By Jeremy Helligar
October 27, 1997 12:00 PM

AFTER LEADING HIS FOUR-MAN, teenage backup band through a 30-minute Cajun-spiced set, singer and accordionist Hunter Hayes, 6, tips his big, black Stetson and races to the edge of the stage, where his father, Leo, lifts the first-grader back onto solid ground. Hunter then reaches for a bottle of water and takes a man-size swig. Sticking one foot forward, he turns to his mother, Lynette. “Mom,” he says, “will you tie my shoelace?”

Barely twice the size of his squeeze box and not yet able to read, Hayes is already a budding sensation who has performed on one CD, La Musique des Jeunes Pour l’ Amour des Vieux (Music by the Young for Love of the Old), and has attracted a growing list of superstar followers. Rosie O’Donnell is a fan—she had Hayes on her daytime talk show last month—and this past summer he performed onstage with Hank Williams Jr. in Ft. Worth. But after headlining at this outdoor carnival bash celebrating the 127th birthday of tiny Willis, Texas (pop. 2,764), Hayes is naturally more interested in riding the Dragon roller coaster than in signing autographs, requests for which he politely declines as he wanders around the fair.

“Hunter does have the makings of what we call a prodigy,” says Dr. Barry Ancelet, a folklorist at the University of Southwestern Louisiana, who has seen Hayes perform many times. “He hears the organization of a song, its structure and its melody in a way that you and I don’t hear. Musically he’s on another level.”

He always has been. “When he was just learning to walk,” says Lynette, 35, a schoolteacher, “he’d hold on to the furniture and rock back and forth in time with the music and say, ‘Dickie, dickie, dickie.’ ” By 2, Hayes already had become obsessed with the accordion—”He’d imitate playing it with paper plates, Tupperware covers, anything he could get his hands on,” says Lynette, who, like her husband, is of Cajun descent. Finally, the boy’s nonmusical parents bought him a toy version and, months later, sprang for the real thing, a custom-made, nine-key model designed to fit the young prodigy.

Soon the self-taught expert was giving impromptu concerts in the living room of the Hayeses’ gray, three-bedroom clapboard house on the outskirts of Breaux Bridge, La., and at Mulatte’s, the famed Cajun dance hall and restaurant around the corner. Whenever the family dined there, Hayes would bring along his prized possession and talk his way into sitting in with the house band. “I try to tell him not to ask,” says Leo, 37, manager of a marine sports and supply store. “But he’s just a little boy. He loves to play so much, sometimes it’s pretty hard for him not to.”

One night actor Robert Duvall happened to be dining at Mulatte’s during one of Hayes’s performances. Duvall, who was in town scouting locations for his upcoming film The Apostle, was so impressed that he offered the boy a small, two-scene role in the movie, portraying an accordion player in a church choir.

Though thankful for their little blessing, Hayes’s parents worry that all the attention might be a classic case of too much too soon. “We don’t want to overdo it,” says Leo. “Every night I say a prayer that I am doing the right thing.” But although they encourage Hunter to indulge in the activities of normal 6-year-olds, all roads eventually lead to music. Even in the living room of the family home, singing songs in French with Leo just for fun, Hunter remains serious about his craft. “Dad! You’re supposed to be singing in D. That’s C. You’ve got to sing it in D.”

Leo stands corrected. He doesn’t even know the difference between the keys of D and C, but luckily, Hunter is around to set him straight. “He’s a gift from God to us,” says the obviously proud father. “I cry sometimes when I see him play. It makes so many people smile. My biggest hope in life is that he continues to make people smile—and that he continues to smile, too.”


RON RIDENHOUR in Breaux Bridge