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Country artist Hunter Hayes is singing VR's tune

The star talks about making a 360-degree music video, recording on his iPhone and how virtual reality can bring fans into his shows.

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Hunter Hayes, with downtown Nashville in the background, says VR will lead to "a lot more experimental pieces and artistic expressions from people who have these wild ideas."

Tyler Lizenby/CNET

The first time Hunter Hayes tried virtual reality, he was backstage at the Grand Ole Opry.

That's quite the juxtaposition. The Opry is a weekly concert/radio show but more than that, it's a country music institution dating back to 1925. It's old and it's enduring -- the terrain of Hank, Dolly, Willie and countless other country music legends.

And there was Hayes, now 25, wearing a Samsung Gear VR headset, standing on a virtual stage and taking in the lights the country singer has since become accustomed to in real life.

About three years after Hayes' first VR experience at the Opry, Google approached him about doing something with 360-degree video. They eventually came up with a concept for "Yesterday's Song," where Hayes uses an Ableton DJ rig he built to loop various parts of the song -- essentially being his own band. The video alternates between his performance in the studio, shots of him playing different instruments hopping on pedals, and a ring of Hunter Hayeses against a white background. Turn your head and you can tune into the different parts he's playing, whether guitar, drums or vocals.

He's nudging new tech into a nearly hundred-year-old music genre.

"There's something unexplainable about VR," Hayes tells me. "We've barely scratched the surface, even in years of doing it."

If country music isn't your thing, a primer on Hayes goes something like this: At the ripe old age of 20, he released his debut self-titled album, which sold more than a million copies. He's got five Grammy nominations and won New Artist of the Year at the 2012 CMA Awards. Hayes is already three albums into his career, the most recent being 2015's "The 21 Project." And true to genre, he sings about love and loss, but with a strong hint of optimism and a lot fewer trucks, creeks and trains than is customary these days.

Hayes is something of a geek with a mind toward using technology to bridge the gap between him and the audience. On his 2014 "Tattoo (Your Name) Tour," concert-goers got LED wristbands programmed to turn the audience into a light show. He's also been deviating somewhat from the traditional album cycle, releasing songs online that might not necessarily turn up on an album, like this past June's "Rescue," which hit 1 million streams on Spotify within a week.

In May, I talked to Hayes about his favorite tech from the top floor of Nashville's first skyscraper, the L&C Tower, overlooking a downtown that now includes a convention center shaped like a guitar.

This is Nashville, after all.

The following is an edited transcript of our conversation.

Q: You got to make a 360 video this year for "Yesterday's Song." What can VR add to a music video experience?
Hayes: There're many ways to approach a music video, and I love to give it to the fans for their own interpretation. In VR, multiply that times a gazillion because it's no longer what you can fit in a frame. The frame is endless and uninterrupted. Jumping into a story is so much more easily accomplished because [fans are] a part of the story rather than just witnessing it. The fourth wall doesn't exist in VR. It's the literal interpretation of "out of the box."

What role do you see VR playing in music?
Hayes: VR has a huge role to play in so many different avenues of music, whether it's the live concert experience or a more intimate concert where you can't fit more than 10 people in the room. An endless amount of people can feel like they were in the room. I think we're going to see a lot more experimental pieces and artistic expressions from people who have these wild ideas that are hard to fit into a 16x9 frame.

How do you want to use VR in the future?
Hayes: I saw "Yesterday's Song" as really a handshake with VR. Now it's like, now what? I have tons of concepts and ideas for things. Right now my head's spinning in the live element. How I can give the fans more experiences from a live show? That's where I feel like my music really comes alive. Our music is made in a studio, but it really gets wings and becomes real [when performed live].

What's your favorite piece of tech?
Hayes: I use my smartphone the most and it's probably my favorite because my whole first record, was written in my Notes on my iPhone. I didn't have a laptop because I couldn't afford one and couldn't justify buying one, and didn't want to scribble stuff down because I was constantly erasing and marking through.

I think it was great because even eight or nine years ago, when I was writing my first record,  I could type it in and I could record it. I've used my iPhone mic to overdub vocals because I wasn't going to be in a studio and I had to figure it out. We would finish demos via an iPhone mic. The amount of stuff we can fit in the palm of our hand still remains one of my favorite advances because it keeps getting better and it keeps getting more intuitive and it helps in the creative aspect.

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