There’s nothing traditional about the path that led musician Christy Hays from her hometown in the fertile farmlands of the Midwest to the “Live Music Capital of the World.” But her unlikely journey, which took Hays from tiny Tuscola, Illinois to the seclusion of the Alaskan wilderness, from Southeast Asia to El Salvador in Central America, from the edge of civilization to the big city, and from depression and isolation to the stage and the limelight, is in some ways what makes this singer-songwriter’s songs so rich and powerful. In many ways, her story is your story. Her themes are timeless, yet her songs are very much of this time. With the release of her debut album, Drought, Christy Hays has emerged as a strong and powerful voice in the musical mecca that is Austin, Texas.
Hays was raised in a musical family. Both of her siblings play instruments, and it was her father Steve, a longtime musician and performer in central Illinois, who first showed her some guitar chords, though Christy says she “was just too shy” for any formal lessons. She still has his first guitar, “a lovely, vintage Gibson that I still play today.”
Christy began writing songs at the age of 14, when she was listening to a lot of 70’s rock and alternative music. It was when she graduated from high school, though, that her aunt introduced her to the music of Patty Griffin and Kasey Chambers’ first record. That led her to discover artists like Kathleen Edwards and Lucinda Williams’ Car Wheels on a Gravel Road. Prior to this musical awakening, Hays says female singers sounded “whiny to me. But I heard this music and would listen to their records on repeat.”
Despite her songwriting skills and new musical inspirations, Hays didn’t plan on pursuing a career in music. She left Tuscola to study forestry at Southern Illinois University. Upon graduation, she moved to Alaska, where she lived for almost five years and worked for the state and as a river guide during the summers along with other odd jobs. At times Hays was living in a cabin with no electricity or running water.
During the winters, she literally traveled the world, visiting places like Vietnam, Thailand and Cambodia, living in El Salvador for a month, along with spending time in slightly less exotic locales, like California and Colorado.
But it was a moment in an Alaskan cabin—this one with electricity—that represents the turning point for Hays. Always fascinated by history and somewhat obsessed with rivers, she was reading about the Great Flood of 1927 at about two in the morning when she had an epiphany: “I had to leave… to pursue art and writing and music.”
After going home to Tuscola for Christmas, Hays moved to Nashville in January of 2008. The differences between the Alaskan frontier and Nashville were almost more than she could handle.
“I was so removed from society for so long, it was overwhelming,” Hays says. “It was a year of pretty severe depression, just making amends with living in the city.” As someone who says she loves “wide open spaces” and that “my spirituality is nature,” a city like Nashville at times seemed cold and harsh and offered stark contrasts to life in the small town where she grew up and the beautiful areas of Alaska where she lived and worked. But it did provide invaluable lessons in life as a musician. “It was a crash course in what it means to be a musician, to sell myself and network and be part of the scene. Nashville is somewhat cut-throat,” Hays says, “but its organization seems to create an environment where you can get things done.”
And while Hays dealt with her own anxiety and depression, she grew as a musician in Nashville.
It was around Christmas of 2009 when Hays moved to Austin. “Austin is a lot softer place to fall for me than Nashville was… there’s more nature; it was more progressive at the time,” Hays says. While her family back in Tuscola has always encouraged her artistry and “supported me even when they were confused by what I was doing,” Hays really connected with a group of friends and fellow musicians in Austin. “The people here are fantastic,” she says.
Among the people Hays has connected with in Austin are her current band, which consists of Lauren Gurgiolo on guitar, Fletcher Murchinson on mandolin, Gregg White on bass and Tim Petersen on drums. “It’s a great band. I consider my band my family. I couldn’t ask for more.” Hays released her impressive, self-titled album (available at www.christyhays.com) in 2009. The collection of tunes very much reflects her Midwestern upbringing and includes a number of highlights, including the catchy and soulful “Talked to the Lord Today.”
Her debut record, Drought, is a powerful, at times introspective collection of songs that reflect the growth and development of a true artist, whose journey hasn’t been easy. Hays’ songs, like “You Don’t Have to Wait” and “Grocery Store Rose” reflect a toughness and a fierce independence.
As an artist, Hays’s music is best categorized as Americana, and in many ways, the songs on Drought tell the story of the nation, from the place that “was a farmers’ town/Now Monsanto owns most of the ground” (“Winter Solstice”) to the powerful, stunningly gorgeous “TVA,” which tells the story of the Tennessee Valley Authority and the flooding that led to the displacement of thousands. She sings from the perspective of an old woman, pushed from her home and pleading to be buried in the pines.
Hays draws natural comparisons to artists like Emmylou Harris and the aforementioned Williams, but it’s too limiting to categorize her exclusively with female singer-songwriters; both musically and thematically, her style is just as similar to some of the work of Neil Young or someone like Rhett Miller, solo artist and front man for the alt-country Old 97’s.
There’s seriousness, intensity and a level of artistry to her songs and her live performances. Don’t expect any costume changes or much banter when Hays is on stage. “I’m not a big talker,” Hays says, “I get down to business. The product is way more important to me than the showmanship. However, my dry wit comes out when the mood is right, surrounded by sincerity, of course. I think I’m hilarious!”
And while she admits to a certain darkness in her songwriting, to her they are symptoms of being human. Hays stays grounded through meditation and her connection to nature. Even if her “hands now show the scars,” Hays sings and believes “a new sun will shine like it’s always done.” For Christy Hays and her growing legion of fans, like her song says, “there’s better days to come.”
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