Hunter Hayes steps out of his tour-bus shower, throws on a Purdue University T-shirt and prepares to face what many others would deem to be nothing short of insanity. For Hayes, it’s just another Thursday evening. “It’s become a little tradition,” the country superstar says of regularly exiting his tour bus after one of his concerts to see his fans. His band is usually busy throwing back some after-show cocktails — Hayes might have a couple; nothing too crazy — but the guy is more concerned with logging face time with the rowdy crowd of primarily young females waiting outside. Tonight, they’re here in the cold, kept behind a barricade, chanting Hayes’ name for the past hour. So there he goes now, dismounting his bus, flanked by his manager, Dan, to greet the ecstatic horde of rabid fans gathered for some selfies and shrieking in West Lafayette, Indiana.
The 24-year-old Louisiana-raised, Grammy-nominated singer with winning charm, gently coiffed blond hair and a mid-Nineties boy band’s level of popularity is either a phenomenal actor — he recently signed on for scripted television show on Nickelodeon — or one of the most genuinely appreciative, respectful young artists on the country scene. He’s happy to make your acquaintance even while in the midst of his 21 Tour, a limited-run jaunt of college campuses to promote his new album The 21 Project, a three-disc set that builds on his 21 EP. The album hit stores today, November 6th.
Released today, The 21 Project features not only the slew of singles Hayes released every two weeks this past summer, including the jumpy title track, but also all seven songs in both their acoustic and live formats. Surprising and challenging his fans remains paramount to Hayes; the underrated, blues-influenced guitarist displays it on a nightly basis, whether he’s changing the tempos and arrangement of some of his most popular songs or throwing in a cover of a ubiquitous pop single, as he did with Walk the Moon’s “Shut Up and Dance” in West Lafayette.
When Rolling Stone Country sat down with Hayes on his tour bus a few hours before the Purdue University show, the “Wanted” singer was equal parts focused, forthcoming and self-deprecating as he opened up on his new album, his interaction with fans and the challenges of writing on the road.
For as big of a star as you currently are, you make it a deliberate point to spend hours with your fans before every show.
I’ve been to a lot of meet-and-greets myself. And I’ve met a lot of artists. And I’ve seen a lot of fun shows. It’s funny though because you start to critique yourself even harder when you’ve had a lot of really strong feelings about other artists in the past. What I love is that I get to know my fans as much as they get to know me. Social media is great because it lets people in on our world — it lets you talk through something other than just the music. I feel like [pre-show fan hangout] “Coffeehouse” is kind of a version of that in a way. I want that communication, that interaction. It’s become one of my favorite parts of the day. Because for one, it’s chill; it’s not rushed. Also, it puts a lot of things in perspective. It recharges you in a really cool way. Everything has so much more meaning when you’re sitting there and talking about these songs and what certain lines mean to people.