Hayden Pedigo is a leading light in fingerstyle guitar, but his chief aspiration has always been to excel in a different area. “I never wanted to be a guitar player,” he tells me over the phone from Amarillo, the mid-sized Texas panhandle town where he was born and raised. “I just wanted to be a prankster. I like messing with people, but I’m not laughing at people or making fun of people, just putting out strange things.”
Pedigo’s public persona is self-consciously silly, full of what fans of his bright-eyed yet studied take on American primitive playing might mistake for detours from the plot. These include: an initially unserious city council run at the age of 24, a penchant for dressing up like highway billboards, and unexpected appearances in bona fide fashion shows like Gucci’s 2021 “Love Parade.” (In their coverage of the event, V Magazine referred to Pedigo as a “celebrity,” and in the same breath as Jared Leto and Macaulay Culkin.) But he insists that his decentralized pursuits are actually variations on a larger theme. “It’s all part of this one big thing I’m aiming for,” he says. “I’m still figuring out what exactly that is.”
“I wanted it to be this pristine, perfect thing. It’s not trying to be an experimental record. It’s my take on a perfect guitar record.”
Pedigo still wants to prank the world. But in all of his endeavors, he seems to eventually submit to a stronger impulse: to apply an intense level of care to even the smallest of details. His city council run, recorded in the 2021 documentary Kid Candidate, began with a series of absurdist campaign videos, the first of which is soundtracked by Danny Brown’s “Die Like a Rockstar’’ instrumental. It shows him struggling to measure the width of a drainage ditch and musing on how “a lot of local small business owners out here are straight-up getting bonked.” Over the course of his candidacy, however, he grew more determined, impressing even his opponents with a deep, immediately evident empathy for the residents of his hometown.
Musically, he’s gradually upped his production value and technique over the years, adding thin layers of polish to his prodigious chops. For his latest release, The Happiest Times I Ever Ignored, he set out to make “the best instrumental acoustic guitar album of the past 20 years,” as boldly stated in its bio. He believes he succeeded. “I wanted it to be this pristine, perfect thing,” he says. “It’s not trying to be an experimental record. It’s my take on a perfect guitar record.”
To help him achieve this mission, Pedigo called on Trayer Tryon — whose purview with his own band, Hundred Waters, is much busier — for production help. “I was curious to work with Trayer because Hundred Waters is such multi-layered, maximalist music,” Pedigo says. “Instead of going maximalist, he zoomed in and made it this hyper-focused thing where any overdubs were just there to elevate the guitar. He got the idea immediately.”
Ultimately, it was Pedigo who suggested they add another element to the mix. “I love the pedal steel, but I try to use it sparingly in my albums,” he says. “For me, it’s almost like cilantro; a little goes a long way. It’s hyper-specific, and it can really add a spark, a freshness. It feels very awake.”
They tapped Luke Schneider, who had played on the title track from Pedigo’s last album, for the role. “I’m not really into the whole ambient pedal steel thing,” Pedigo explains. “I like the straight-up country pedal steel, and Luke can play that style absolutely perfectly.” Schneider recorded his parts remotely, sending them back within 24 hours. They fit effortlessly, as if he’d been sitting in the room with Pedigo and Tryon the whole time.
“It has the effect of when you’re sitting in a silent room and you can almost hear your blood running through your body.”
Pedigo’s taste is eclectic. When I ask what he’s been listening to lately, he tells me Buck Owens and Boldy James, then adds depth to his rap bona fides with shouts out to the rest of the Griselda crew, Earl Sweatshirt, Shoreline Mafia, and BabyTron, before tossing in 18th-century Spanish composer Antonio Soler for good measure. He doesn’t listen to anyone else’s solo acoustic guitar music for pleasure, he claims — just for research. “I approach guitar like sports,” he says. “I see how other people are playing, who the good players are, and I go, ‘Well, that’s where the bar is set. I have to do better than that. I have to push myself harder.’”
On Happiest Times, he pushed extra hard. While the new record lacks some of the grittier elements that enriched Pedigo’s earlier, stranger work, it makes up for them with beautifully crafted arrangements that glow brighter than anything in his catalog. Songs like the title track and “Elsewhere” shift subtly but swiftly between complex emotional states, while others, like closer “Then It’s Gone,” fully embody a singular mood — in that case, wistful longing.
The latter track was the last one Pedigo and Tryon recorded for Happiest Times and the only one with no overdubs. On the final day of mixing, Tryon suggested they take the reverb off of Pedigo’s guitar too. “It was so jarringly bare, I was like, ‘I can’t do it,’” Pedigo remembers. “He was like, ’No, you’ve gotta trust me.’”
In the end, he was happy Tryon got him out of his comfort zone. “It has the effect of when you’re sitting in a silent room and you can almost hear your blood running through your body,” he says. “It’s incredibly jarring, but it’s life affirming. It’s like, ‘I’m alive. I can hear my blood running through my body, and I’m gonna have a panic attack.’”
Stepping into a more earnest era of his career, Pedigo is peeling back the curtain on his prankster persona. Amid the overwhelming melange of colors and characters that is his Instagram page, plain black text sits on three incongruous white squares.
Titled “It Is a Strange Time to Be a Musician,” “Odd Future Taught Me How to Be an Artist on the Internet,” and “How the Guitar (and John Fahey) Changed My Life,” these February and March mini-blogs cut off abruptly when the press cycle for Happiest Times began, but not before leaving an indelible impression on Pedigo’s relatively small but remarkably zealous following. They offer a rare peek into the anxieties and inspirations of an ambitious, original artist still finding his place in the world. If nothing else, they’re irrefutable evidence that Hayden Pedigo cares deeply.
“I’d never done anything like that before, and I’m still learning how to balance showing my real life with the weird, fake, satirical things,” he admits. “It’s always uncomfortable being vulnerable and a hundred percent sincere online. I’m trying to figure it out.”