Recording information: Blackbird Studios; Dark Horse Recording; The Castle Recording Studios; The Good Noise Room; The Grip.
Photographer: Juan Pont Lezica.
Possessed with boyish good looks suggesting a blonde Justin Bieber and being a genuine teen ? la Taylor Swift, it's perhaps easy to dismiss Hunter Hayes as country's long-needed tween heartthrob, but that assumption overlooks an important part of his history: his co-authorship of "Play," a 2010 album track for those Nashville slicksters Rascal Flatts. Behind that grin lies the heart of a pro, a craftsman who knows how to sincerely sell the insincere. Consequently, his 2011 eponymous debut isn't nearly as gangly and unaffected as any of Swift's records, even the one where she's grappling with what it means to be a star, but he can mask his calculations with aplomb, dipping his toe into a Jason Mraz-styled singalong, just enough of a switch to suggest he could cross over but not enough to suggest he's restless. Hayes is happy with the middle of the road -- it's the quickest destination to stardom, after all -- and he's bright and chipper, so charming he never seems like he's gunning for the biggest possible audience. Such incessant good cheer and clean commercialism could grate, but he has an easy touch that would be appealing even if he didn't have sugary melodies to sweeten the deal, yet he does -- he has crisp, bright, relentless melodies designed to win over any audience. Hunter Hayes may be pure Nashville product but he believes in what he's selling, so it's hard not to smile along as he hawks his wares. ~ Stephen Thomas Erlewine