Hayseed – Modern Traditionalist
“Hayseed is, in my mind, on the same level as Bob Dylan and Neil Young and Van Morrison,” says Lucinda Williams. “That’s just what I think, that’s my opinion, for what it’s worth. I don’t say that about everybody who comes down the pike, and you can ask anybody who knows me. Music has to grab me in a certain way, and the stuff that does that, it’s a time-transcendent thing. I put Hayseed right in there with that batch of stuff.”
Strong words, especially about a guy with just one album to his credit. One might chalk Williams’ testimonial up to the vagaries of individual taste, but her view is shared by a talented and influential circle of friends and supporters — folks for whom Hayseed has done nothing other than be what he is, yet who have provided him indispensable help in realizing his musical ideas and getting them out into the world. “You almost feel like that’s what I’m supposed to do in life,” Hayseed says, “because I bumped into these guys — there was no design to it, it’s like a providential chain of events that have transpired over my life.”
Hayseed is, of course, not his real name. Born Christopher Wyant in 1966, he grew up in Western Kentucky, where his father was a minister in the United Pentecostal Church International, a stern sect that traces its origins to a 1916 split in the Assemblies of God. “We were taught that we’re separate, we’re in the world but not of it,” he says. “It was just a mindset that you grew up with. There’s a whole hierarchy there, and of course with my dad being a minister, I represented my dad, I represented my church, I represented my denomination, and then I represented God. Most times I felt it was more of a blessing; you felt like it was a calling or something. But there were a whole lot of issues that I had to get out of the way in order to get a balance later in life about just who I am, rather than representing everything else before I ever got to represent who I am.”
With little in the way of contemporary culture to influence him — secular entertainment was off-limits, and the family didn’t even own a television — Hayseed grew up rooted in the music of the church. “It’s an integral part of the service, so we grew up in churches where any instrument you played, bring it to church and wail away on it; you don’t have to be good. And that’s one of the things that made me who I am, because I didn’t have anybody judging me. From the time I was a little kid, I was encouraged to sing at the top of my lungs, and as emotionally as I wanted to.”
When he moved to Nashville in 1986, Hayseed didn’t so much break with as slide away from the church, grappling with what he calls a “spiritual withdrawal and rebirth” even as he hung around the fringes of the gospel and contemporary Christian music scenes, finding work with gospel star Bobby Jones and, eventually, as a roadie with Christian-cum-alternative-rock band Chagall Guevara. He scored that gig through David Perkins, who Hayseed describes as a “brother and mentor.” It was through Perkins that he met Richard Price, currently Lucinda Williams’ bassist and partner, but at the time a guy with some time on his hands.
“I was kind of bored,” Price recalls. “I didn’t have that much to do around town, except freelance a little bit on the bass. I told Perkins one time I needed something to do. He said, ‘Well, we got this big ol’ boy with a big voice that’s helping us with our equipment with Chagall Guevara that could probably use some help.'”
With Price’s help, Hayseed (who plays no instruments) began to shape the songs he had been writing as a reflection of his spiritual crisis and his sense of being an outsider. A simple demo of his song “God-Shaped Hole” found its way to Bloodshot Records, and a re-recording of it appeared on the label’s 1996 compilation disc Nashville: The Other Side Of The Alley. That version, in turn, anchored a six-song demo cassette called Homegrown. As Price says, “That got around. People started biting on it immediately.”
Listening to the tracks from the cassette, it’s not hard to see why. It’s not easy to create a genuine synthesis of the modern with the traditional, yet that’s precisely what Hayseed has done. The melodies of “Cold Feet”, “God-Shaped Hole”, “Between The Lines” and “Origin Of The Snake” are close kin to countless old-time tunes, and for the musicians playing them, they’re an intimately familiar language. Yet the lyrics carry sharp contemporary accents, preoccupied with guilt, sin, salvation and eternity — even when, as on “Cold Feet”, the dark verses contrast with a cheerfully rowdy chorus.
“He’s very bright, and he’s a brilliant lyricist,” says Williams. “And you don’t run across that very often. There just aren’t that many great songwriters; you might as well be blunt about it. There’s not that much interesting stuff lyrically, that challenges you. Hayseed’s music challenges the listener, and that’s what’s going to set him apart from a lot of other people.”
“I think the fact that he was kept from the high-speed world for a large part of his childhood kind of gave him a clearer view of things when he finally came out into it,” says Price, “because he hadn’t been really bombarded with all the stuff we get on the TV and the radio 24 hours a day as much as a lot of people are. So once he started writing, part of him might have been trying to escape some of his religious background, but on the other hand it gave him a lot of spiritual insight.
“He’s an avid reader, loves to read poetry and novels and all kinds of stuff. I just think that as he began to get out in life, when he started making observations and writing them down, it makes it fresh. We can be using fiddles and mandolins and dulcimers and the music can have a mountain, Appalachian background to it, but when his lyrics come across, they don’t sound like yesterday. They sound like right now.”
Hayseed himself laughs about it: “At one point I read a Marcel Duchamp quote, it might not be original to him because I’ve seen it elsewhere, a little thing that said, ‘Small minds talk about people, average minds talk about events, and great minds talk about ideas,’ and I kind of got that in the back of my head, and thought, well, I want to be a great mind.”