Country music has a new rising star whose boyish good looks are setting hearts aflutter. Oh, and he can sing pretty well, too.
Hunter Hayes had his unofficial coronation as country music’s next big thing Thursday at the Country Music Association Awards, winning Best New Artist and performing a spellbinding rendition of his first No. 1 country song, “Wanted,” on his trademark black piano.
Just 21, Hayes projects an irresistible innocence – he can still recall the songs he wrote in middle school, and he brought his parents with him to the CMAs. Still, he’s been performing for 19 years, so he knows a thing or two about projecting an image.
PEOPLE caught up with Hayes on Thursday to get a better idea of what makes him tick. Here are five things to know about the young heartthrob.
1. He’s been making music since he was 2
Hayes was born and raised in south Louisiana, and got his first instrument, an accordion, when he was just 2 years old. “We have a deep-rooted culture and our music is just coveted,” he says. “I really got into country [music] when I started writing because I found the lyrics meant something to me, even as a middle schooler. I told my little, sad, middle-school story. And it went on from there. My second instrument was drums, then there was guitar, and that’s when I really felt at home.”
2. He has a passion for flying
Hayes’s music isn’t the only thing that soars. “I love flying planes,” he says. “I’m working on my pilot’s license. I’m loving it. I was on a flight simulator all the time as a kid. It was something I kind of forgot about when I came to Nashville, but a friend of mine gifted me with pilot lessons.”
3. His 21st birthday was a homecoming celebration
“It was huge. I got to go back to Louisiana,” he says. “My family came out to my show, and I headlined my first theater, and that was something I wanted to do for a while.” He didn’t have much to drink, though – he had to sing at his first Saints football game the next day. “At midnight, I said, ‘I’ll have the obligatory glass of something,’ ” he admits.
4. He’s really, really into Converse sneakers
Hayes has some 20 pairs of Converse in all colors, though mostly red and black. “It’s my thing,” he says. “They stand for all the things I love – they are timeless, they are stylish, they are cool They are simple, and it’s not trying too hard.”
5. And yes, he’s single!
There’s no significant other in the picture, but Hayes knows the kind of person he’s looking for. “Someone who’s patient enough to deal with my incredibly geeky self. I just love music gear, I’m a total geek all around,” he says. “I want to find someone who’s really into something like I’m really into something, so that I can support them and we can both cheer each other on. I’ve got a lot of dreams I want to achieve, and I hope someone can cheer me on as I’ll cheer them on in their dreams.”
Would he like to bring a special someone to next year’s CMAs? “Who knows? I hope so!” he says. “That’d be great.”