Between 2000 and 2003, I lived in Morgan City, a small burg deep in the heart of Louisiana’s Cajun Country. Besides being a gateway to oil platforms in the Gulf of Mexico, Morgan City is best-known for its annual Shrimp & Petroleum Festival, held over Labor Day weekend.
One year, I remember a charismatic adolescent from nearby Breaux Bridge leading his band through a zydeco-packed set, all the time playing a junior-sized accordion with a speed that would make Usain Bolt winded.
Girls and their mothers swooned at Hunter Hayes — the cutest kid you had ever seen.
Out of jealousy, my friends and I joked that in a few years the music industry would chew him up and spit him out. He would be a has-been, like so many other young stars, with DUIs on his record and multiple stints in rehab.
As it turned out, Hayes had the last laugh — navigating his teenage years with a single-minded determination and success.
A few weeks ago, his single “Wanted” hit No. 1 on the country charts, making him the youngest solo male artist to top the music lists, surpassing a record set in 1973 by Johnny Rodriguez’s “You Always Come Back to Hurting Me.”
And, at barely 21, he’s still cute.
On Wednesday, Hayes will perform in Utah as the sole opening act for Carrie Underwood’s “Blown Away” tour.
Hayes’ first single, the lyrically clever up-tempo “Storm Warning,” was a modest hit, reaching No. 14 on the Billboard country chart. But it wasn’t until “Wanted” was released that Hayes and his musical talents were recognized by the world. The ballad comes off his self-titled debut album in which the 21-year-old played every instrument, wrote or co-wrote every song, and co-produced. It’s a first for any country artist.
“The stage is where I’m most comfortable,” he said in a recent interview. “All I can think about is the next show. The most exciting thing is the show. There’s a genuine excitement.”
Hayes’ road to stardom began when his grandmother bought him a toy accordion for his second birthday. At age 4, he began performing near his home and eventually earned spots on national television shows such as “Maury,” “Rosie O’Donnell” and Nickelodeon’s “Figure It Out” series, where he performed “Jambalaya (On the Bayou).”
His parents were not musicians, so Hayes’ ability to play the accordion — and every other instrument he picks up — shocked them.
“If anything, my parents were confused by it,” he said. “I have to look back and say, ‘Wow.’ The sacrifices they made.
Hayes admits to being a “shy, quiet” guy.
“Music became my communication, to get into my comfort zone,” he said, with nary a Cajun accent. (It only shows up when he gets mad or excited.)
Besides Tabasco sauce, Fat Tuesday and sucking crawfish heads, music and the spirit of Laissez les bons temps rouler (translated as “Let the good times roll”) is an integral part of southern Louisiana life. “It’s a musical mecca of sorts,” Hayes said. “I saw people who did it because they loved it, on their off-time. I saw the love of music.”
Hayes graduated from high school early and moved to Nashville at 16. He first signed with Universal Music Publishing Group as a songwriter, and in 2010, he co-wrote “Play” for the Rascal Flatts “Nothing Like This” album.
In September 2010, Hayes was signed to Atlantic Records Nashville and began working on his first album. It was released last October — after spending the summer touring with fellow wunderkind Taylor Swift.
Persuading a major label to let him write or co-write every song on a debut album — as well as play every instrument on it — is unheard of, but that trust is paying off for his label.
“Hunter has retained [humility] on his path to becoming a superstar,” said Peter Strickland, senior vice president of Brand Management and Sales at Warner Music Nashville, in a statement. “[We] are proud to have such a wonderful team such as Hunter’s as a member of our musical family.”
As the sole opener for Underwood’s much-anticipated tour, Hayes is part of the biggest country trek to hit Utah in 2012.
Hayes is so deferential that he won’t even criticize the food served in Underwood’s catering tent, with the excuse that “I’m a big sushi guy.”
Press him a little, though, and Hayes will admit that he often gets a hankering for Cajun sausage (boudin), spicy, fried pork cracklings and jambalaya with the right amount of onions, bell peppers and celery — the “holy trinity” of Cajun cooking.
Maybe if I eat those, I will get irresistibly cute, too.
“Blown Away” tour
P Carrie Underwood headlines with Hunter Hayes.
When • Wednesday, Oct. 10, at 7:30 p.m.
Where • Maverik Center, 3200 S. Decker Lake Drive, West Valley City
Tickets • $65.50, $55.50 and $45.50 at Ticketmaster outlets