During the 1997 Country Fest at the Texas Motor Speedway in Dallas, 4-year-old Breaux Bridge native Hunter Hayes faced down 200,000 rowdy, sun-baked Hank Williams Jr. fans. In a scene preserved forever on YouTube, Williams bends down to address his tiny onstage guest. "Whatcha gonna do, Hunter?"

Hunter Hayes, who as a preschooler played on stage with Hank Williams Jr., now has a major-label album and a Top 20 single.

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Little Hunter, all of three-foot nothing, armed with an accordion depicting a crawfish on its bellows, gazes out at the roiling mass of humanity, leans into a microphone, and warbles in a little-boy voice, “Uhm, I want to do something called ‘Jambalaya.’” And he does.

Reminded of that video during a recent interview, Hayes, now 20 and a newly minted country-pop star, essentially rolls his eyes over the phone.

“I can’t run away from my childhood. Doesn’t matter how hard I try.

“I love and hate that video at the same time. I love it because it’s with Hank Williams Jr. and that’s awesome. But I hate it because I was a little kid, and I hate watching myself.”

He did not appear to be intimated by the mammoth crowd. “I was too young to be. At that point, it was just, ‘Can I play some music? Awesome. Cool.’

“Even nowadays, it’s still like that: ‘Can we play? OK, cool.’”

Last fall, Atlantic Records released Hayes’ self-titled major label debut. He co-produced the album, co-wrote the songs, and played all the instruments.

To date, “Hunter Hayes” has sold more than 200,000 copies. The ballad “Wanted” cracked the Top 10 on the country charts and was recently certified platinum for sales of more than 1 million.

On Friday, Hayes and his band headline the Mahalia Jackson Theater for the Performing Arts in a benefit for the Ochsner Medical Center’s Pediatric Family Assistance Fund. Hayes will also sing the national anthem before the Saints’ home opener in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome on Sept. 9 — his 21st birthday. Later this month, he’ll hit the road with Carrie Underwood.

Last year, Hayes kicked off the promotional campaign for his album at Tipitina’s. Much of the audience consisted of radio programmers and other music industry guests flown in by Atlantic.

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Friday will be his first headlining New Orleans concert with his full stage production, the first since he transitioned from cute Cajun novelty to bonafide, bankable adult star, his childhood videos notwithstanding.

“Those experiences led me to where I am now,” he said. “That’s when I fell in love with being on the road, and constant music. I look back on it as my training ground.”

Starting early

It all started in Breaux Bridge, when his grandmother gave him a toy accordion for his second birthday. His family wasn’t musically inclined, but he took to the accordion immediately.

Soon enough, he was picking out Cajun songs and sitting in with the house band at a seafood restaurant. On weekends, his parents drove their only child to festivals around south Louisiana in a motor home.

“My parents were really supportive. They learned about the music business piece by piece just so they could help me. And they gave me the freedom to say, ‘I’m not really into it.’ But I never did.”

Louisiana Red Hot Records released his first album, “Through My Eyes,” in 2000, when Hayes was 9. More independent albums followed.

In high school, his father made him take a summer off from touring, to make sure Hunter really wanted to pursue music. Hayes was miserable.

His solution? He built a mini-ProTools recording studio in his bedroom and wrote and recorded dozens of songs, including “What You Gonna Do,” which would wind up on his Atlantic album.

“I look back on that as my writing retreat. It shaped my obsession with songwriting. I learned how to talk through songwriting. I’m typically a very shy guy. But songwriting at that moment became my bridge to the world.”

It was a well-built bridge. At 16, he was offered a publishing deal by Universal Music. And so, following his junior year at a Christian school in Lafayette, Hayes and his parents moved to Nashville, the country music Mecca.

“My family is not a quick-decision kind of family. We think about things over a long period of time. But the move to Nashville happened in seven days.”

He enrolled in an accelerated high school program. He later received his diploma, along with a bumper sticker bearing the incorrect class year, in the mail.

“I stuck that on the door of my home studio and said, ‘Yep, I’m done.’ I was proud of myself for finishing high school without running away too quickly. When you’re 16 and dreaming about a career and somebody offers you a chance to do it, that’s the only thing you want to do.”

Following his final class, he wrote three songs in three days. “That told me that that’s what I was really into.”

The next stage

Universal paired him with Luke Laird, a professional hitmaker who has written No. 1 songs for Carrie Underwood, Blake Shelton and Eric Church, among others. Hayes was intimidated at first, but together, they wrote “Somebody’s Heartbreak,” a song destined for his album.

He’d been listening to a lot of Rascal Flatts when he and two other writers penned “Play.” It ended up on Rascal Flatts’ million-selling 2010 album “Nothing Like This.” “I looked up to those guys,” Hayes said. “To have my first cut, as a 17-year-old in Nashville, be a Rascal Flatts song was pretty wicked.”

Having spent his entire life onstage, he wasn’t content to be a behind-the-scenes songwriter. Soon enough, he had his own record deal with Atlantic.

Country albums are generally recorded with session musicians. But Hayes had already proven his ability to play multiple instruments on his indie album “Songs About Nothing.” Atlantic agreed to let him try the same approach on “Storm Warning,” the first single from “Hunter Hayes.”

Pleased with the result — it made the Top 20 — Atlantic gave him the green light to record the entire album single-handedly. “It took a little while to get in the groove with (co-producer) Dan Huff, but once we did, it went really well.”

The company’s gamble — was it really a gamble, given that Hayes had spent his whole life preparing? — paid off. “Hunter Hayes” looks to be the opening salvo in a long and prosperous career in the commercial country marketplace.

Plenty of family and friends will be in attendance at the Mahalia Jackson Theater on Friday for Hayes’ south Louisiana homecoming. He pronounces himself “stoked” about the show, and the cause it benefits.

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Now that he’s all grown up, does he still include “Jambalaya” in his set?

“I haven’t done that in a while. But I hope to meet up with Hank Jr. in the future and reminisce a little bit. That’d be kind of fun. We’d be like old pals.”

Keith Spera can be reached at kspera
timespicayune.com or 504.826.3470. Read more music news at civicpride-kusatsu.net/music. Follow him at twitter.com/KeithSperaTP.