From the Heart
It might seem unlikely that singer-songwriter Christopher Wyant would make music that speaks to contemporary audiences. The 31-year-old performer, who goes by the stage name Hayseed, grew up in a cultural vacuum: A preacher’s kid from rural Kentucky, he spent his formative years singing at Pentecostal revivals and brush-arbor meetings; his parents shunned every type of music but gospel, and they still don’t own a TV set. And yet, perhaps because Hayseed’s originals sound like they spring from the mountain culture of the ’40s rather than the ’70s of his youth, progressive-minded traditionalists like Lucinda Williams, Emmylou Harris, and Alison Krauss are listening to his music. Harris is even considering cutting one of Hayseed’s songs.
Williams first heard Hayseed’s music when her boyfriend Richard Price, who is Hayseed’s coproducer, brought home a demo of the singer’s “God-Shaped Hole,” a song that gives hillbilly expression to the theological anthropology of St. Augustine. (“Our hearts are restless until they rest in Thee.”) “I think that’s one of the most brilliant songs ever written,” Williams gushes. “Whenever I talk to people about Hayseed, I end up singing a refrain from ‘God-Shaped Hole’ on the spot because I’m so excited about it. I did that over at Emmylou’s house,” she says, referring to a recent visit during which she loaned Harris a copy of Homegrown, Hayseed’s self-released cassette. “I gave her the tape and immediately said, ‘Emmy, there’s a song on there that’s one of the greatest songs I’ve ever heard.’ Of course, I couldn’t let it go at that. I had to sing part of the song so she’d get what I was talking about.”
Hayseed recorded Homegrown live in the studio with a five-piece string band featuring Price on acoustic guitar, Tramp on fiddle, Vinnie Farsetta on banjo, dulcimer, and mandolin, Jerry Hager on mandolin, and Markie Sanders on upright bass. Fired by Hayseed’s jubilant vocals, “Cold Feet,” “The Origin of the Snake,” and “Between the Lines” are the kinds of songs that Uncle Dave Macon & the Fruit Jar Drinkers might have played on the Grand Ole Opry in the 1930s. But no matter how much Hayseed’s ballads and breakdowns evoke the music of an earlier era, thematically his songs are hardly antediluvian. “Between the Lines” takes a hard look at the future of technology. “Father’s Lament” may sound like an a cappella field recording made for the Smithsonian Institution, but its bone-chilling narrative draws on events that recently took place in a Cheatham County courthouse.
The unmediated passion of Hayseed’s music stems primarily from the sacred songs and spirituals he learned as a boy in church. “My earliest memories of singin’ are of standin’ on the piano bench beside mama at church,” the singer recalls. “My parents’ music was my biggest influencethat and Southern gospel. It was a weird mix of musical influences,” he adds, noting the difference between the raw, untutored singing that he heard in church and the more refined quartet harmonies of popular recording acts like The Rambos and The Happy Goodman Family.
“Everything else was considered taboo,” Hayseed continues. “If it wasn’t gospel, it must be the devil’s. I couldn’t get away with listening to pop or rock or anything like that, but I could blur the lines with country because that was close enough to Southern gospel and the rhythms were all the same. If I was upstairs in my room listening to country, my parents couldn’t tell if I was listening to Southern gospel. So I used to listen to Ralph Emery. I used to tape a lot of his radio shows. To me, that was cool.”
The strictures of Hayseed’s Pentecostal upbringing nonetheless grew too binding for someone of his intellectual and artistic proclivitieshe always knew that there was a much bigger world beyond the horizon of rural Western Kentucky. “For a long time I was really bitter about the way I grew up,” he admits. (He didn’t see his first movie until he’d moved away from home to attend Murray State University.) “I so wanted to be different from my parents that I completely rejected everything about them. I didn’t even give them a chance to be who they were. I held it against them that I’d grown up without television, that I’d grown up without movies, without art, without all that stuff. And yet my journey came about because I didn’t have all that.”
The first creative manifestation of this journey came when, at age 19, Hayseed cowrote the cathartic “Clear My Head” with Jerry Dale McFadden. Recorded by a group called the Walter Eugenes, the song topped the Christian alternative-rock charts in 1991. By that time, Hayseed had moved to Nashville, where he played in the short-lived alternative-rock band Bleakhouse before becoming a solo performer.
Contrary to what skeptics might believe, Hayseed’s stage name is neither a joke nor a self-conscious pose. He came by the appellation almost accidentally after an impromptu gig at 12th & Porter: Eager to showcase new material, but lacking a band to accompany him, he found himself with no choice but to perform a cappella. “I got up onstage and introduced myself as ‘Clifford Eugene Mason, Caldwell County, Ky., but most folks just call me Hayseed,’ ” he remembers. “I just started tellin’ these storiesI’d sing ’em with no music ’cause I didn’t have a band and don’t play an instrument. Enough people heard it and were convinced that all of it was true that they started callin’ me ‘Hayseed.’ And I kinda liked it.” (Not incidentally, Hayseed wore overalls and a hat before he ever set foot on a stage.)
“I’m very much aware of my Southern heritage,” he continues, alluding to the hillbilly connotations of his nickname. “Everyone else seems to be ashamed of it, ignoring it and trying to be slick. You see it in Nashville politics. People wanna say thank you to Roy Acuff and Minnie Pearl, but they’re really ashamed of Hee-Haw and the Grand Ole Opry. Most people are proud of the fact that they’ve lived here all their lives and never been to the Opry. But I just don’t get it. That’d be like saying, ‘I’m from New Orleans, but I really hate jazz.’ ”
Regardless of how many Nashvillians appreciate the city’s rich musical heritage, several of Nashville’s most respected self-styled traditionalists have taken notice of Hayseed. “That stuff tickles me,” he admits. “But I try to ignore it as much as I can, because I don’t want it to be about that. It’s very flattering when someone tells you that Emmylou Harris is listening to your song. And it’s hard not to get excited. But I don’t want to get too caught up in that right now.”
As with everything else about Hayseed, his reticence is genuine. But to hear his friend and champion Lucinda Williams tell it, “He’s gonna be real busy. My instinct tells me that something real good is gonna happen for him. Hayseed will definitely be in a league where he has critical acclaim and a lot of support from his peers.”
Hayseed will be playing this year’s Summer Lights festival. His Homegrown cassette is available at Tower and at the Great Escape.
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