weeks in the chart, according to billboard.biz. It has sold at least 2 million copies. His self-titled debut album has gone gold, selling at least 500,000 copies, and it is No. 8 on the country chart after 74 weeks, having peaked at No. 3.
Hayes was featured on the Grammy Awards last month, performing “Wanted.” His voice sounded shaky, and he missed a couple of notes — problems that he had not experienced while playing live in Roanoke.
He sounded nervous.
“Of course I was nervous,” he said. “It was my first Grammy performance. C’mon, I’m in front of the entire industry. I’m in front of all these people that I respect and that I look up to. Who wouldn’t be nervous? And if anybody tells you they’re not nervous in their first Grammy performance, they’re either lying to your face or they’re not paying attention.”
He might just wind up onstage again next year, singing “Somebody’s Heartbreak.” That single is No. 8, having gone gold during its 20 weeks on the chart. Hayes said he has seen the same growth in audience response to that song that he experienced with “Wanted.”
Such crowd buzz is among “the best feelings in the world,” both as a songwriter and as an artist putting on a show “with songs that people can sing along to, that people can claim as their soundtrack,” he said.
“That’s my dream. That’s what I’ve always wanted, for them to say, ‘That’s my song. I found that song. I heard that song, and that’s my song now.’
“That’s exactly what I want. … And now it’s really happening. And all I want is to keep doing it, you know?”
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