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Authentic Country Soul

As many times as you might hear the phrase “life imitates art,” you have to admit it still elicits a smile when you find yourself encountering such a situation.

When I first contacted singer/songwriter Waylon Hanel in preparation for this piece, we agreed on an “angle” of “how small town values translate when trying to make a dent in the mainstream country music market.” 

When I did finally speak to Hanel, it was while he took a break from tracking a deer to fulfill a few media obligations. You can’t make things like this up. Well, I guess you could, but with Waylon, there is no need. There is enough to work with without embellishing. None of what you see is a pose.

Watch & Listen: Waylon’s single “New Old Outlaws”

Hanel first started appearing on the Mid-Michigan music scene a few years ago, initially as a precocious teenager hauled up by more experienced hands to sing a few. He transitioned into his own stint as a traditional troubadour, setting up and singing at restaurants, bars, fairs or anywhere he might gain experience, exposure, or broaden his emerging fan base.  

It’s a formula that seems to be working, as Hanel has now begun to become a fixture as an opening act for name brand Country Music stars such as Trace Adkins, Lonestar, and Jo Dee Messina.  He has professional management, growing industry connections, and important inroads into radio airplay for his most recent recordings. 

For those who pine for the type of Country Music we heard in the past – void of dance beats, bare abs, and Autotune – Hanel is a breath of fresh air. He typically performs solo; just him and a guitar.  Unlike many we won’t mention, it’s not a prop.  Neither are the signature hat and boots.  It doesn’t take you long to figure out this is who he is.  The words you hear the veteran musicians in the area use when describing Waylon are things like “authentic” and “the real deal.”  You will also hear that he is simply a nice young man.

The other thing you realize when speaking to Hanel is that, despite his identity as a solo artist, this is not and will not be something he accomplishes alone.  None of this early success would appear to have gone to his head, as most of the messages you hear from him are about small town work ethic and strong family values.

It’s A Family Affair

If you spend much time around the growing “enterprise” of Waylon Hanel Music, you will realize that family support has been a big part of the equation.  It goes beyond being his biggest fans.

His parents Jason and Heidi probably set the ball in motion by naming a son after country legend Waylon Jennings. Any parents of a kid with aspirations will realize how much work it is facilitating that, especially in something like music where it seems it might pan out. 

There is time, money, attention, and commitment that could easily be spent elsewhere.  While musicians often have a reputation as misfits, it is more often the successful ones who are practicing traits they learned in fully functional homes.

Hanel recognizes this in his own career arc. 

“Family is the most important thing to me and I am blessed to have so much support from mine.  It’s the best feeling in the world to be able to see family members cheering for you and watching your dreams come true.”

You Can Never Really Leave A Small Town

One small town “value” that doesn’t get discussed enough is how you learn the importance of supporting others in their efforts and cheering on their successes. The fact is, you are going to need those same people to extend you a similar courtesy as you move down your own path.  

As Hanel states, “I am very lucky to have people in my community who believe in me and support this dream of mine.  Being from a small town with one stoplight, everybody knows everybody.  You always have to remember, if you treat people with respect, you will get it back.”

At Hanel shows, you will find that he has a crew of ardent supporters from his community, many of whom travel or have found ways to help with his growing music business.  Like any entrepreneur, you are going to have to have backers who believe in you from the beginning.  Millington, Michigan has proven that they are there in this capacity.

Watch & Listen: Waylon Hanel “He Don’t Mind”

It’s An Apprenticeship Business

Singing is pretty easy – you kind of can do it or you can’t.  Writing songs takes a little more effort, but – let’s be honest – not everything that makes it on the radio is Mozart.  Most of it is pretty simple stuff.

The mainstream music business, however?  It’s a maze.  There are so many dead ends and an endless supply of false hope.  

Like many aspiring musicians from this area, Hanel has forged a relationship with Bernie Nelson.  Nelson, originally from Auburn, Michigan, has cultivated a successful career as a songwriter and performer in his own right working both the Nashville and Texas country scenes.  Nelson has written hits and album tracks for artists like the aforementioned Adkins, Pam Tillis, Kenny Chesney, and Confederate Railroad.  He has also had hits of his own in the surprisingly robust European Country Music Market.

Nelson is known for mentoring young musicians from Mid-Michigan as they try to make the jump to a larger market, opening up his vast body of knowledge and black book of connections to help them get a foothold in the industry.  What you do with it from there is obviously up to you, but a resource like Nelson, who is so generous with his experience, is invaluable.

Said Hanel, “I’ve had a few mentors in the business, but one of the most important has been Bernie Nelson.  He is a fantastic songwriter and he has taken me under his wing, showing me the ins and outs of music.  He’s one of the best people I have ever met.”

Labor Of Love

“One thing you realize is this is a business.  You have to put in the work,” said Hanel.

He is doing his level best in this area.  On any given day he will be on the road performing songs from or doing media for his latest release, “New Old Outlaw.”  It’s a fitting title from an old soul name after one of the original Country Music Outlaws.  

Hanel’s last single “He Don’t Mind” received solid critical reviews and airplay from commercial Country Radio.  His next single, “My Kind Of Lonely ” is scheduled for release on 12/1.

You can learn more about Hanel and find his performance schedule on his website and find his music on the major streaming platforms.

Watch & Listen: Waylon Hanel “My Kind of Lonely”
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Matt de Heus
Matt de Heus
Despite his background in chemical and manufacturing engineering, Matt's true passion lies in music. Matt has received local awards from REVIEW magazine, recognizing his achievements in country songwriting, single releases, music videos, and more. His captivating song "Gone" has garnered particular acclaim. Alongside his musical pursuits, Matt is an accomplished freelance writer, lending his expertise to REVIEW magazine. He now joins LLL as their resident music expert. By following Matt and LLL, music enthusiasts can stay informed about Michigan's exceptional artists, captivating venues, and remarkable music scene.
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