Hunter Hayes

Modern Country From the ambassador of Martin guitars


A Louisiana-born only child, Hayes began playing music on a toy accordion given to him by his grandmother when he was 2. By age 4 he was playing on local and national television, and at 6 he was cast in The Apostle. After filming, he was given his first guitar by actor Robert Duvall. Hayes’ remarkable proficiency in music is even more amazing given that no one in his family was musically inclined at all. “It was the perfect recipe for me and my personality and my heart. The way I’m kind of made as … kind of not the brightest by any means, but I like to be different,” he says. “I think the fact that nobody in my family was musical, it kind of drove me even more to find it and to find it as a voice. Even though I was, like, 4 at the time that these kind of decisions were taking place … it’s not like I would have described them that way. I’m not even sure it was a conscious effort really.”

Hayes goes on to discuss how music makes him feel. “I just love music. I love being moved. I’m a very emotional person and I think music extends emotions and it always did when I listened to music. It just brought me to a different place. It can be, in some ways, such a powerful thing. I think that’s—I don’t know—that’s just where my heart gravitated towards.” He continues, “It’s become a lot of things … oddly enough, a form of communication to me now. It’s where I feel like I can be myself. A lot of the time music says things and describes my life, whatever, better than just only words can.”

Finding inspiration in the music around him, Hayes had the encouragement of his family to help him to make the most of it. “My two parents … considering that they knew nothing about music … when I look back at how supportive they were and all the things that they went through to introduce me to a world that they really, none of us knew anything about … all of the learning that they went through just so that they could give me the opportunity to do it, I’d say I had the two biggest and best supporters I could have asked for, my folks.” When he was quite young and playing an increasing number of shows, his parents were also cautious, as he explains. “I remember one time my dad, who has just the biggest heart, I mean he’s just the coolest, nicest dude you’ll ever meet. He’s never met a stranger. One summer … because we were playing 30, 60 shows a year back in Louisiana, playing festivals, and we were gigging every weekend … he just said one day, ‘Look, I want to give you time off to make sure that you haven’t just been doing this for so long because it’s a routine.’ He says, ‘I want to make sure that you love it.’ He just wanted to give me some discovery time, because I was always asking for gigs and wanting to play and doing the singing. It was … that’s an incredibly monumental thought process for anyone to have, to do something like that. Obviously, at the end of that six months I was miserable not playing live, so we went right back on the road.”

Hayes credits Louisiana as part of the inspiration behind his sound. “I grew up around some seriously, just unbelievable, just, I don’t know, emotional performers, right? It wasn’t a full-time gig. The music was there, kind of a hobby. I was introduced to it on a totally different level. I was around people who work all day, come home sweaty and tired and exhausted and they’d load up stuff in their car just so that they could go play music. It wasn’t about anything but just getting to release that energy and getting to feel something and sing about something that they felt. That was my introduction to music … that kind of performance from somebody who just needed to sing that song. And I think that’s the best kind of introduction I could have ever had.” He goes on to explain the many styles he heard as he was growing up, all contained in his home state, “There’s a lot of blues. There’s a lot of folk stuff. All this Cajun music is a sort of, in my eyes, there’s a lot of acoustic instruments. I was growing up listening to all kinds of stuff, but when I say Cajun music, the Cajun music that I was introduced to was a very evolutionized version of what you would think when you think of Cajun music. You listen to people like Wayne Dukes and it’s just like, ‘Wait a minute, this is not at all what I was thinking it would be.’ You say, ‘Oh, they’re a bluegrass thing.’ You listen to the record and go, ‘This is not at all what I had in mind when you said bluegrass record.’ So, I love the fact that I grew up around that … they were just kind of twisting things and finding new things and weren’t afraid to go just totally on a search.”

Recently added to the roster of artists playing Martin guitars, Hayes is happy to work with the builders who make the instruments he loves. “When you get a Martin and you play it for the first time, you just feel something. You feel something special. You feel not only is it an instrument, but it’s an instrument that—there’s more to it. It’s got a soul. And now, having gone to the factory and met a lot of the people working in the factory, I see what I feel and it is real. These are people who—there’s generations that have worked in that factory. There’s all kinds of stories, all kinds of really cool stories about people who found their way there and how much they love what they do.” He continues, “I love that a company that has been around for so long is still willing to have a conversation with me about a brand-new guitar and me saying, ‘Hey, how about we try something like this? I know that this is like a time-tested thing, but this is something that I have found that I like.’ For instance, I’m obsessed with koa wood. I brought it up as a part of our design for my custom. They were all about it, and I believe it was the first of its kind, technically, with the specific details that we did that they’ve ever built that way. They were willing to [do it]. [They’re] always trying new stuff. Anyway, this cool stuff … they’re always willing to try and I love that.”

Hayes prefers running his acoustic guitars direct into the mixing board for live shows and counts on Fishman pickups for his sound.
“I got obsessed, when I first went on the road, with the Fishman Aura. It was just one of the greatest things since sliced bread, in my opinion. My buddy was telling me about it a year earlier and I finally got one for my first real tour. I was out with Taylor Swift. I was playing an acoustic guitar in front of a PA, so there were a lot of challenges.” He says, “I have this same exact pickup and it’s essentially Fishman … we use 50% mic and 50% piezo …So it’s as pure as it can be, though, apart from that. I don’t use anything else with it. I’ve got it going through a pedal board so if I want to play with it and have fun I’ve got a couple of distortions, a couple of delay things. I’ve got a looper that I love to use and play with when I’m doing acoustic gigs by myself. But, for the most part, I’m happy just plugging in. Every Martin I’ve got has that same Fishman pickup system. It’s just the mic and the piezo and I love it.”

His second studio album, Storyline, was released on May 6, 2014 and was led by its first single, “Invisible.” Hayes’ commercial success and his talent, both as a songwriter and instrumentalist, have prompted Billboard to call him the leader of country music’s youth revolution. Explaining why it was country music and not another style that drew him in, he says, “It’s just … you hear a lot of people say ‘real storytellers.’ I feel like it’s the genre, it’s the sound, it’s the feeling. It’s the feeling—it’s not just the sound—it’s the feeling. And it’s not just the lyrics, but it’s the way they describe their life better than you could. It’s the soundtrack thing. I love soundtracks. Not like natural soundtracks, but I love songs that could be your soundtrack. Not a soundtrack to movies, but your soundtrack, everything you’ve lived in a day … Like when you spin a record because it is the only thing that understands you in that moment in time—and you feel like it understands you like no one else can and you feel attached to it because of that. You feel like it’s a best friend and you can celebrate with it. There’s a lot of songs on the radio right now that are celebrations about, just, you know, whatever it may be. It’s a sound like it was written by a best friend.”

Written by Troy Richardson / Photography by Ryan Hunter

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