This was during the time when hat acts were king. To an extent, Hayes was lumped in, seemingly because he wore a cowboy hat, even though his sound wasn't particularly watered down country pop.
Hayes continues in the more traditional vein with his third disc, "When the Wrong One Loves You Right," being released Jan. 27. The disc contains a mixture of honky tonkers ("Tore Up From the Floor Up" being the prime one) and softer, mid-tempo ballads with the tender side of Hayes' distinctive voice coming through. Hayes refers to it as a "more mature sounding" album.
"It does just show signs of growth, and it's also got a lot more instrumentation on it and broader sounding songs," Hayes says.
"As I'm getting older, I think my tastes are changing a little bit. I'm liking a broader spectrum of music. The song 'The Day She Left Tulsa' was something definitely I would have never approached three years ago. I just felt uncomfortable with the subject matter."
"On the first two albums, they were really traditional and honky tonk sounding," Hayes says. "I think we've hit on some more midtempo sounding stuff - 'How Do You Sleep at Night' is minor key. 'This is My Heart' is really a less traditional sounding song. It wasn't an intentional thing. It just kind of happened."
What is evident is that once again producer Don Cook (known for his work with The Mavericks and Brooks & Dunn) and assistant producer Chick Rains toned down the drums and other hot new country manifestations.
Hayes also refers to the guitar and guitar sonics in the context of change.
On "How Do You Sleep," Hayes experimented with distortion, something he had not done and used a Stratocaster instead of his usual Telecaster guitar.
The road to releasing "When the Wrong One..." has been a bit rocky. The disc originally was slated for last year, but due to the chart failure of the first single, "Wichita Lineman," the old Glen Campbell hit, the label delayed the disc.
That wasn't Hayes' choice. "I didn't want them to do and that's where I stood on it," Hayes says.
"I thought that song was such a huge hit. That song is still on people's minds a lot. I just felt like it was a dangerous ground to tread on for a first single. I was afraid of the response that it got. It wasn't that people didn't like it. It's just that radio programmers didn't want to play it. He said he was told 'it's been done.' It was a song that was too familiar.'"
Hayes went back in the studio to record several new tracks.
"Wichita Lineman" was scratched, although Hayes still plays it in concert.
Hayes may have better ears than Columbia because his pick as the first single, part deux, "The Day That She Left Tulsa (in a Chevy)," is bounding up the charts.
Hayes says he liked it because "it's a really different sounding song. If it effects people the way it effected me the first time I heard it, then I know it will do well. I like the song a lot. I wish I had written it."
He describes it as "one of those songs that gives you cold chills."
When he heard the lines in the song when the girlfriend announces she's pregnant, Hayes recalls thinking, "He didn't say what I thought he said. Then, it keeps getting deeper and deeper, and then you got a big problem on your hands. I had never heard that kind of problem in a country song before I liked the song first musically, so that was a good sign."
The title track should be the next single.
"I think the record label felt real strongly about the song. It came along later in the recording session."
The label changed the name of the disc because the song will be a single.
Another change is a less revved up sound. "There are a lot less driving sounds - 'On a Good Night.' The uptempo ones on this album are a little more laid back."
Hayes cares little for fitting into a particular flavor-of-the month mould. "The songs when I write them or record them come out the way the way they come out. It's not really giving any thought to what's hot or what's not."
The disc was record during most of 1997 in between about 135 tour dates. "It's difficult for me to find songs. A lot of them aren't as traditional as I'd like them to be. It's difficult to find a song that still sounds like it might have commercial potential and be traditional as well. That's always really hard."
Hayes wrote 2 of 10 songs for the disc, a task he finds "extremely difficult. It's harder these days. Back for first album, we wrote a bunch of songs. That's before I had a career. Now, you have so much to think about and so little time that it really pulls you in a lot of different directions."