With music as his mistress, Michael Hughes plays leading man in a lifelong romance that spans from Madison Square Garden to the Staples Center and all 48 states in between. This affair has led Hughes, a professional touring musician, to over 30 performances on the Grand Ole Opry stage and to more than 20 television appearances including The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, The Today Show, Ellen, The Country Music Association (CMA) Awards, and the Academy of Country Music (ACM) Awards. An accomplished keyboardist, guitarist, and vocalist, he has shared the stage with Kellie Pickler, Joan Jett, Rebecca Lynn Howard, Brian McComas, Andy Griggs, Richie McDonald, Ray Scott, and Ashton Sheperd. And as an independent singer-songwriter, Hughes has sold thousands of albums and earned an Honorable Mention in the 2007 Billboard Song Contest.
Hughes’s passion for music began as a boy growing up in the South Carolina upstate, where at age five, pining for a piano, he chiseled, hammered, and painted a rough replica of one from an old two-by-four. When his parents brought a real 5-foot upright home, he was smitten. Quickly discovering how to take off the lid, he delighted in the sound of hammers on strings with nothing between it and his ears. “It drove my parents crazy,” Michael recalls, “because they didn’t want this lid off the piano, but every morning they’d wake up and it was off. And I think that’s not only the beginning of my love for music, but also my love of production, because it was so important to me—even as a six-year old—that that instrument sound a particular way.”
The boy’s fascination with sound only grew, particularly when his older sister got a jam box one Christmas. “I used to pay her by the hour to let me lay down right in front of it with the top of my head up against the cassette player so I could listen to music in stereo. I had never heard a true stereo image before, and for me it was like getting a pair of 3D glasses. I couldn’t believe that anything could sound like that,” Michael remembers. Entire afternoons would fly by to the sounds of Boston and Pink Floyd and Led Zepplin. Eventually, Radiohead and the Black Crowes would seep into Hughes’s musical sensibility, as it grew to encompass country and folk, jazz and pop, rock and blues.
Michael was guided as much by the music around him as the music within him. He learned to play piano mostly by ear; formal training on guitar and trumpet filled in the gaps. Though his parents offered piano lessons, he refused on the grounds that schooling would require discipline and regimented practice, stealing the fun away from his passion. “When it came to the piano, I only ever wanted to play on my own terms,” he says. “So instead of listening to teachers I depended on feedback from my ears…finding, isolating, and trusting the artist within myself.”
He went on to study voice at Appalachian State, immersing himself in everything from chamber music to opera to musical theatre before transferring to Clemson University, where he majored in psychology with a minor in music. For his senior thesis, he collaborated with a physics major friend to explore the phenomenon of sinesthesia, establishing a mathematical correlation between audible sounds (notes) and visible light (colors). The pair rigged an old piano with colored lights that would flash as the corresponding note was hit, which became a centerpiece of Hughes’s college jam band Purple Water. After college, the band toured the Southeast with not only this piano but a Hammond organ in tow. “We insisted on using real instruments only,” Michael says. “It’s ridiculous to haul these instruments around when you’re playing van and trailer gigs for 15 people, but we couldn’t see doing it any other way.”
Over the next several years, Michael continued to play out live, whether as a member of the down and dirty country blues band Bad Creek, fronting the rock band Turn, or performing his soulful acoustic solo act up and down the East Coast. He recorded his debut album, Losing My Mind, in Key West with Sam Anderson and Dan Simpson, which he released independently to critical acclaim. All the while, he worked in music stores back home and taught piano lessons, always managing—though sometimes just barely—to piece together a living out of music. It became clear that in order to continue to grow as an artist and reach the level of success he desired, Michael would have to relocate to the heart of the music industry. “Both the people that I needed to surround myself with and the resources I needed to develop as an artist were all in Nashville,” Michael rightly observed. So with a great deal of trust in the artist within, Michael took a huge leap of faith and made his move to Music City.
Once in Nashville, Michael opened a teaching studio and began taking in the local music scene in his abundant free time. One night at Bourbon Street Blues in Printer’s Alley, he remembers being blown away by the house keyboard player. “He was just on fire, ripping it up,” Michael recalls. He turned to a friend and said, “I’d really like to do that…I really believe I could do that, if I just had the time to sit down and learn.” Considering Michael’s status as a marginally employed piano teacher, the friend flatly said, “Well, you’ve got time now.” From that point on, Michael began to take his playing to a whole new level. Hammering away at home and hustling for tips up and down lower Broadway, Michael began to gain footing as one of Nashville’s most talented new keyboard players. Following his first sideman gig with Rebecca Lynn Howard, Michael’s growing reputation as a solid player with stellar back-up vocals landed him a spot with Kellie Pickler, then fresh off American Idol and poised to become country music’s newest sweetheart.
Three years down the road and Michael’s love affair with music is still heating up. He continues to play keyboards alongside Pickler, while serving as the go-to guy for such developing artists as Ashton Shepherd and Jimmy Barrett. Lately, however, his focus has shifted from his sideman career to his goals as an artist, songwriter, and producer. While pursuing recording and publishing deals, he continues to create original music that he is proud of. Working out of his home studio that he has painstakingly built as a labor of love, Hughes is currently writing and recording his 5th album on his own Hartwell Records, slated for independent release in the winter of 2011. “While I’m pleased with what I’ve accomplished in the past, my eyes are focused squarely on the future, and I’m excited about all of the doors that are opening for me and my music.”