“Music’s something I have always wanted to do,” Hayes tells CMT Insider . “I didn’t sort of choose it as a career path or say, ’I’m going to be a musician one day.’ It’s been in my blood. It’s something I’ve loved, and been in love with since I was too young to talk. I didn’t really know what it was, but I knew there was something about music that moved me that I wanted to be a part of for the rest of my life.”
On his self-titled album for Atlantic Records, due on Oct. 11, Hayes wrote or co-wrote every song, co-produced with Dann Huff and played every instrument. In this interview with CMT Insider producer Darrell Hughes, the rising country star shoots the breeze about his musical heroes, his songwriting aspirations and his ambitious five-year plan.
CMT: When did you start gaining an interest in music?
Hayes: I just started picking things up around the house and making musical instruments out of them. When I was around 2 or 3 — I don’t know all these details, I just hear it through the grapevine — but I just started picking up instruments, making, sort of pretending that they were instruments, and then it got to a point where my parents, my family, obviously knew that music was something I wanted to do. And I was given a toy accordion for my second birthday. And that was it. It was learning things off the radio just kind of learning by ear just for the sake of playing. I started making music in any and every way, shape and form that I could possibly make it.
What were some of your early influences?
Early influences were like Garth Brooks. A lot of Garth Brooks. … It was mostly country music because I grew up in Louisiana. I grew up in the Cajun culture, but I listened to a lot of country simply because that’s what I connected with. Obviously, lyrically is where country music really shines because it’s so real, and it can attach itself to you. You become friends with the artist, the person behind the song, whether they wrote it or they didn’t. There are no more walls, and it’s just two people talking about their life. I guess I was too young to have too much of a life to talk about. But when I started paying attention to music, it was country music. It was things that lyrically touched me, things that moved me.
One of the big things you’ve done is playing “Jambalaya” onstage with Hank Williams Jr. I watched it online, and you had a lot of swagger for being such a little kid.
“Swagger,” what does that mean? I guess I was 5 when I played with Hank. I was too young to realize what was going on. Now, looking back, there are statistics there were 260,000 people in the audience. I didn’t know that. I just knew there were a ton of people out there, and I got to play in front of them with Hank Williams Jr. Looking back now, there’s no way I could have appreciated it as much as I can now. That was a big day for me and one that I remember very little of — but just enough to hold it as one of the most incredible musical experiences of my life.
I do feel like there is a movement. That’s a very interesting thought. I hadn’t even thought about that too much, but that is a good point. There is a bit of a movement as far as younger people in country music. That is cool because people are saying things like, “I didn’t listen to country music until so-and-so came along.” And I’m like, “Yeah! Now you know why I love it.”
It is really cool to sit back and think that this is a good time to be doing my thing. It’s a good time for me to come out and do what I do. Not that I could have picked a time, not that I would have changed the time, anyway. But it is really cool to be surrounded by people like Lauren and Scotty and obviously Taylor, someone I look up to so much. She’s someone I can now say I’ve been on the road with. I’m just part of the story but nonetheless in the story.
Doing music for your whole life, do you feel like maybe you’re missing out on something?
It’s funny you ask that because as far as missing out, yeah, I did kind of grow up making music. That’s all I’ve ever done. Yes, I did lock myself in my room for about two years and write some songs and things like that. But I don’t feel like I missed out on a whole lot.
Yeah, there are some things I didn’t do, but perhaps out of choice. I had a friend that played football. He had practice every day, he had games on the weekends and he had games sometimes during the week. I felt like I had the same schedule as him. I practiced during the week. I’d get home from school, I skipped the homework for a little while to go in the studio, mess around and do my thing. We both had the same sort of schedule, so as far as missing out, I don’t think I missed out on anything.
Did you want to be a songwriter when you moved to Nashville?
Oh, yeah, absolutely. Well, I just wanted to sing and play music. As far as songwriting, I didn’t know if I had what it takes. I didn’t know all the details about it. But, yeah, I knew when I moved to Nashville, we were negotiating a publishing deal. I knew that I was going to start writing pretty much full-time until we started making the record. I didn’t really have a plan of action. I knew I wanted to create a body of songs for a record and maybe more. And we ended up getting a song cut by another artist. All I knew when I moved to Nashville was that I wanted to make music in whatever shape and form I could.
Five years down the road, where do you want to see yourself? What are your goals?
Well, I start with this statement, and that is that five years down the road, I really want to headline arenas. But what that means is I want to be able to say that every night I can do shows that big for crowds that big — crowds of that size that have connected with songs that I have written or music that I’ve released or stuff that I’ve worked on. That would be the ultimate to be able to say that that many people have heard the music, like it and hopefully made the connection [with me] that I’ve made with my favorite music and my favorite artists. That’s when I’ll be able to sit back and say, “Nice, this is the dream. This is what I’ve always wanted.”