Rodney Hayden’s twangy Texas baritone and hardcore-country sound, grounded in fiddle and steel guitar, suggest years of hard living—maybe in some Texas honky-tonk where his father tended bar while his mother weaned him on shots of Jack Daniels and let him entertain himself with the jukebox as she waited tables.
Although that’s what his debut album, The Real Thing, may suggest, it’s not quite accurate.
Actually, Rodney Hayden’s only 22 and grew up as a pretty typical kid in Pleasanton, about 30 miles south of San Antonio; his mom’s a county clerk, and his dad’s a school superintendent with a sizable record collection, which is really where this story begins.
“When I was growing up, my dad had a real big record collection, and I used to just dig around through there and try to find stuff. For some reason, I was drawn to the older country,” Hayden explained in a recent interview. “When I got to be about 15, I decided that I wanted to start writing and singing and stuff, so I got an old guitar and tried to learn how to play and started writing. When I was 16, then, I started playing around at the dances and stuff, and it kind of went on from there.”
Although the elder Hayden’s record collection was varied, including a wide range of rock, jazz, swing, and blues, Rodney was drawn to traditional country: “It seemed like those songs had so much feeling, and they way they were just kind of directed more to the average, everyday person.” He adds, “And then the other thing, I think, is I’ve always been really into vocal stylists, people like George Jones and Merle Haggard and Vern Gosden—they have a different way of singing that’s not like everybody else’s, but they convey some type of emotion with their voices.”
“There’s a ton of singers,” Hayden says, “but there’s not as many that really get across that real emotion with their voice. I think that’s why I was drawn toward the traditional country stuff more.”
As a case in point, he cites the best: “I like Hank Williams a whole lot, and he was one of the first ones that really had so much, a lot of pain and despair in his voice that other people didn’t have. To me, that’s kind of the same thing as watching somebody who plays the guitar really well. I can appreciate stuff like Jimi Hendrix and people that are really great musicians. At the same time, the singers, the ones that do have that range and emotion and all that with their voices, it’s another type of instrument—so it’s pretty fascinating to hear different people, the way they can express that.”
Things got serious on the career front when Hayden was a 17-year-old high school senior and cut a 10-song demo that drew the attention of one of Texas’ finest singer/songwriters, Robert Earl Keen. Keen and his wife, Kathleen, were interested enough to hear him play in San Antonio one night and liked what they heard; when Hayden turned 18, he signed with their Rosetta Management team.
“Robert Keen helped me with a lot of my songwriting and developing a band and all of that stuff,” Hayden says. “And since then, we’ve recorded a lot of demos and sent them around to people, and finally we just decided it was time to go ahead and record a full-length album and release it and see what happened.”
Actually, there’s a bit more to it.
In June 1999, Rodney Hayden cut some songs in Austin with producer Lloyd Maines; meanwhile, he was touring and playing as some major Texas shows, such as Willie Nelson’s July 4th Picnic and Robert Earl Keen’s “Texas Uprising”. In the fall of 2000, Tony Brown, MCA Records president and respected producer, went to Austin to see Hayden for himself. This led to an invitation to record more material in Nashville that would, hopefully, lead to a major label contract.
While the recording went well (Hayden has described it as meeting “a kindred spirit”), the pitching didn’t, with Hayden being told he was “too country for Nashville”. So he and Keen decided it was time to go for it. Keen created Rosetta Records, which has re-released three of Keen’s albums; The Real Thing is its first debut artist, however. The songs that eventually formed The Real Thing include cuts produced by Brown, Rich Brotherton, and Clay Blaker with Keen acting as executive producer.
While all this was going on, Hayden continued to grow as an artist. After all, if you’re going to play Texas honky-tonks—and there’s no better school for country music—you’d better have the show and the songs, something that he’s been working at. Now he’s seeing the results.
“A year ago, there were clubs we could play where there weren’t that many people there,” Hayden says. “We’d built up some type of a following because I’d been playing around for so long, but it was hard to build that up without some type of record or anything out there. Now since we’ve released [The Real Thing] and are getting some airplay and stuff, I’ve seen a just a huge difference as far as people coming out and knowing the songs and all of that.”
At this point, though, he’s not seeing the infamous “Rowdies” that have been the heart of Keen’s audience. “We have a pretty big age difference in our crowd—from little children all the way up to their grandparents coming out to our shows, and that’s kind of neat. It’s a real family atmosphere,” Hayden says. “And then we also have a lot of the college kids and the high school kids coming out, but it’s a pretty even number between all of the different age groups, which is pretty neat.”
Among those coming out are his parents. After some initial reticence about their son’s decision to bypass a track scholarship at Southwest Texas State, Hayden’s family has responded positively to his decision to head for those “swingin’ doors” and, according to Rodney, “They’re pretty happy about it now.”
(So how did a minor get into those dancehalls so easily? Hayden just laughs, “I don’t know. People always used to give me a hard time about it, but they never really objected too much. They’d let me come in and play.”)
When asked what it was like to be told by Nashville that he was “too country”, he laughs it off, too, though his voice suggests something different.
“I was at that age, 18, 19, 20, and to be told, ‘Hey, you’re too country’, it seemed kind of funny, mostly because usually you hear that aimed at the older singers that have come and gone, and you don’t hear it as much pointed toward the younger, newer people,” Hayden says.
“At first I was kind of upset about it,” he continues, “because I looked at that as being my one big chance. I went up and recorded with MCA Records and did that whole thing, and I thought that it was really fixing to start happening, and when it didn’t, then it was pretty difficult to deal with. But now I look at it, and I think that it’s just given me time to mature as a singer and a writer and in my live show. . . . Maybe at the time, I wasn’t as ready as I thought I was.”
Hayden also remains optimistic about country’s future: “I understood where they were coming from as far as a business outlook, but I still think that, you know, the timing’s almost right—it’s fixing to start turning around again, and a lot of the traditional stuff is going to come back.”
As evidence, he cites Alan Jackson’s Drive. “[H]e has a huge, huge single out, but he sold, like 450,000 copies or something its first week out, and it’s on the Billboard charts, and the next closest person was a rock band [Creed], and they’d sold like 100,000. . . . That’s a good example because he’s the most traditional artist that’s out in mainstream country right now, and if can sell that many records, it shows that there are people out there that want to hear it. And then guys like Brad Paisley—there’s starting to be a few more people that are popping up that are having success in the mainstream with traditional country that I think three or four years ago weren’t, so I think we’re slowly starting to see glimpses of it turning around.”
The “turning around”, Hayden believes, will be his ticket to Nashville: “Everybody that I always looked up to in music and all always recorded on Nashville labels and stuff, so, of course, that’s where I was wanting to be, and still I think once this all starts turning around, I think that’s where we’ll end up. But for the first record, it may have been a good thing.”
The Real Thing
In this era dominated by country-pop that will do almost anything to reach a larger demographic, The Real Thing is a much-needed country record, a solid blend of originals and covers.
Rodney Hayden began writing songs when he was 18 though his songwriting has matured since working with long-time friend Bill Whitbeck, bass player in the Robert Earl Keen Band.
“I looked at things a lot of time from a certain perspective—I can’t really explain it—but the way I looked at songs and wrote them, I never really thought about maybe adding a different chord progression or maybe changing it up a little,” Hayden explains. “Most of the time, I wrote a song, and I’d write it in 15 minutes and put it away and play it live maybe, or that’s all I’d do with it. Once I started writing will Bill, he kind of helped me. . . . We’d write a song, and maybe five or six months later, we’d go back and look at it or maybe try to polish it up a little bit more. So, he’s really helped me as far as trying to be a little more disciplined.”
Hayden’s songs originate from “pretty personal types of things”. For example, of “Trying to Find Myself”, a contemplative piece with an increasing tempo that reflects the singer’s need to leave, he says, “I started writing like the week I came back from Nashville, and it didn’t work out because everybody said it was too country or a little too different. So I wasn’t sure, really, where I was headed or what I was supposed to do. For about a month, I was kind of questioning, you know, where I was going to end up, and I was trying to figure out a lot of stuff.”
“Mighty Lonesome Sound”, with its haunting mix of steel guitar, fiddle, and piano, was the result of a Hayden and Whitbeck trying to fuse two country greats. “We were talking about Hank Williams Sr. and Bob Wills and stuff, and Bill actually came up with that idea for the song, trying to mix the two—Bob Wills meets Hank Williams—and we had more of a modern version of it,” Hayden says. “And he had a really neat chord progression going, and we sat down and wrote it in just a few minutes really.” Echoes of Jimmie Rodgers, he explains with, “I kind of had an infatuation with trains for awhile there.”
Or there’s the true story behind the waltz “December Rose”, made both delicate and nostalgic through Rich Brotherton’s mandolin. When Hayden was 18 and playing a night of country standards in Kerrville, he says, “This older man came in and wanted to hear ‘Corina, Corina’ . . . And right before we left, he gave me this rose out of his pocket. I thought it was a real neat story, and I’d been carrying the rose around—I’d left it in my guitar case—I’d been trying to come up with some type of song, and I couldn’t really pinpoint it. . . . Then I took it to Bill Whitbeck, and I told him the whole story, and he thought it was as neat as I did. So we just sat down one day and wrote the song, and it pretty much follows the story 100%.”
Also included are a variety of cover songs, two the result of Kathleen Keen suggestions. The first is the album’s unapologetic title track, “The Real Thing”, the song that sets the tone for the album, both musically and thematically.
“I was listening to Chip Taylor”, Hayden says, “and really liked a lot of his stuff, but that song, just the subject that it was dealing with, I thought it was kind of neat and had something to do with today’s music as well. We’d been playing it live for awhile, and I’d cut it as a demo two or three times, and it just never felt quite right. And when I went up and recorded with Tony Brown, I talked to him about maybe pumping the tempo up just a hair, and he had some really good ideas to try to give more of a drive to it, and it turned out real well.”
(As a side-note, Brown pitched songs from The Real Thing to George Strait for his The Road Less Traveled album. Strait was drawn to the title track, a song he remembered from Taylor’s 1970’s version. “He really liked the way we had kind of pushed the tempo up and the instrumentation and everything,” Hayden says. “So they didn’t change it hardly at all.” Then, laughing, he adds, “Wish I’d written it!”)
Kathleen Keen’s second suggestion was Tom Waits’ “I Hope that I Don’t Fall in Love with You”. “I knew his name but had never really listened to much of his stuff. And as soon as I heard it,” Hayden laughs, “I thought that it sounded like a country song if you just added some steel guitar and fiddle to it.”
Hayden had been playing Billy Joe Shaver’s “Black Rose” since he was 15—“I just really liked the feel and the idea behind it”—and he’s been a long-time fan of Robbie Fulks, writer of “Tears Only Run One Way”. His versions would make the songwriters proud.
As for the future, well, he’s optimistic.
“We’re just seeing what all happens,” Hayden says. “Everything’s moving along pretty quick. We’re just released The Real Thing . . . and have gotten a lot of attention from a lot of people, and that’s neat. Our live show’s doing really well, so hopefully we’ll continue to build a fan-base and sell some records, and, hopefully, in the long run, we’ll get with a major label and break through to mainstream country radio and bring back some of the steel guitar and fiddle that it needs.”