When Hunter Hayes took to the Grammy Awards in January to premiere his song "Invisible" – a windswept power ballad in which the 22-year-old country singer describes the hardships faced by "outcasts and rebels" – your first response was: What on earth does this kid know about not fitting in?
His self-titled major-label debut spawned two No. 1 singles, sold more than 1 million copies and earned Hayes four Grammy nominations, including one for best new artist.
Take Hayes out of the awards-show context and put him in another – say, last month's Stagecoach Country Music Festival, where he shared the bill with Jason Aldean and Florida Georgia Line – and you begin to see it.
At a moment when Nashville is busy churning out bro after party-hearty bro, Hayes is an anomaly: a fresh-faced guitar prodigy who writes about his feelings and looks like he's never cracked a beer, let alone downed one while kicking back on a rusty tailgate.
So: invisible? Not quite. But perhaps more of a misfit than he at first appeared.
Hayes comes no closer to rowdy bro-country convention on the rest of his new album, "Storyline," which like his 2011 record he co-wrote and co-produced with the pop-country hitmaker Dann Huff.
In the yearning title track he lays out a deeply innocent idea of young lovers on the run, while "Still Fallin'" emphasizes an old-fashioned commitment to … old-fashioned commitment. "I still reach for your hand because I need it," he sings over thrumming acoustic guitar, "And your kiss is still the spark that lights a fire." (Remember, Hayes is 22.)
At times this surprisingly strong album feels like a move away from country toward the kind of vaguely rootsy blue-eyed soul in which John Mayer specializes. Minus its opening mandolin lick, "Tattoo" might fit right next to "Your Body Is a Wonderland."
But if Hayes isn't rough, he's not especially smooth, either, as was clear in his Stagecoach gig, which practically vibrated with a jumpy intensity the singer attributed to his social anxiety. That energy courses through "Storyline," particularly in a handful of tunes where Hayes tries to present himself in a more grown-up light, such as "You Think You Know Somebody," about a breakup with someone whose scent lingers in his bed.
Set against the album's slickly assured arrangements, those jitters provide a juicy tension that distinguishes "Storyline" from Hayes' debut, a record so mild that he invited Jason Mraz, that fedora-topped emblem of chill, to duet with him on one song.
Was the ascent of Luke Bryan enough to unsettle Hayes over the last three years? Or was that breakup to blame? (In addition to "You Think You Know Somebody," there's also "When Did You Stop Loving Me" and "If It's Just Me," in which he acknowledges his "tendency to overanalyze.") Those are questions for Hayes' bros. What's important is that this insider convinces you he's coming from outside.