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CMA New Artist of the Year Hunter Hayes

CMA New Artist of the Year Hunter Hayes

By Bob Doerschuk

© 2013 CMA Close Up® News Service
/ Country Music Association®, Inc.

Imagine your name has just been announced
at the CMA Awards as New Artist of the Year. Celebrities seated around you in
Nashville’s Bridgestone Arena, the ones you admired as you were growing up, are
applauding. Thousands of fans throughout the venue are cheering. Millions are
watching you on live TV. What goes through your mind at that moment?

Hunter Hayes, who received this honor at the 2012 Awards, the first reaction was
something like disbelief. “I looked at my manager, Ansel Davis,” he recalled.
“We had a meeting the next day, and he said, ’You know what you said to me
when they called your name?’ I said, ’No, I don’t.’ He said, ’Yeah,
I figured that. You looked at me and asked if they had really called your name.’”

Hayes laughed as he recounted that moment. “The whole thing was a blur, but
I completely believe that. That’s so something I would do!”

This reflects
the boyish side of this gifted young singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist.
Just 21 years old, he radiates enthusiasm, whether doing interviews (ending, in
this case, by assuring the writer that “you rock!”) or delivering a blistering
live set. In the midst of a sentence, he seems to be racing in his mind to the
following paragraph. As he wraps up one song onstage, he’s mentally into the
next, ready to attack the opening riff or lyric.

But in that magical moment
at the CMA Awards, another side to Hayes kicked in, one that tempers his energies
with a discipline that belies his age but reflects his already considerable experience.
When cameras focused on him and his fellow nominees just before the winner was
declared, he recalled, “I was thinking, ’OK, you have to look professional
right now. You’ve got to look cool. Contain the excitement. Contain the nerves.
Don’t shake. Don’t freak out.’ I honestly just assumed that the nomination
was all I had to think about. I was just stoked to get the nomination. I know
everybody says that, but it’s such a huge compliment. Never in my wildest dreams
would I have believed somebody if they’d told me, ’Hey, by the way, you’d
better be ready for your acceptance speech.’ I would have laughed at them.”

Characteristically, Hayes was ready anyway. “I knew that in the one-in-a-million
chance that I would do what I’d have to do, I wanted to look like I had my stuff
together,” he said, smiling. “So I figured out a system. I knew that I could
look at my hands and count the major categories (of people to thank) on my 10
fingers. I knew I wasn’t going to be able to remember names at that moment of
being a pure nervous wreck, if it did happen. But I did want to make sure that
I got through all the members of my team and all the people I love and respect
and that I didn’t leave anybody out.”

In a sense, Hayes has been getting
ready since early childhood for this year of CMA recognition, his debut at LP
Field during CMA Music Festival, his performance on “The Grammy Nominations
Concert Live!!” and nominations in three Grammy categories — more than any
other Country artist received. Growing up an only child in Breaux Bridge, La.,
he began playing music at age 2, mainly to pass time. His decision to acquaint
himself with every instrument within reach proved useful once he was old enough to start recording.

“I learned as many instruments as I could partially because I got bored with
one and wanted to try something else,” he said. “That was the only way I could
make my demos. I didn’t have bands around. So I made my demos by myself.

He was good enough at 4 to begin playing in a local band — and lucky enough
to accept an invitation from Hank Williams Jr. to join him onstage for a performance
of “Jambalaya.” “We met at a bed-and-breakfast in south Louisiana,” Hayes
recalled. “I have a friend in Breaux Bridge who owns a bed-and-breakfast where
Hank would come and hang out every now and then. He would jam with the local musicians, and that’s how I met him.”

A video of their performance can be seen on YouTube, with Williams towering
over and then kneeling next to the earnest, tow-headed kid who sings the tune,
solos on a Cajun button accordion and pumps his knees to the beat, Hank Sr. style.
What’s obvious in this footage is Hayes’ seriousness, his determination to
nail every note and maybe look past this gig to what would follow in the years ahead

By the time he was 6, Hayes made a cameo appearance in “The Apostle,” whose
scriptwriter, director and star Robert Duvall gave him his first guitar. Within
four years, Hayes had recorded his first two albums. In high school, he began
writing songs and, again looking forward, made his first visits to Nashville.
Eventually, his family moved there with him.

“Then it was a matter of
making connections,” Hayes explained. “I started the negotiation process with
Universal Music Group Publishing before we moved. Mom found a house so I could
register in the school district I wanted to be in. I took an accelerated course
to finish high school before I would have even gone into my senior courses. And
that was that: I started writing full time. My first co-write was with Luke Laird
— can you believe that? The pressure was on. That was my job.”

Esposito, President/CEO, Warner Music Nashville, remembers well when Hayes first
popped onto his radar screen. Shortly after arriving in Nashville, he asked Scott
Hendricks, Senior VP, A&R, “’Who are you hiding in the drawer behind you?’
That’s the expression for the CDs A&R people always have that are not quite
ready,” Esposito said. “Scott says, ’I’ve got one. This kid’s so talented,
it’s unbelievable.’ I said, ’Well, can I hear it?’ He said, ‘It’s
not quite ready.’ Now, Scott has one of the greatest sets of ears I’ve met
in this town, so I said, ’Come on. If you’re excited about it, I want to hear it.”

The deal was sealed, according to Esposito, during the Leadership Music class
of 2009, in which he was a classmate of Hayes’ manager, Ansel Davis. “I decided
I was going to corner Ansel every time I had a chance during those Friday gathering
where no communication devices were allowed,” he said. “I was relentless,
saying, ’I’m not letting you go until we’re in business together.’ Ansel
is a great guy, and I’m quite sure he felt my passion for Hunter.”

recorded every instrumental part on his Platinum-certified, self-titled album
for Atlantic Records, even teaching himself in the studio to play some steel guitar,
which he’d never touched before, for the key lick in “Everybody’s Got Somebody
But Me” (written by Hayes, Dave Brainard and Jennifer Zuffineti). He also wrote
or co-wrote all 12 tracks, including the Platinum-selling single “Wanted” (Hayes and Troy Verges).

Despite his crossover appeal and his willingness to explore new ideas, Hayes
insists that Country will always remain his foundation. “It’s a lyrical thing,”
he mused. “Any chance I get to throw in a Resonator or a banjo, I will. You
can define it by that, but I define it most by the storytelling — how the song
relates, what it means to someone. One of my favorite records was Rascal Flatts’
Me and My Gang because it had ’Stand’ (Blair Daly and Danny Orton)
on it. I listened to ’Stand’ every day when I left school because I was having
a hard time. That’s what I needed. I needed that message. I needed that song.
That song helped me through a lot. My goal is to always remember that when I write.”

He also promises to remember the drive that helped him to achieve the goals
he has harbored since he was old enough to stand up and sing into a microphone.
And you can bet that even as he wraps whatever project he’s working on, he will
already be blueprinting the next one.

“Someone asked me yesterday if
there was a certain pressure that came with this (CMA) Award,” Hayes said. “It’s
actually more of a reminder that, as a new artist, I’m constantly searching
and trying to figure things out. I’m always a little bit clueless and a little
bit reckless in this search for something to creative. It’s a reminder for me
to stay that way forever, because my favorite artists are constantly searching
and changing … to keep being clueless!

“Blue sky?” he asked. “I
want 30 buses and 20 trucks. I want to be headlining at stadiums. I want to get
there whenever I can and do it for the rest of my life. I’ve always wanted to
get on a bus and play music every night and then get back on that bus and keep
playing music. That’s my dream.”

On the Web: HunterHayes.com

On Twitter: @HunterHayes

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