I have seen the future of country music, and its name is Hunter Hayes.
Forget about Florida Georgia Line, Luke Bryan and all the partying-at-your-pickup bro country. Forget about Danielle Bradbery, Cassadee Pope and all those TV talent show-launched vocal gymnasts.
Hayes has the sweaty swagger and hyperkinetic energy of a young Bruce Springsteen. Hayes has the guitar chops of a John Mayer wannabe complete with all the facial grimaces. Hayes has the self-awareness, chattiness, confidence, polish and showmanship of Taylor Swift. And, not least importantly, he’s got the cute, boyish looks of Justin Bieber — with none of the brattiness.
On Wednesday night at the sold-out Orpheum Theatre, the new heartthrob in the blue-jean jacket and sneakers was greeted by piercing screams worthy of a One Direction concert. All the girls — average age was 14, not counting the moms, dads or the six boyfriends who showed up but didn’t know any of the lyrics — went crazy for Hayes as he opened a rare two-night stand on his Let’s Be Crazy Tour.
This perfectly packaged craziness seems so calculated that this one-man boy-band could have been conceived by popmeister Simon Cowell. But Hayes is genuinely talented. In fact, he was a prodigy, playing onstage with Hank Williams Jr. at age 4, acting as an accordionist (his first instrument) at age 6 in the movie “The Apostle” with Robert Duvall, who bought Hayes his first guitar. In 2010, Hayes cowrote “Play” for Rascal Flatts, and the next year he released his self-titled major-label debut. Three of his first five singles reached the Top 10 on Billboard’s country chart, with “Wanted” landing at No. 1. Last year, Hayes won the Country Music Association Award for best new artist, and this week he was named by CMT, the country cable channel, as one of 2013’s artists of the year.
At his two-hour Orpheum show, it was obvious that Hayes’ music — he wrote or cowrote everything on his million-selling debut — owes a debt to Rascal Flatts and Keith Urban. Part of it is his high keening voice, part of it is his propensity to play hot, quick guitar flourishes but most of it is about the music. This is not old-school country with story songs filled with characters, details and drama. This is pop-as-country — just explosions of emotions without much dramatic buildup. Pretty formulaic stuff but it pulls at the heart strings of teen and tween girls.
With his emotional but undistinctive voice, Hayes is not likely to win male vocalist of the year anytime soon, but he is so darn likable. He was friendly, hand-slappingly accessible and BFF talkative. And OMG, sooo cute. He’s 22 but looks 15. He actually looks a little bit like Neil Patrick Harris — complete with that “Glee”—like attitude of let’s do a show and have so much fun with it.
So, on Wednesday, when he spontaneously went from his own acoustic singalong “If You Told Me To” into Train’s “Hey, Soul Sister,” the fans continued to sing along at an even louder volume. And then when he effortlessly segued into Bruno Mars’ “Just the Way You Are,” it left no doubt that there is no divide between pop and Hayes’ country.
The screams reached a new peak on Hayes’ current single, “Everybody’s Got Somebody But Me,” a pure pop ditty that featured duet partner Jason Mraz, the pop star, singing on a giant video screen. And new heights were achieved on the ensuing “On Top of the World,” the Imagine Dragons’ pop hit that Hayes’ band spiked with a little mandolin.
The only way Hayes could take the fans higher was with “Wanted,” his country smash that crossed over to the pop charts and Top 40 radio.
“I want to make you feel wanted,” Hayes crooned. There’s nothing original or poetic about the line. But it’s certainly universal.
There’s nothing about Hayes’ music that speaks as personally to his fans as Swift’s first three albums of country songs did. But now she’s gone totally pop. He’s only two years younger than she is, but, with only one album to his name and thousands of girls — and Nashville — depending upon him, he is, for better or worse, country’s next big thing.
For set list, go to www.startribune.com/artcetera