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Hunter Hayes adds a different punch to country music

Hunter Hayes performed in April at the Stagecoach Music Festival at Empire Polo Field, Indio, Calif.
Hunter Hayes performed in April at the Stagecoach Music Festival at Empire Polo Field, Indio, Calif. Invision/AP

Hunter Hayes doesn’t travel the same dirt roads as his male colleagues in modern country music.

Instead of pickup trucks, six-packs of beer and parties on the beach — the focus of so many modern-country songs — the 23-year-old Hayes writes more about matters of the heart, which has prompted comparisons to another of country’s pop stars.

“Hunter Hayes has emerged as the first genuine post-Taylor Swift artist in country music,” wrote Stephen Thomas Erlewine in the All Music Guide.

Hayes, who performs Saturday night at the Sprint Center in support of his new album, “Storyline,” spoke to The Star recently about his songwriting, his love of the Punch Brothers and his recent collaboration with John Legend.

What is the songwriting process like for you?

The writing starts before I sit down to write. I’ve got so many ideas on my phone right now, a series of notes, 10 to 20 song titles.

You go through these moments of a day when you have these extreme feelings. I try to summarize those feelings in two to three words. When I get with a co-writer a month later — or maybe it’s two months later or a year later — eventually we look at those song titles have a conversation about what those two or three words mean and then spend the next couple of hours trying to write a song that explains those words.

That’s been the way I’ve written for a long time. I don’t like to get too algorithmic or formulaic. I usually miss the mark with a strategic approach. I prefer to start with a conversation because that’s really what a song is.

When you start to arrange a song, what influences do you tap into? Do you have radio play in mind and do you feel bound to a format?

I don’t think bound is the right word. Inspired is more like it. I’ve been listening to country radio my whole life. So that influences me. Lyrically what influences me is life.

Musically it’s as much about what has influenced me before as it is what’s influencing me now. I grew up around Garth Brooks and Keith Urban. I listened to a lot of Diamond Rio, so you hear a lot of three-part harmonies and mandolin stuff on my records. And I love the sound of a resonator because I’ve heard it on so many of my bluegrass records.

A record I’ve been spinning like crazy is one from a group called the Punch Brothers, a very, very interesting bluegrass band. I’m a huge Chris Thile fan and the rest of that band. I respect them so much.

So there you are. You have all those elements that kind of naturally make their way into the studio and you try to find your version of your sound without copying anyone or trying to be anyone else.

I’m not very good with agendas. I’m more inspired by the creative route.

For this summer’s CMT Music Awards, you had the chance to collaborate with John Legend and apply your touch to one of his classic neo-soul songs, “All of Me.” What was that like?

They wanted Jennifer (Nettles) and John to do the song, and John wanted to do a different version of it because, obviously, he’s done it a million times. He wanted an acoustic version and didn’t want to play piano. My name came up and I was lucky enough to get the invite.

I was obsessed with the Punch Brothers and this idea popped into my head. So I said, “Hey, John, would you mind me trying something with my band? I’m not going to put this big drum kit onstage. We’re not going to do this big rocking version. Let me bring the band in and record it on my iPhone and I’ll text it to you. If you hate it, we’ll forget about it. If you love it, we’ll do it.”

He was totally open to it. We recorded it and sent it to him. He texted right back and said, “I love it.”

The next day, he called and said he wanted to do it in the studio. So we arranged to get a studio and record a very acoustic but emotional version of the song the day before the awards show.

It was an honor. Producing is something I’ve always wanted to do. But it’s tough when you’re used to producing yourself. When you produce yourself you can do what you want. For someone else, it’s a different thing. You have to realize someone else’s vision.

So it was fun to get the reins to that song and for him to say, “Have fun with it.” I love the song; I always have. And it was cool to do my interpretation of it.

To reach Timothy Finn, call 816-234-4781 or send email to tfinn@kcstar.com. Follow the Back to Rockville blog on Twitter @kcstarrockville.

SATURDAY

Hunter Hayes performs Saturday night at the Sprint Center. Openers are Dan + Shay and the Railers. Show time is 7 p.m. Tickets are $18 to $43.

Hunter Hayes

▪ Native of Breaux Bridge, Louisiana.

▪ At the age of 8, he performed for President Bill Clinton during a picnic on the White House lawn.

▪ Rascal Flatts recorded “Play,” a song for its “Nothing Like This” album in 2010. Hayes, who co-wrote the song, was 19.

▪ Released his debut album, “Hunter Hayes,” in 2011. Hayes co-produced the album and played nearly two dozen instruments, including bouzouki and sitar. Five of its songs landed in the Top 20 of the country charts, including “Wanted,” which reached No. 1.

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