Montana spring, cold and wet, finally gave way to summer. In Butte, moisture still hangs in the air, pulling the grit of the mining town to the surface. Christy Hays is feeling the lingering dampness in her bones.
She rubs her left wrist as she boils water for tea on the antique stove in her small, one-bedroom house. Three years ago, after purchasing the property for $19,000, Hays planned to return to Austin for the winter but was diagnosed with Kienbock's disease, a rare condition cutting off blood to her wrist with the potential to kill the bone.
The recommended surgery proposed fusing the bones of her left wrist, which would have left it nearly inflexible. The singer-songwriter sought a second opinion, and a third, until finally she found a surgeon hours away who had successfully treated the disease with a bone graft. He rebuilt the guitarist's left wrist with bone marrow from her hip, but recovery held no guarantees.
"I got really depressed," recalled Hays, now 37, sitting at her country kitchen table last month. "Up here in the winter, it gets so dark and cold. It's so quiet and negative 10 degrees, and I was homebound because they didn't want me walking around. It was a sad time, and I felt really alone.
"The doctor said I shouldn't even touch a guitar, to not even think about it," she confesses with a sly grin. "But I had to exercise my fingers, so I rationalized it and set up my electric guitar."
Through the bitter Montana winter, she began writing with a determined purpose and urgency. The walls of the house became patchworks of Post-It notes filled with ideas and emotions. For two months, between doctor's visits and physical therapy, she crafted songs driven by an impulse to fight off the isolation and find something deeper.
"I hadn't written a full-length album in years," she says. "I was in a rut, making the same thing over and over again. I was 35, and ready to do something else entirely that challenges me. I thought, 'If I can't change and evolve and dig deep and be vulnerable, then I don't want to continue doing this for a job.'
"I put a lot of pressure on myself to get outside of my comfort zone of writing and not be literal, not just write about failed relationships and lost love," she continues. "If there was one constant, it was to look at who I was and all the places I've lived and all the experiences I've had, and get out of that construct of what I had made myself up to be in my mind. I wanted to push myself and write about subject matter that I thought was interesting and not just masturbatory."
River Swimmer, Hays' remarkable third LP, resulted in April (revisit "Texas Platters," May 25). Wringing the emotional depth of Mary Gauthier, outsider narratives of Lucinda Williams, and sharp melodies of Kathleen Edwards, it's a breakthrough by any measure.
At its peak early last century as the largest city between Chicago and San Francisco, Butte bolstered immigrants who flocked west to work the copper mines. Towering black headframes still litter the landscape as stark, steel monuments to the abandoned mines below. The monstrous, mile-long Berkeley Pit mine scars the eastern edge of the town, even as reclamation efforts of the past couple of decades attempt to rejuvenate the land from toxic topsoil and slag piles.
"Butte has a real rough-and-tumble reputation," offers Hays. "It's a hard town, a union town and blue-collar town, and some of the nicest people you'll ever meet. It's kind of the Wild West up here. A lot of people think, 'What the hell are you doing up here?' It's part of America that we as a society love to ignore. We love to pretend this stuff doesn't happen."
Built in 1891, her house crowns a hill in Walkerville, Butte's oldest neighborhood. The back porch looks out over the crooked streets and roughshod buildings, some condemned, some abandoned, some holding on through sheer determination. Hays renovated nearly the entire structure since she bought it from the writer Edwin Dobb, but an anachronistic quaintness belies its history.
The current owner's penchant for construction is more natural than her artistic pull. She grew up in rural Illinois the daughter of a welder in a family of engineers. A forestry major in college, Hays then spent four years in Alaska collecting data on salmon and working as a river guide in a bald eagle preserve.
"I had this moment where I realized I was an artist and not a scientist, so I moved to Nashville," she says. "I spent two years there. I was so green. I'd been living in a cabin with no running water or electricity, so I was just so out of touch.
"Al Bunetta at Oh Boy Records took a big interest in me, so I made a demo for the label, and it seemed like they were really into it and going to sign me. Then Al said he'd take me out to dinner to sign the papers, but instead he took me to an empty apartment on Music Row with a joint and a six-pack to consummate the deal.
"I was inconsolably depressed for a year, realizing what it meant to be in the music business, and just how terrible it is. Al told me, 'You're already too old to make it in this business.' I was 27. That was at the very beginning of me trying to do this, and that stuck with me for years."
Hays nearly walked away from music, but her boyfriend and bass player at the time, Dominic Fisher, who currently holds down low-end rhythm with local acoustic string band Wood & Wire, convinced her to move to Austin instead.
Landing locally in 2009, Hays honed her craft among artistic camaraderie. Her residency at the Hole in the Wall lasted 16 months.
"My community and the people I resonated with already existed in Austin," she reflects. "It was so easy to make friends and fall into what makes Austin great, which is the scene. There's no better hang than this town."
Accompanying her relocation to the state capital, a self-titled debut introduced a hard twang vocalist bivouacking against country rhythms. 2012 follow-up Drought progressed with backing by local standouts, including Bukka Allen and Matt the Electrician. The songwriting began to hinge on more detailed narratives, with the album balancing between graceful acoustic moments and harder alt.country turns.
Where Hays' first two albums evidenced burgeoning strengths as a writer, subsequent EPs searched for the right sound. 2014's O' Montana led with the Tex-Mex accordion whirl of "Am I Tired," cut lo-fi harmonies on the title track, and trembled with a gentle Emmylou Harris elegance in "Wasatch."
Caliche the following year burned bitter and brooding, Lauren Gurgiolo's grinding electric guitar rippling both atmospheric and industrial. It represented a dramatic sonic shift for Hays, raw and intense, but harbingered the subtly dark sound she eventually achieved with producer Dexter Green on River Swimmer.
"This album is what I've wanted it to sound like my whole career, but it's never worked out for a lot of reasons," says Hays. "A lot of it was just my own inexperience and not believing in myself, and my own gut feeling of what I wanted. I didn't stick to my guns and say, 'This isn't what I want to make.' I didn't want to sound like all the throwback country and Americana that's so popular right now. That is the opposite direction I wanted to go.
"I didn't want to have to play cowgirl and dress up in chain-stiched Western wear."
As Hays struggled to find her stylistic voice, she saved enough money from waitressing to afford a down payment on the house in Butte, and after two years of extensive renovations largely performed by herself and friends, Hays refinanced the property and bought the house next door as well. She envisions turning her idyllic compound on Lexington Terrace into a writers' retreat someday.
"Part of going to Montana was just that I could afford to buy a house," she admits. "I'm not going to have a pension from this job. I don't have a 401(k) I can pay into. But I have two properties.
"When I was in my mid-30s, I had a moment when I thought, 'What am I going to do when I can't do this?' The idea of living hand-to-mouth and trying to make rent when I'm in my 40s is terrifying. I don't want to be living like that.
"I love Central Texas and don't think I'll leave, but I'm not really the kind of person that wants to live in just one place," she finishes. "It's been a dream of mine since I was 20 to be able to live in two different places, and the older I get, the more I want to live in the country. Solitude is probably the most healthy for my busy mind."
Driving down Highway 297 toward West Yellowstone, east of the Continental Divide, Hays stares out across the fertile valleys colliding into snow-capped mountains and endless blue sky. She knows these roads all over western Montana, long drives between good-paying gigs at bars, resorts, and restaurants. She's built a following in the state and fans come from miles away to hear her play.
There's an essential dichotomy constantly warring within Hays: the restless wanderer and adamant homesteader, a stubborn idealist and pragmatic realist. The extrovert thrives on culture and energy from a city, while the introvert yearns for the peace and isolation of the country. Artist and scientist exist in equal measure.
"This decompression happens when I get up here, where I can just feel the air leaving my body," she muses. "I realized how much more healthy I am, mentally healthy, up here. This is what makes me a happier, healthier person. I live a pretty quiet life up here. It's where I write, where I disconnect, and I don't feel like I have social obligations."
The split between Austin and Butte is also practical for Hays.
"My whole perception of music as a job has absolutely evolved over the years," she reveals. "There's nothing dreamy or rosy about it. It's another job and if you do it right you'll be successful, or some kind of successful.
"You have to decide what kind of career you want to have," she continues. "If you want to have a career in Austin where you have another job, and you play your gigs and just focus on writing, and you aren't really looking for a national career, then you should stay and find your happiness in that. But if you want a national career, you have to be on the road. You have to be planning tours basically all the time, and be creative and be networking, especially when you're out on the road."
In light of River Swimmer, Hays enters a new echelon with her songwriting. The challenge now is putting together a support team – booking agent, label, management – to help her move forward in the industry. She's not waiting for others to catch up.
"I think, no matter what, in my life I want to be my own boss," she says. "It's taught me the self-discipline to learn from mistakes and realize if I don't do it, no one else will. It's a difficult thing to have a business brain and an artistic brain, and be able to manage everything. I feel lucky because I do have an analytical mind and do like to keep track of spreadsheets, which makes my business easier in the end, but that self-discipline can be daunting.
"I feel like right now I'm just starting to get to a place where I'm in rhythm, and I know how to set aside the time to write," she says. "I could have never written this album when I was 27. It wouldn't matter how much I applied myself. There's no way it could have been written."
Christy Hays opens for Bruce Robison in the third installment of KUTX’s free Back to the Garden series at Threadgill’s World Headquarters on Friday, July 20, 6pm.
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