Hunter Hayes was just hoping to nail his duties as a performing presenter at the Grammy Nominations Concert on Wednesday. The 21-year-old Atlantic Nashville singer couldn't have expected to end the night a three-time nominee on top of singing the choruses of the five Song of the Year candidates.
Though the Grammy producers gave him a top-secret heads up of the Song of the Year nominees before he performed them, Hayes swears he was in the dark about the rest of the announcements. "I was kind of laughing because nobody knew," Hayes told Billboard Thursday afternoon. "We were in such a hurry for the quick change between the show close and getting to our seats, I was kind of like, 'Dude we don't need to be there anytime soon.' And as it turned out, we did and I'm glad we were. I was not expecting to go the Grammy nominations concert and to walk away with my name in there."
Though Hayes was thrilled for his nods in Best Country Album and Best Country Solo Performance, being up for Best New Artist had him "blown away," he said, unintentionally channeling current tour partner (and fellow Country Solo Performance nominee) Carrie Underwood.
"It's really cool to represent country artists and wave the flag for the genre. That's a really big deal for me," he said of a category that also includes fun., Alabama Shakes, The Lumineers and Frank Ocean. "These guys have all paved their own road, they're doing something different with all their heart and soul. I can't believe that I'm considered as part of that group."
In a year that has seen his song "Wanted" reach the top 20 of the Billboard Hot 100 and become the fourth highest-selling country single of 2012, with sales of over 1.88 million downloads - not to mention his self-titled album peaking at No. 4 on the Country Albums chart, with sales of 396,000 copies to date - Hayes has many career highlights to choose from.
• PHOTOS: Highlights From the Concert
• NOMINEES: List of Major Nominations
• SNUB: Justin Bieber's Manager Reacts
"When 'Wanted' went to No. 1 [on the Country chart] that was a major milestone for me," he said. "The CMA [Best New Artist] Award was, I mean, just totally huge in a whole different category. And then now this. I'm gonna go ahead and restart my calendar now - it's kind of hard to top that."
Having effectively kicked off his 2013, Hayes already has a pretty ambitious, if tentative schedule. "Carrie was nice enough to invite us back for another round of dates on the Blown Away tour. But we've got tons of stuff planned next year - maybe some new music, some new tracks or whatever. Looking at a headline show. Honestly there's nothing set in stone at this point. I'd like to find some time to write a little more. It's all up in the air right now. One thing I do know is we're gonna be out on the road all year, and that's exactly the best I could have asked for."
Hayes' nods represent three of his label Atlantic's 29 nominations this year, with labelmates fun., Wiz Khalifa, Skrillex, Janelle Monae, Ed Sheeran, Trey Songz and Jason Mraz among the artists recognized. Having just paid musical tribute to label boss Julie Greenwald at Billboard's Women In Music luncheon in New York last week, Hayes was quick to expand his praise.
"I do feel like I have a team of people who believe in me in a very deep-rooted way and I feel surrounded by people that truly care about the art and truly care about the music," he said. "To have this team, to have moved to Nashville dreaming of doing exactly what I'm doing right now and to have a team as strong as that with such a great track record is such a great story."