For your daily dose of cute overload — think kittens in baskets, babies playing with puppies — go to YouTube and search for “Hunter Hayes” and “Jambalaya.” Prepare yourself for a 4-year-old singing the Hank Williams classic on stage with Hank Jr. in front of thousands, wielding a tiny accordion, a bowl cut, and natural showmanship.
From there, it’s easy to find videos of Hayes performing at various young ages, all of which made it clear he was being groomed early for the big leagues. And now, 18 years later, Hayes has arrived as a rising star in country music, already acclaimed with a hit self-titled debut on a major label and three nominations at last year’s Grammy Awards, including for best new artist.
Building on that momentum, earlier this week Hayes released “Storyline,” his second album on Atlantic Nashville, which broadened the gap between the 22-year-old Louisiana native and his male country counterparts. While they’re fixated on having a good time in search of the next party, Hayes is more of a troubadour in touch with his feelings.
As part of his “24 Hour Road Race to End Child Hunger” tour, Hayes will play a handful of short shows in the Boston area this week, including morning performances on Friday at Paradise Rock Club and the Palladium in Worcester. We recently caught up with Hayes from the road to see how he’s handling stardom that was years in the making.
Q. When your major-label debut was as acclaimed as yours, did making the second album feel even more daunting?
A. With all the pressures you hear about, your mind plays tricks on you; 99 percent of it is self-made pressure. It’s kind of ridiculous. I felt that so early on that it scared me into overpreparing for this record. I felt very free to make a record that lives and breathes.
Q. What did you want “Storyline” to capture that wasn’t as obvious on the first record?
A. I think I was looking for “Storyline” to get a bit more personal, more heart and soul. I wanted to go back in time to give it more depth. I wanted it to feel like it could have been an older record. One of the rules was no electronic drum sounds. Everything you hear is created from actual instruments. There’s a lot of tributes to the bluegrass I like — the mandolin, the three-part harmonies — and there’s a lot of guitar player references too. While making this record I really studied Lindsey Buckingham. In fact, during the process, I ordered a new guitar because it’s the one he plays.
Q. “Invisible,” from the new record, has resonated with your fans for the way it lifts up and champions anyone has felt alone or like an outsider. You’ve mentioned how you, too, relate to the song. How so?
A. I didn’t fit in for the longest time because I was obsessed with music. The song really is about that process from seeing it as a bad thing to seeing it as a good thing.
Q. Growing up in Louisiana, you were surrounded by Cajun and Creole music and culture. Did country music always feel like the right genre for you?
A. I felt at home in country. I grew up watching Garth Brooks, Brooks & Dunn, Diamond Rio, Ronnie Milsap. If I’m going to introduce music to someone, then it’s my responsibility to find my sound by taking all the things that I listen to and love and make something new.
Q. When you think back about how young you started, what compels a 4-year-old kid to stand up on stage in front of thousands and perform like you did?
A. I kind of feel like it always felt like home. That’s where I fit in. It’s not just that I now have been able to travel and tour and do this thing I’ve dreamed about my whole life. It means even more than that because it’s a place. I always felt like the stage was the one place where I could be my own goofy self, not be afraid or embarrassed. Not only can I be myself, but I am myself.
Q. After so many years of hard work, were you ready for the sudden burst of attention?
A. I’d like to believe I was. Everything that has happened does seem quick, but I’ve never felt like it was too fast or rushed. It’s all been from the heart, and these are things I’ve dreamed about my entire life. Headlining an arena may seem like something I suddenly had an idea about, but all I ever wanted to do was build a massive show and have fun with an arena full of awesome people singing along. And here we are: It’s happening.