Towards the end of the biography info embedded into Hunter Hayes’ website, past the part where he makes a self-effacing confession (“First of all, you should know I’m a geek”), describes his music listening preferences (“I’m obsessed with vinyl”) and champions his mom’s culinary expertise (“She makes the best gumbo ever”), the youthful Nashville star outlines three of the inspirations that figure into his very contemporary brand of country music and how the resulting sound is presented onstage.
“I want it to be a mix between Chris Martin, Garth Brooks and Michael Buble.”
Hayes, 24, let out a short, fractured but acknowledging laugh when that grocery list of influences was read back to him. But he was also eager — in rapidly delivered, chopped sentences reflecting a conversational mode best described as “caffeinated” — to explain how multiple modern musical styles play out in a sound he proudly claims as country.
“I love country music dearly, but I grew up with such a variety of country music to listen to,” said Hayes, who returns to Lexington this weekend to perform at the Rolex Kentucky Three Day Event. “I think everyone in this genre brings something significant to the table. That’s kind of our job. I like the challenge of finding a name for the mix because I’m bringing a lot of things in. But it all comes home because this music is my home. That’s what I love doing. I love mixing it up.”
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A native of Breaux Bridge, La., Hayes was still in his teens when work began on his self-titled debut album. The record would go on to score three hits, including the No. 1 single Wanted, before reaching quadruple platinum in sales. The chart-topping Storyline followed in 2014 along with near non-stop touring that brought Hayes to Lexington last September for an unannounced performance at Cosmic Charlie’s on his birthday for the CMT series Instant Jam and a show-opening spot for Lady Antebellum’s Rupp Arena concert the next evening.
The touring regimen has purposely cooled a bit in 2016 so that Hayes can write and record songs for his next album, songs with one common theme in mind: change.
“There is this thing about whenever you release any debut record in your pre-younger 20s just because there is so much that changes in a person’s life between, let’s say, 18 and 25. For a lot us, it’s college. It’s the start of a career. A lot of us move away from home in a search for something, so there’s that. Some of us stay home and find this calling. There are all kinds of different things that happen, a whole list. Even for me, even though I’ve found my passion and started the path of my career before I was even 18, I’m still going though a lot of changes as a person.
“The focus for me for this next record is to treat it like a debut record. I’ve never really loved following anything up, so I’m really viewing this record like it’s a reintroduction. It’s not a start over, but a lot has changed. What’s really the coolest thing about it is knowing my fans are going through this with me. We’re all changing. We’re all discovering things. That’s kind of the fuel for this record, knowing that we’re all in this thing together. We’re all discovering our lives, we’re discovering ourselves. It’s very much what we’re writing about.”
Change or not, with any level of stardom — be with from a popular newcomer or a practiced arena headliner — comes responsibility. Hayes is more than aware his connection to a youth-based market means his music may well serve as the first country sound to hit many of his fans’ ears.
“Country music is a big genre,” Hayes says. “It’s a big place. It’s really cool, too, when you’re part of someone’s introduction to country music, or maybe just the connection. Maybe they’ve heard country before but they’ve never really had that connection. It’s just great to be part of that.”