NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Young male country music stars are as rare as pink pickups these days.
While young female stars have been rising with some regularity in country music, young men find the going tough and the fans locked up by established stars who’ve been popular for a decade or longer. There are so few that they’re often nominated twice for new artist awards out of necessity. This year’s Academy of Country Music Awards, however, offers a glimpse into the future of country’s newest male stars. (The ceremony, taking place at the MGM Grand Garden, can be seen locally at 8 p.m. today on KLAS-TV, Channel 8.)
The fan-voted top new artist category features three acts this year — platinum-selling teen "Idol" Scotty McCreery, former child prodigy Hunter Hayes and the rockin’ hitmaker Brantley Gilbert.
They share youth in common but little else. Each occupies a different niche in the scene, making music that satisfies different parts of the country audience.
"It’s really cool because there is a nice little diversity," Hayes said. "There’s a totally different thing between what Scotty and I do and a totally different thing between what Brantley and I do, which is fun. We do cover totally different ends of the genre, but that shows you how far it spreads, and I love that. I love to see that."
At 27, Gilbert is the steely veteran of the group but still young in a genre where the male stars are almost all in their mid-30s or older. He’s been at it for years, building his name in the bar scene around the Southeast.
"I was lucky enough to get started way, way early, you know, playing small bars and trying to start a fire goin’ that way," Gilbert said. "So it’s been a long time coming, I feel like."
Gilbert was writing future hits in his early 20s and cashed in when Jason Aldean took his "My Kinda Party" and "Dirt Road Anthem" to the top of the country charts last year. He also delivered his own No. 1 to radio with "Country Must Be Country Wide," a theme song for modern country fans, from his second album, "Halfway to Heaven."
Gilbert embodies the sound championed by Aldean, Eric Church and others who honed a rock-inflected brand of hard country that’s as indebted to Guns ‘N Roses and Metallica as it is to Johnny Cash and Waylon Jennings. From Jefferson, Ga., he speaks laconically in a deeply accented rumble and looks the part of 21st century country star, and fans have enthusiastically latched on.
"It’s done just blew up and got a whole lot faster," Gilbert said.
McCreery had a foundation built with quick-mix concrete when he won "American Idol" last year, and those fans stayed with him when he released "Clear As Day," which went platinum in three months. The album debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard Top 200 and Top Country Albums charts, making him the youngest man to open at the top of the all-genre chart with a debut. It stayed at No. 1 on the country chart for six weeks.
He hopes that’s just the start, though. As he makes the transition from high school senior to budding country star, he’s trying to sort out how to shape his future.
Beyond the example set by former "Idol" winner Carrie Underwood, he has no signposts along the way. Country music has rarely had a male teen country star sell as many albums so quickly, let alone one who’s stood the test of time.
"The cool thing for me about that is there’s no formula," McCreery said. "The record label can tell me this, and of course I’m listening to them; they have the experience. But there’s no calculus formula to say, ‘Scotty, if you do this, this and this, you’ll be around in 20 years headlining your own show.’ It’s fun to be working through that."
The 20-year-old Hayes is also charting his own course, one steeped in modern pop sounds. Already a performer at an early age — he took the stage with Hank Williams Jr. at age 4 and others while growing up in Breaux Bridge, La. — he was inspired by acts such as Rascal Flatts, Brad Paisley and Keith Urban. He soaked in not only the sounds those acts were producing but the fact that each played their own instruments.
By the time he was ready for Nashville, he could play every instrument you’d need on a record, and did on his self-titled debut, with the help of producer Dann Huff. While it was something of a stunt in Nashville, where some of the best session musicians are always on call, Hayes thinks it was a pivotal decision for a shy artist who might not have been so open and honest in a studio full of crusty veterans.
"You could hear it," Hayes said. "You could feel it was me being myself, me being comfortable with myself lyrically and musically and not holding back."
Like Gilbert and McCreery, Hayes has his own ideas about country music. He’s as interested in Bruno Mars and Andy Grammer as today’s country hitmakers and sees no boundaries. He feels the same thing when he listens to his fellow nominees.
"I love that," Hayes said. "That to me says that country is now translating to a generation. It’s being reintroduced with songs and with music that matters, some new subject matter that’s generally relatable. My favorite artists are my favorite artists because they’ve written something that means something to me."