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His native Kentucky and his family’s fundamentalism behind him, Hayseed finds his niche with songs that are the envy of his idols—and an honest, deeply emotional voice that could shake the church rafters

Hayseed never bothered to learn an instrument, and seeing how he’s released two albums already, why would he? “It’s both my blessing and my curse,” he says. A curse because he has to depend on others to help flesh out the compositions he has rattling around in his head; a blessing because it’s part and parcel of what makes his muse unique, just as his upbringing, in a strict Pentecostal sect in Western Kentucky—without the pop-culture comforts of TV, movies and mainstream music—sets him apart. But whether dwelling in his old home of Nashville or his new digs in the Capital Region, he has never had a shortage of willing collaborators. Life is like that when you boast references from Grammy-winners Lucinda Williams and Emmylou Harris. Life is like that when you’re Hayseed.

A couple of years back, Williams uttered the quote that tends to precede him these days, telling No Depression magazine: “Hayseed is, in my mind, on the same level as Bob Dylan and Neil Young and Van Morrison, [and] I don’t say that about everybody who comes down the pike. . . . Music has to grab me in a certain way, and the stuff that does that, it’s a time-transcendent thing. I put Hayseed right in there with that batch of stuff.”

Confronted with the praise, Hayseed is almost embarrassed. “I don’t want people to think that I think so highly of myself,” he points out in his polite Kentucky manner. “I definitely know my limitations.” Williams’ main reason for evoking those legends, though, was to highlight a uniquely timeless quality in Hayseed’s music, which has one foot in the concerns of contemporary life and one foot entwined by the deep roots of country and gospel.

It’s not only music that Hayseed has on his mind these days, though: In October, right around the time he released his second album, In Other Words, he made the big move from his native South to be with his girlfriend Nadine, a Capital Region native. The two had conducted a long-distance relationship for some time before he made the choice to relocate to Clifton Park. “Where I am right now in my life, music is something I love, and I will always find a way to do it,” he states emphatically. “But Nadine was where I had to be.”

Hayseed, aka Christopher Wyant, is a big boy with a big singing voice, a Mennonitelike chin-beard and a honeyed Kentucky drawl, not exactly the kind of character you’d expect to find living in Clifton Park—where just down the road from the diner where he sits amiably munching a cheeseburger, developments of cloned houses sit clustered on cul-de-sacs. Without his trademark preacher’s hat, one can see his thick brown hair, shaved down to a crew cut (“The haircut of an honest, two-pair-of-jeans working man,” as David Mamet once put it).

Some music fans first got a glimpse of Hayseed staring out from the cover of his 1998 debut, Melic, an album that quickly became an alt-country collector’s item after a corporate fish-swallowing exercise rendered Watermelon Records extinct. The sepia-toned photo featured a hefty man seated in farmer overalls, clutching a large, knotted walking stick and staring placidly out at the world through round wire spectacles like some kind of Kentucky-hills Buddha. His fustian garb suggested some kind of mythic religious figure, and the songs on Melic were steeped as much in the computer age as they were in old-timey sensibilities and highbrow literature (evoking T.S. Eliot and Kahlil Gibran).

Central to understanding the music is understanding where Hayseed came from. “Our little sect was very conservative, very way-to-the-right, even within the organization that they belonged to,” he says. The pressure on young Christopher was magnified by his father’s status as reverend. “As a kid, anywhere I went at anytime of day or night, I wasn’t just free to be a kid. I had to represent a bunch of things: I was representing God. I was representing my religion. I was representing my church and my dad.” Nevertheless, a natural, bookish curiosity led him to question his family’s faith as he got older. “I can remember staying up until 6 in the morning talking to my dad or my uncle, trying to get to the basis of a lot of questions I had. A lot of times the answer was, well, ‘I said so.’ ”

That unquestioning, granite mentality was stifling, not to mention the devastating proportions of the guilt it instilled in him. “I read about generations growing up in fear of the bomb and all that kind of stuff—that was never a big part of my consciousness. What was a big part of my consciousness was whether or not I would go to hell. As a kid, if I was to come home and couldn’t find my parents in the house, I’d think they went to heaven, that the rapture had happened and that I was left behind because I was a bad kid. Tremendous guilt. Tremendous fear.”

One thing he was allowed to indulge in while growing up was singing. In church, he was encouraged to belt the music of the gospel as loudly as he wanted. It was great training, and the result was a thunderously resonant instrument. Eric Babcock, founder of seminal alt-country label Bloodshot Records (later the head of Checkered Past and, currently, Catamount) knows a little something about good country singers. “You can easily hear the way that voice would bounce around in the rafters of a church,” he says. “And what he learned was not about technique, as much as about honest expression of deep feeling. I doubt that he’s ever sung a note he didn’t mean, and I know he wouldn’t want to. Here in the era of shiny mannequins warbling pretty vacancies, it’s gratifying to hear such clear conviction—and doubly gratifying that it’s coming from the mouth of someone built like a defensive tackle.”

Many Albany residents first heard Hayseed’s pipes during the Brand New Opry show at Valentine’s in February. Hayseed introduced himself a cappella (a move akin to walking the high-wire netless) with “Father’s Lament,” a number that is essentially a rustic field holler wrapped around contemporary anguish: In this case, a father’s acceptance after losing a hard-fought custody battle. The father just wants his child to know how hard he fought and to feel his love from afar, and that urgency was palpable in Hayseed’s reading. The murmuring barroom snapped to rapt attention and then broke into appreciative whoops as Hayseed’s voice rippled out over the crowd. Even at the back of the bar, people were turning to each other and commenting at the unique figure belting his heart out on stage in a preacher’s hat. Albany, it seems, hadn’t seen too many like Hayseed before.

“Not many are like Hayseed, in part because not many have lived as he did . . . and does,” No Depression editor Grant Alden (whom you might have seen weighing in on the Steve Earle controversy on CNN last summer) told me recently, pointing out the underlying tension in Hayseed’s music between his fire-and-brimstone upbringing and the secular world he has chosen to inhabit instead. “Christopher has been powerfully shaped by the deeply rooted sounds of Southern [that is, white] gospel music and black gospel. Add on to that . . . dozens of other songwriters whose language is informed by poetry, and you get somewhere near to understanding where his music comes from. Mostly, though, he’s just a good and complicated man.”

His “spiritual withdrawal and rebirth,” as Hayseed refers it, came in Nashville, where he went for a summer in 1986, at age 20, and ended up staying 16 years. The “Hayseed” persona came about from a stage riff he would do during impromptu a cappella gigs, which essentially became mini-performance pieces.

“I had some buddies who were playing, so I said, ‘Just give me 20 minutes while you’re setting up. So I’d walk up there in my overalls and I had my big stick and I made up this character. I’d say, ‘Hi y’all, my name’s Clifford Eugene Mason from Caldwell County, Kentucky, but most people just call me Hayseed,’ ” he drawls, exaggerating his accent. “And then I’d just start bullshittin’. ”

The moniker stuck, and the newly christened Hayseed used the image to upend a mode of cultural elitism. “I hate the idea in popular culture that if anybody wants to dumb down a character in their story or their TV show, give them a Southern accent and they’ll immediately look dumb. So I thought, well, what if I just adopted ‘Hayseed,’ took away the negative impact of it and presented music that made it impossible to say that I was ignorant.” Ironically, Hayseed ended up donning the hat and overalls for the same reason that bluegrass pioneer Bill Monroe and his players donned their Sunday best for performances.

In Nashville, he fell in with quite a crowd of artists. He remembers one New Year’s Eve at Emmylou Harris’ house. “She fixed a big pot of beef stew, and I’m sitting at a table with Emmylou, Buddy Miller, Emmylou’s mom, Lucinda, Emmylou’s daughter, and Hombre [Hayseed collaborator Richard Price]. I’m thinking, ‘How did I get in this picture?’ ”

Hayseed also remembers a surreal Saturday night in the late ’90s when Lucinda Williams called him at home. “She said, ‘Can you come over here?’ I said, ‘Where’s here?’ She said, ‘John Prine’s house.’ ” Needless to say, Hayseed was off like a prom dress. “I find myself, a little while later, sitting at table, and there’s John Prine, Lucinda and me, and they’re talking about songwriting. They’re asking my opinion and how I do it, and I’m thinking, ‘What do I know?’ ” As for his songwriting influences, Hayseed cites everyone from Townes Van Zandt to post-punkers The The, whose apocalyptic Mind Bomb album made a distinct impression.

As for his family back home, they didn’t always approve of his musical aspirations. “Early on they didn’t like it at all that I was not doing gospel music [and] that I was singing in bars.” They did, however, begin to open their minds after Hayseed introduced them to Lucinda Williams at a street concert in Nashville. “They started seeing her name in the newspapers, and they had met her, [so] getting commendations from her, that gave me some validation.” His family also had doubts that he would ever settle down. “To the extent that my parents actually bought me a grave plot with them,” he laughs.

All of that is looking different after his move northward to be with Nadine, a music fan who first contacted Hayseed after hearing Melic, striking up a correspondence. “My only regret is that she’ll never get to meet my dad,” Hayseed says. His father, the Rev. Dwight Wyant, passed away in 2001 at age 57. In Other Words is dedicated to him, and the album’s “Old Time Preacher Man” is a gospel number that his dad loved to sing in church. Hayseed, the prodigal son, had planned on dedicating the album to his father long before he knew his passing was imminent. But rather than wait to surprise him, he took his dad for a drive in the country to hear a rough recording of “Old Time Preacher Man.” “For some reason, I just had this gut feeling I had to play this for him . . . and he loved it. A couple months later, Dad died.”

Hayseed’s spirituality isn’t strictly Christian these days; rather, he draws a life philosophy from multiple sources (many gained through voracious reading) that can be felt in his music, a new-millennium brand of country-gospel. He cites Kahlil Gibran’s poem “Anthem of Humanity” as a big influence. “It draws a little bit from all these different religions and philosophies and says: This makes me who I am. And that’s where I see myself,” he claims. “If you look to [the community] I came from, they would pretty much consider me a heretic. But if you look at other things that people are doing and believing, I’m way over here on the right. I can live with that.”

As for his musical future, one of the “few modern singer-songwriters who doesn’t appear beholden to Bob Dylan” (as the Austin Chronicle described him) has done several guest spots with Albany roots-rockers the Coal Palace Kings, something he hopes to do more of in the future. He also hopes to do some performances with Kevin Maul, the area resident known nationally for his dobro and multi-instrumentalist work with Robin & Linda Williams, Garrison Keillor and Fugs alum Pete Stampfel. “We hooked up the other night and did a rehearsal. We’re probably going to do some stuff as Hayseed, but we’ve actually talked about doing a band together. I would love to do something like that.”

Whatever Hayseed’s musical path, one gets the sense he’ll accomplish what he desires—for at the foundation of his personality is an unforced, polite, yet razor-clear directness. This must have been the directness with which he questioned his father over the family religion. This is also the forthright nature to which Sire Records head Seymour Stein must have conceded after Hayseed called every day for several weeks to retrieve ownership of Melic. It’s also the manner with which he convinced Emmylou Harris to duet with him on his most recent album. (“I just asked her,” Hayseed says simply.)

“The only thing I ask,” Hayseed says, in this direct fashion before parting, “is that you mention my dad and Nadine’s daughter, [9-year-old] Emily.” Done.

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