A 35-year-old event ... a 23-year-old star ... and a whole lot of people

For sheer quantity -- of stars, of fans, of music -- few events match PBS' 4th-of-July concert. This year's event ranges from country to classical, from veterans (Barry Manilow, Alabama) to 23-year-old phenom Hunter Hayes. Here's the story I sent to papers:

By Mike Hughes

Right now, living
inside Hunter Hayes' world might seem kind of scary.

He's 23 and looks
19, in a genre once filled with grizzled baritones. He's “a young,
hot country star,” Jerry Colbert, the creator of PBS' “A Capitol
Fourth” concert, says accurately.

And now this lad
will sing to the multitudes – a crowd estimated at 300,000-plus –
at the 35th fourth-of-July concert. Colbert has seen such
veteran as Mel Torme and Joe Mantegna filled with emotions.

He also remembers a
young Faith Hill being awestruck. “She came off the stage and said,
'That was the biggest crowd I've seen in my life.'” And that was
just the rehearsal, with a mere 50,000 or so.

So now Hayes should
be dazzled ... except he's seen mega-crowds, back in his formative
years: “When I was 5, I played with Hank Williams, Jr., at the
Texas Motor Speedway,” he said.

The crowd that day
has been estimated at 185,000 or more. “It was awesome,” Hayes
said. “I looked out at that and said, 'This is what I want to do in
my life.'”

He was in the right
place for that. Hayes grew up in Breaux Bridge, a Southern Louisiana
town of 8,100, near Lafayette, a center of Cajun culture. “You hear
great music everywhere,” he said.

His parents aren't
musicians, but were encouraging. “My dad (a mechanic) is the
biggest fan in the world,” Hayes said. “He can tell you everyone
who did anything.”

Hayes' grandmother
gave him a toy accordion when he was 2; a real one followed. At 4, he
played “Jambalaya” on cable's Nickelodeon; at 5, he was with
Williams before that mega-crowd. At 6, he was an accordionist in “The
Apostle”; the film's star, Robert Duvall, gave him his first

This might suggest a
cute-kid-with-a-guitar cliche, but Hayes comes across as
dead-serious. “I love writing,” he said. “Any time I get,
that's what I'm doing. There's so much creativity you want to use.”

While many musicians
accuse streaming services of underpayment (or non-payment), Hayes is
upbeat. “I have faith that they'll work out the money part,” he
said. “But that's why you do this, for people to hear it .... I
have so many songs waiting to be heard.”

And one of them drew
extra attention. “Invisible” -- a song for any teen who feels he
doesn't fit in – reached No. 7 on Billboard's country chart, his
fourth single in the top 10. (“Wanted” was No. 1; so weew two
albums). He sang it at the Grammys, then got excited when Paul
McCartney was backstage.

“I thought,
'Should I go up to hin? What could I say?'” Then he didn't have to
decide: McCartney walked up to him, shook his hand, said “that was
a remarkable performance” and stayed to chat.

It's the sort of
star moment you can get at the Grammys ... or at “Capitol Fourth.”
This year ranges from pop (Barry Manilow, Nicole Scherzinger) to
country (including Alabama) and classical.

That range is part
of the 35-year evolution. “We started out as more classical,”
Colbert said, “when we had (Mstislav) Rostropovich as the

That first year,
Pearl Bailey was the singer and startled Rostropovich by reacting to
the crowd and repeating a chorus. Classical folks don't improvise

Ever since, “A
Capitol Fourth” has been about fun. “Barry Manilow has said, 'I
can't wait to get up there,'” Colbert said. “Dolly Parton was all
fired up.”

And even someone
who's done it all – been cheered by the Texas masses, been praised
by Sir Paul – might end up being excited.

TV's Fourth-of-July

-- PBS: From
Washington, D.C.: Barry Manilow, Nicole Scherzinger, Alabama, Hunter
Hayes, Meghan Linsey, Lang Lang and Ronan Tynan, plus KC and the
Sunshine Band and the National Symphony

-- NBC: From New
York: Kelly Clarkson, Brad Paisley, Dierks Bentley, Meghan Trainor,
Flo Rida.

-- Both start at 8
p.m. Saturday and end with fireworks. NBC repeats at 10 p.m.; most
PBS stations (check local listings) repeat at 9:30.