Hunter Hayes

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Avalon Theatre   6

Change is inevitable. Those who learn to embrace and own the great unknown that is the future set the pace and thrive.

So it is that Hunter Hayes found himself at a perilous emotional juncture at the beginning of 2018. Two of the most significant relationships in his life – one a business partnership, the other a romantic one – had come to an end and he’d gone through a period of grieving. But after looking at what was now behind him and realizing he could not change it, Hayes stared out at the future, realizing that the path before him was unknown. The only way to find out what was there was to dive in.

“If you’ve gone through all the storms and the sky finally clears, what are you gonna do? Sit down and go, ‘Wow, I don’t want to do that again?’” he asks rhetorically. “No. You made it through, so celebrate!”

The new music Hayes has begun to create is indeed a celebration in every sense of the word, though it’s not an endless party. It’s a recognition of a difficult period of growth, the kind of challenge required in a life well lived. Hayes faced up to change in his real life, and he put it all down in his art. The result is a body of work that rips the scabs off his emotional wounds, peering at the doubts, the demons, the losses and the uncertainties. It hints at the hard questions: Who am I? What’s my purpose? Why can’t I get out of my own way? Must the world be so painful?

Hayes dared to ask those questions outright in the first release from the new project, “Dear God”: “Why do I feel like I’m not enough? / Dear God, are You sure that You don’t mess up?”

He was afraid of that question when it arose during a songwriting session with pop star Andy Grammer, but confronting the fear – rather than shutting down the song – provided a breakthrough.

“I played it at the Bluebird Café for the first time in front of my parents,” Hayes remembers. “That was scary, but we got to talk about it. I said, ‘Dad, I think He gives me questions so that He can answer them.’ That’s my message here: I think God gives you big questions so He can answer them in a big way.”

Hayes has done things in a big way since he stepped onto the national stage in 2011 when Atlantic Records/Warner Music Nashville released his debut single, “Storm Warning,” months before he turned 20. Setting a precedent in country, he co-wrote every song on his first major-label album, sang every vocal part and played every instrument, including some preternatural guitar solos that demonstrated the depth of his abilities. That self-titled project and his sophomore album, Storyline, both topped the Billboard country albums chart while three of his singles – “Wanted,” “Somebody’s Heartbreak” and “I Want Crazy” (the latter appearing on the Deluxe edition of his debut) – went to No. 1 on various charts. Seven titles earned gold or platinum honors from the Recording Industry Association of America, with Hunter Hayes hitting the double-platinum mark and “Wanted” achieving five-times-platinum status. He snagged five Grammy nominations and won the Country Music Association’s New Artist of the Year trophy.

All of that occurred as both Hayes and his chosen industry were going through profound changes. Having left his native Louisiana for Nashville, he negotiated early adulthood while simultaneously navigating the spectacle of stardom. And the sales victories – coming at a time when the music industry moved uncomfortably from its longtime physical-purchase model into digital streaming – was accompanied by some built-in pressure.

“As an artist, it’s definitely not rainbows and butterflies – at least for me it’s not,” he concedes. “I’m not surrounded by ‘yes’ men. It is the most humbling thing to turn in 200 songs and have somebody on the other end go, ‘Yeah, sure, you can do better.’ You’re pouring out your soul, and you’re realizing that you’re turning in songs to someone who is not going through what you’re going through.”

At some point, Hayes realized he was living out his song “Wanted” in an unhealthy way – he so badly wanted his songs to be wanted that he was allowing others to dictate their value. It was an “ah-ha” moment – an appropriate one for a 20-something adult – when he decided to trust his own creative voice first.

“I would look to someone else for validation, and then all of a sudden I realized that, no, I have to believe in this before anybody else does,” he says. “It’s a  hard thing to realize this late in the game, but it took me a while to say, ‘I really need to stop writing and producing for other people’s approval and start making the record I want to make.’”

It represented a not-necessarily-inevitable change in attitude that led to a series of other changes. He restructured some of his business associations, finding partners that would continue to challenge him but also gave him space to trust his final judgment.

He sings personal material with new-found confidence, allowing himself to be emotionally open while reclaiming his inner light. Ably moving between his chest voice and falsetto, it’s a departure from trying to convince the outer world and more a need to simply express his inner reality. It’s that conviction about his art that allowed Hayes to step up to the edge in and jump.

The distinctive sounds and difficult truths that he uncovered as he let go and moved forward created the kind of artistic statement that qualifies as outstanding. By definition, one only stands out by not fitting in.

“There was this sense of flight,” Hayes says of the experience, “feeling that freedom and kind of loving the starting-over aspect of it. When you’re holding on to too many things, there’s no way you can possibly do that.”

Hunter Hayes has learned to embrace change. And with this new music, he moves in the same direction everyone is headed, whether they accept it or not: into a future that is – happily, wonderfully – unknown.