Rodney Hayden is probably the most famous person in Pleasanton, Texas. He grew up in this small city south of San Antonio, and now at age 23, it's where he continues to hang his cowboy hat.
"When we first started touring, I was gone so much that I really wasn't living anywhere for too long," Hayden tells CMT.com. "Then I decided to stay around Pleasanton for a while longer. Now I am still here, and I will probably end up staying here for a while yet."
One of the most promising talents on the Texas club scene, Hayden draws on rich country heritage, complete with prominent fiddles and plenty of twang. His reverence for tradition is evident on both of his albums, The Real Thing (from 2001) and Living the Good Life, released in September on Audium/Koch Records.
Hayden grew up listening to his dad's record collection of Merle Haggard, George Jones and Ray Price, all of whom inform his straightforward singing and songwriting skill.
"I remember hearing the old Ray Price records that he had and how different the songs like 'Crazy Arms' and 'Heartaches by the Number' sounded. I guess those were the first real shuffles that I kind of listened to. I remember I always liked that. When I first started playing the guitar, shuffles were the first things I started writing and singing live."
These days, Hayden plays those shuffles almost every Saturday night somewhere in Texas, whether he's in Helotes, Lubbock or Fort Worth. Sometimes, he opens for Texas music hero Robert Earl Keen, who manages him, and sometimes he and his band are the main attraction.
"Usually we are just playing some dance hall around here," he says. "We have a lot of people who work all week and want to come out and relax, have a few beers and drink and dance and just get the country music going."
A love letter to country music, "Heartaches and Highways" has become his signature song and has earned substantial airplay in Texas. Though he wrote (with Bill Whitbeck) about two-thirds of the music on his albums, Hayden also plucked songs from Clay Blaker and Tracy Byrd, Slaid Cleaves, Robbie Fulks, Billy Joe Shaver and Tom Waits. The surprising maturity in his musical vision means that his audience is composed of far more than just shrieking teenage girls -- rarely the case for handsome 23-year-old Texas singers.
"Ours pretty much ranges from little kids all the way up to grandparents," he says. "I've got an 86-year-old grandmother that still comes to the shows when she is able. She likes the fact that we still bring in some of the old standards that a lot of people don't really play anymore. We do a lot of original stuff, but at the same time, we will throw in some old Hank Williams song or Jimmie Rodgers or Bob Wills."
Hayden's musical direction persuaded Nashville's top producer Tony Brown to cut a few sides on him. Although a major label record deal did not materialize, George Strait did record "The Real Thing" after hearing Hayden's version. (Chip Taylor wrote the tune.) Despite the disappointment, he's not one to curse Nashville.
"A lot of guys from Texas went through this whole anti-Nashville type of feeling a while back, and I have always come from the thought that Nashville is where country music is," Hayden says. "I am not against any of that. I would love to break through to mainstream radio and maybe get a video out. The more people who can hear the music, the happier I'd be."
He also looks to Strait as a pioneer, as well as a neighbor. Strait grew up in Poteet, Texas, only eight miles from Pleasanton. And Hayden is quick to praise him.
"It's just traditional country, and he does it so well," Hayden says. "In my opinion, I am the biggest Merle Haggard fan. I think that he is probably the single greatest artist ever, but as far as just a song catalog, George Strait is right up there with anybody. He's got the songs and a great voice. Especially his early stuff is just great country."