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Rodney Hayden lives the good life

By Tom Netherland, November 2003

Today's country music radio isn't so country these days. Since the ascendance of the Shania Twains and Faith Hills, steel guitar solos have mostly fallen victim to the ear-splitting ravages of loud heavy metal-like guitars. Vocal distinction has mostly given way to strivings for mediocrity. And the songs are almost always co-written by folks more familiar with The Eagles, Kiss and Joni Mitchell than Merle Haggard, Harlan Howard and Tom T. Hall.

So what's available for a hard-core country singer and songwriter of strength like Texan Rodney Hayden?

If radio won't have him, then who will? How in tarnation can he expect to garner a following to sustain a career if no one has a solid chance of hearing his music? Imagine making a product, a high quality product, and then having so few ways to market it. That's sort of the dilemma that Hayden and folks of his ilk face nowadays.

Enter Audium Records. Nashville's leading purveyor of traditional country music circa 2003 added to its roster of the likes of Ray Price and Dwight Yoakam when it signed Hayden and recently issued his second album, "Living the Good Life."

Recorded at The Hit Shack in Austin, the record follows his excellent 2001 debut "The Real Thing," which came via Robert Earl and Katherine Keen's Rosetta Records.

All that sounds fine. Hayden is making music, fine music, and touring all over Texas in the hope that some day his songs might make as much hay as say Alan Jackson or Travis Tritt.

But here's the kicker: barely out of his teens Hayden darn near signed with mighty MCA Nashville several years back.

Then-label chief Tony Brown loved Hayden's heart-on-his-sleeve country style. Like the Keens, he also noticed the youngster's considerable singing and songwriting talents.

Brown even produced three songs on Hayden - "The Real Thing," "You Don't Talk, I Don't Listen" and "I'll Give You Love" - all of which ended up on his first album.

So Hayden signed with MCA, had a lot of hits and became a big star. Right? Not quite.

No deal came with MCA.

"Tony wanted to sign me real bad, but what it came down to was that someone over there must have thought I was too country," Hayden says by phone from Texas. "I love Tony. He was straight up front with me and wanted me on MCA real bad, but it was out of his hands."

So Hayden went his way, and Brown went his. Interestingly, superstar George Strait, whose longtime label just happens to be MCA, later recorded "The Real Thing" in strikingly similar fashion as Hayden's.

But instead of running like a scared hound dog with his tail between his legs, the thin Texan simply made do with what he had. He finished his debut under the apt and able production guidance of Clay Blaker and Rich Brotherton.

Robert Earl Keen served as executive producer. True, his debut amounted to peanuts sold as compared to what could have been with MCA. Regardless of sales, the album stands as a testimony to an artist who should command attention aplenty all over Nashville's Music Row.

Brotherton then produced Hayden's latest album. Yet another disc doused in quality country music that once again should draw notice like a hound dog draws ticks and fleas, "Living the Good Life" documents Hayden's considerable and growing talent one tune at a time.

"I'm proud of this record," Hayden says. "I think the songs have more variety than the first album, and not all of them are what I would call traditional country. But I am country and would not want to be anything else."

As the Texas drawling Hayden rightly noted, the new album is rife with variety, most of which meander within country's boundaries.

Take songs like "Goodbye to My Hometown" and his cover of Slaid Cleaves' "Broke Down." Each evokes a moody sense of lives led that country music built its music on. Character and charm blooms like a thatch of roses in spring. With each lyric, a story unfolds little by little, until at which point the song opens wide into an artful thing of beauty.

In that sense, Hayden belies his relative newcomer status. But then, with musical heroes such as Merle Haggard, Lefty Frizzell and Willie Nelson, he's attached himself to some of the country's all-time greatest purveyors of classic country songs.

"Those guys are my heroes," Hayden says. "They wrote songs that became classics because they're real, and they were country. And man, getting to meet Haggard was the best. Just the best."

So goes but one perk, even for an artist on an independent label. Hayden co-wrote 8 of the album's 11 tunes (compared to 7 of 11 on his first album), he says that several of the album's cover tunes could also very well have come from his pen.

"Clay Blaker and Tracy Byrd's 'Living Everyday Like It's Saturday Night' sounds like it came right from my life," Hayden says. "That's what I liked about the song. It sounded real. Plus it came from Clay Blaker and Tracy Byrd."

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