Hunter Hayes Leads Country's Youth Revolution, Without a Pickup Truck or Beer in Sight

Hunter Hayes
Austin Hargrave

Hunter Hayes photographed April 7, 2014 in the desert outside of Las Vegas. 

With new album "Storyline," 22-year-old prodigy Hunter Hayes is leading country's youth revolution -- without a pickup truck or beer can in sight.

Strolling into a trendy eatery in Las Vegas, Hunter Hayes, casually clad in jeans and a gray T-shirt, is teeming with the youthful exuberance of a 22-year-old on the brink of something big: specifically, his second major-label album, "Storyline," out May 6 on Atlantic. His flaxen hair and princely features are reminiscent of Game of Thrones' young King Joffrey, but with none of the aristocratic airs: When a photographer asks him to jump higher, or play air guitar harder, he doesn't flinch.

"Don't kill my artist," says manager Betsy McHugh, only half joking, when Hayes teeters on a box as the photographer angles for a shot.

"Yeah, I have to play tonight - and tomorrow night and the next night," says Hayes, with a big smile that makes it obvious that playing nightly isn't a chore, it's a dream.

Hunter Hayes

After all, he has been preparing for this since he was a precocious 2-year-old in Breaux Bridge, Louisiana. That's when his grandmother gave him a toy accordion; he soon began learning the real thing. There's a YouTube clip of Hayes playing and singing "Jambalaya" with Hank Williams Jr. at age 4. At 6, he co-starred in The Apostle with Robert Duvall. By 9, he had recorded his first independent album. "I played 30 to 60 gigs a year," says Hayes. "Every weekend there was a festival or somebody throwing a party. You could make a living playing music in Louisiana."

But now, six years after moving to Nashville to pursue his dreams, Hayes makes more than just a living. The King Joffrey comparison is apt not just because of his looks: Hayes could be poised to one day ascend to country music's throne - and beyond. Country, once ruled by an older audience, is now America's No. 1 radio format, according to Nielsen, and much of this is due to a growing young demographic: During the past two years, the genre's audience share grew 17 percent with teens (12- to 17-year-olds) and 16 percent with young adults (18-24), according to Nielsen.

Hayes, with his teen-idol looks and young fan base, may embody this trend better than anyone not named Taylor. His 2011 self-titled debut hit No. 1 on Billboard's Top Country Albums chart, earned four Grammy nods and sold 1.1 million copies, according to Nielsen SoundScan. Second single "Wanted" topped the Hot Country Songs list for three weeks in 2012 and has sold 3.5 million downloads, more than justifying his new artist of the year win at the Country Music Association Awards in 2012.

"It's certainly the country core audience, but Hayes hits a younger demo as well, which is healthy for country," says Warner Music Nashville executive vp/GM Peter Strickland. "He's 13 to 55 if you want to put a range on it."

"I've been welcomed to the family," says Hayes. "I don't want anybody to think I take that lightly."

But Hayes isn't following in the footsteps of other male Nashville stars, often derided as "bro country" for their arena-rock sound and bawdy references to trucks, beer and girls. Storyline's first single, "Invisible," for example, is a piano-heavy power ballad about social outcasts. "I never fit in at school because my focus was music," says Hayes. " 'Invisible' is the story of a really geeky dude who loves making music who had no place but the place I have found now. I want the people who have given me that place to hear the story."

"I never fit in at school because my focus was music." - Hunter Hayes

The song has been a slow build at radio - it rises 20-19 on the May 10 Country Airplay chart. But Hayes' fans are behind "Invisible": It has sold 350,000 copies, peaking at No. 4 on Hot Country Songs in February (it's now No. 16). "I wasn't sure it would ever be a single," says Hayes. "I wasn't sure we could intro a record with something so serious. But we felt committed to what 'Invisible' says. It was a leap of faith worth taking."

In another twist, the sound of Hayes' bayou roots runs though "Storyline." "I grew up with blues, Cajun music," he says. "I was fascinated with fiddles, which led me to bluegrass, which led me to mandolins. I have one on every song."

Hayes is a musician's musician - he played all 30 instruments on his debut. On "Storyline" he again co-produces with Dann Huff, but recorded with his road band for a more communal feel. "They each have a voice," he says. "It's the magic that happens with everybody in the room together."

To promote Storyline, Hayes is attempting to break The Flaming Lips' Guinness World Record for most shows played in 24 hours. The Lips played eight; Hayes, who's teaming with ConAgra for the run to raise money for child hunger, is doing 10, starting with Good Morning America on May 9. He got the idea when he opened for the Lips during their record-breaking 24-hour run. "The first thing I did after the show was get on the map app and text my manager," says Hayes, who's already on a headlining arena tour with openers Danielle Bradbery and Dan & Shay.

It will be a grueling day, but Hayes is unfazed: He says he's happiest onstage. "You play every day and the one goal is to play again. The one thing I go to bed thinking is, 'What can I do tomorrow to make sure I can do the same thing I did today?' "