The Cosmic Truth of Hayden Pedigo, Texas’ Fingerstyling Prodigal Son

Music Features Hayden Pedigo
The Cosmic Truth of Hayden Pedigo, Texas’ Fingerstyling Prodigal Son

In July 1980, the film Caddyshack hit theaters and would go on to gross 10 times its budget and become one of the most successful and beloved comedies of its era. A month later, one of the men who wrote it would be dead. Doug Kenney—the heart of National Lampoon Magazine and co-creator of Animal House—had decamped to Hawaii with Chevy Chase and, while hiking alone, fell off of a 35-foot cliff at the Hanapepe Valley Lookout. In his hotel room, there were scraps and notes of jokes and ideas for his next movie, as well as a gag line left behind. It read: “These last few days are among the happiest I’ve ever ignored.”

43 years later, Kenney’s pseudo-last words return once again, this time taking shape as the title of Texas guitarist Hayden Pedigo’s new album, The Happiest Times I Ever Ignored. When he watched a documentary on the National Lampoon, Pedigo felt an instant chemistry with Kenney and his approach to the creative margins that, momentarily, absolve our traumas for the sake of admiration, self-nourishment and entertainment. Beyond the late comedian’s tragic ending and his style of humor, He found himself entranced by not just the deep undercurrent of frustration within Kenney’s oeuvre, but by the way that that singular joke—like a swan song—spoke to the Pedigo’s own experience with creating and whether art can, or cannot, redeem a life lived to the fullest.

“Sometimes it feels like, being an artist—or pursuing being a successful artist—you feel miserable most of the time just so you can feel better than anyone ever has for a tiny percentage of that time. That’s the frustration of being an artist, and it’s not ‘You need to be miserable to make great art.’ I’m talking about the misery of always being in competition with yourself and always being frustrated and feeling like you’re not doing enough. For me, personally, I feel like I’ve missed out on a lot of great experiences in my life because I was so in my head about accomplishing that thing—and I just missed out on it. So, when I heard that line in the documentary, I was like, ‘That sums up the feeling of “these were great moments that I missed.’” I was there, but I just wasn’t there for it,” Pedigo says. “It’s a weird feeling to be actively frustrated and unhappy with creating the thing that is supposed to make you happy. I have to wonder—did [Kenney] feel a similar thing? [The documentary] said that, within six months of [Animal House] coming out, he was miserable and felt like a loser again. I’m like, ‘That kind of sums it up.’”

Pedigo is not a big fan of making art, but he is fully onboard with the riches that come from his process—or at least that’s what he told his mom just a few days before our call. He’s not a perfectionist so much as he is a determined creator. And his songwriting style is so atypical that he only writes for the sake of finishing something, and he goes as far as to schedule time to write songs—rather than just letting the randomness of inspiration freewheel. What we hear on The Happiest Times I Ever Ignored is a full body of work. There are no half-done songs left on the cutting room floor or outtakes shelved. These seven tracks weren’t unearthed from any vault or iPhone memo. It’s a solitary process that yields gorgeous results. The idea of being prolific might get tossed out of the window in the process, but it happens in the name of Pedigo making grand, perfect records.

While Pedigo’s work is meticulous and layered, that engineerical facet is not what defines the art he makes. The titles of his last two albums, Letting Go and The Happiest Times I Ever Ignored, both carry a heaviness and inspire either darkness or a shedding of something. “I don’t make technical guitar music to show off,” he says. “I try to make emotional music that’s heavy, so the guitar’s not the most important thing. It’s the depth behind it. I want to make something equivalent to a Mount Eerie album. How can I do something that taps into that kind of zone? I’m more interested in tapping into something like Grouper or Sun Kil Moon. I’m not trying to compete with other guitar records, I’m trying to compete with other heavy records.”

I remember listening to his 2018 album Greetings From Amarillo and having my world cracked open. This young guy, barely a few years older than me, had opened a portal into a world I’d only been to once. The title track transported me back to when I was on a mountainside in Northern Texas while on horseback. I watched the land stretch around the equator of a faraway horizon. From that place, it felt like you could walk thousands of miles and not run into a single soul. As legendary country troubadour Terry Allen says on the final voicemail-style track, “Every distance so far away, it might as well be California.” Greetings From Amarillo beckons that very truth. In all of its sparseness there is ample beauty; with its wayfaring arpeggios come emotional platitudes and checkpoints of discovery that no string of lyrics could possibly conjure.

Five years later, The Happiest Times I Ever Ignored arrives beautiful and damning in its vulnerability—all without a single word uttered across the record’s 37-minute runtime, as Pedigo is steadfast in his voiceless ways. In 2022, he was actively posting on his Instagram page about how his next record was going to be the greatest thing he ever made. When he migrated to Gainesville, Florida to record The Happiest Times I Ever Ignored at Pulp Arts Studio—with Trayer Tryon of Hundred Waters, Luke Schneider and Robert Edmondson—he brought that certainty to a breathing, expanding life. Not only was it his first time in the Sunshine State, but it was his first time ever making an album in a bonafide studio—and he was a lifetime away from making music in his bedroom or at a friend’s house. Pedigo tracked all of the acoustic guitar parts in one day across nine hours, which allowed him to put ample focus on overdubs and mixing.

In 2021, Letting Go was one of the best records of the year. Subtle, fully-realized and haunting, Pedigo had earned his keep and capitalized on seven years of making Bandcamp records that not nearly enough folks paid attention to. Though the Amarillo-based fingerstyling guitarist has been in the limelight, in some form or another, for almost a decade, it took a lot of work to even be in a position to make Letting Go. At just 20 years old, Vogue covered his work; in 2021, he had a documentary—Kid Candidate—made about his viral Amarillo city council bid and shown at SXSW; he walked in a Gucci fashion show with Phoebe Bridgers and Macaulay Culkin. While he’s fully curbed the internet, Pedigo’s music feels like it’s always been here yet sometimes underscored by his social media presence—which is funny, given that he made a Twitter account only a few months ago. But, his instrumental arrangements could fit into any landscape or era, as they evoke emotions that will never be bound to one specific moment in time and no post caption could possibly define.

When considering the point at which the singularity of The Happiest Times I Ever Ignored became evident, Pedigo points to Letting Go being his very own THX 1138—a nod to George Lucas’ debut feature film from 1971. “I was writing way more complicated pieces than what was on Letting Go,” he says. “And not just complicated, I felt like the songs were stronger. A lot of people could argue that [Lucas] needed to make THX 1138 to then make Star Wars. I needed to make Letting Go to then go on to the Star Wars-type deal on this new record. It’s like, ‘The writing needs to be better, the recording needs to be better. There just can’t be any weak tracks. It’s time to take that to the highest level.’” By the time Pedigo finished writing The Happiest Times I Ever Ignored, he knew he’d achieved his goal, most deftly when the songs became harder to play and he was tasked with relentlessly practicing them just to be able to replicate their progressions in the studio.

The last time I interviewed Pedigo was in the late summer of 2021, just before Letting Go came out. He’d recently signed to Mexican Summer’s label, quit his day-job at a bank, moved to Lubbock with his wife L’Hannah—who was in grad school at Texas Tech—and began focusing solely on making music full-time. Just a few days after our conversation, Pedigo messaged me on Instagram, unveiling some then-top-secret news that he was quarantined in a Los Angeles hotel room for days in preparation to walk in a Gucci show.

That once-in-a-lifetime moment came after he posted a fake Gucci photoshoot on his Instagram page—which many folks initially thought was the real deal and led to him adding a disclaimer that it was merely satire. But the only person in the world who could stumble into such a legendary ordeal is Pedigo, and his enigmatic online personality has become its own brand. He toes the line between absurdism and trolling with such a fluid finesse that you might be shocked to know that he actually hates putting on such a flamboyoant, over-the-top show in front of other folks. But, when it comes to making music, Pedigo’s humor rarely makes it farther than his album covers.

The cover of The Happiest Times I Ever Ignored was done by Jonathan Phillips, who also painted the cover of Letting Go two years ago. On the latter, Phillips turned a photograph of Pedigo decked out in corpse paint in front of an 18-wheeler into a vibrant, unforgettable pastoral. This time around, the vision we see—a blue-skinned Pedigo standing in front of a burning Nissan in a Walmart parking lot—was done out of thin air without any reference point. “There’s something about the album cover that I find really disturbing,” he says, “I don’t know why, but the first time I saw it it gave me the creeps. It’s a bad vibe, and that’s a weird thing. The Letting Go cover and this one, they don’t have a good vibe. There’s something very negative and uneasy about both covers. I’m not going to lie, I was disturbed—because I was blue. I texted [Phillips] and I said, ‘I look like I drowned. That’s kind of grim, I look dead.’” You might not listen to a dainty, tender track like “When It’s Clear” and immediately think of a car erupting into flames—but the chords are heavy and humid, as they slowly pace across an underbelly of atmospheric synths.

In 2021, Pedigo confided in me that, whenever he puts a record out, he’s left with a worry that it’ll be his last album he ever makes. That fear took a different shape this time around, as he hoped to avoid any kind of sophomore slump. Of course, The Happiest Times I Ever Ignored is not Pedigo’s second album, but it’s the second album he’s released since gaining significant exposure. There’s more pressure now than ever before, which made making this album a do-or-die moment for the songwriter.

“I felt proud of Letting Go, it felt very cohesive—the album art, the music—but I felt like the odds were stacked against me a little bit,” he says. “‘Now what do I do?’ I didn’t just start writing after Letting Go. I took a year off, didn’t write a single song. Because, in a way, I think you have to clear the cache. You have to wipe it and start clean. Writing music is like when you go to a greasy diner and you order a patty melt, but you can taste the pancakes that were cooked on the flat-top grill 15 minutes before. Music works in that way—if you’re cooking too close together, you get the flavor of the thing last cooked on it. You want to give it some time, let it cool down, clean it off, give it a break and start new—or else, you get a similar flavor. With this record, maybe on the first listen, people might think it is—because it’s acoustic guitar music with synthesizers on it and it’s pretty and that’s the same. But I think, if someone listens to it a second time and third time, a lot of the details start coming out that I think sets it apart. There’s something very different here in the songwriting and the melodies and the playing.”

He’s right about that. The Happiest Times I Ever Ignored is different, bolder than Letting Go. Tryon scaled back the maximalism he works through in Hundred Waters to offer a very, as Pedigo puts it, “lowercase production” on the album. Every overdub was treated like an effect on the guitar—not just its own part—and Tryon turned the collection into a sonic sweater, stitchings of tiny, hidden details that you have to decode. “There’s a part on ‘Elsewhere,’ in the middle, where [Tryon] was plucking the inside of the piano on the strings, corresponding to what I was playing on the guitar. It sounds like a little music box or the inside of a clock,” Pedigo says. “It’s my most textured and detailed album I’ve ever made, but it appears to be the most bare-bones.” He had a guitar custom-made by a builder in Australia, and it’s the shining star on The Happiest Times I Ever Ignored. “We wanted it to sound like you’re inside of the guitar, like you’re a tiny thing inside this giant, acoustic guitar body,” he adds.

The complex thing about instrumental music—which might be frustrating to some who are itching for a earworming chorus or verse—is that it’s not so easily resonant through speech. With an emphasis on the work as a means of evoking visceral reaction, The Happiest Times I Ever Ignored is cinematic in the way that it makes you feel something that is so often indescribable yet beautiful. You can picture each track unfolding like a climactic scene or an expositional montage, and that’s what makes Pedigo’s music so accessible—because the sounds themselves can be interpreted and loved differently by anyone. “Signal of Hope” has a pedal steel in it that sounds like something Led Zeppelin cooked up on “Tangerine,” while “Nearer, Nearer” has a back porch singalong-like innocence to it. There’s a vast prairie beyond these melodies; a spectrum of technicolor still turning bright. At 14 tracks across two concise records, the stories feel unique and familiar all at the same time. Songs like “Elsewhere” and “Then It’s Gone” are whole stories that chase curiosities across endless plains, but Pedigo isn’t so sure how they germinate within him.

“I don’t write songs about events or things that happen to me,” he says. “And, to be honest, I don’t know where the songs come from. I just feel like they’re following something. When I’m sitting with the guitar, I feel like it’s me holding a camera and trying to get the right shot and adjusting it. Then you’re like, ‘Wait, hold on. No, that’s it.’ It’s not so emotion-driven when you’re holding the camera and you’re just trying to see. But when you know it’s right, it’s right. And then you follow that. Subconsciously, my emotions come out. I’m plugging into something. But, for me, I don’t want to know too much about it or mess with it. If you follow what sounds right, it will come out.”

About a week before our call, Pedigo caused a momentary ruckus when he donned some Letting Go-style corpse paint, put on a thrifted pink top and some chain mail and took a photo in front of a real estate billboard featuring five women from Regal Realtors draped in hot pink. Pedigo posted the photo on Instagram, with the caption: “They told me I ‘wasn’t a good fit’ for their real estate agency? I asked for a reason and they couldnt provide me with a single one. I wear pink, I’m outgoing, I have a flair for style, and I SELL HOUSES! I guess none of that matters! I’m sorry but I’m a little flustered, frustrated, and flabbergasted.” At nearly 4,000 likes and counting, it’s one of the best posts that almost didn’t happen.

“I nearly didn’t do it because, as we were driving over there, I got scared and nearly backed out,” Pedigo says. “It’s at a gas station on a super busy street, so, to take photos, you have to be around people. I don’t really like wearing weird stuff and being around people and taking a photo. But I’m sitting in the backseat of the car while L’Hannah’s driving, because the windows are more tinted in the back, and she talks to me, like, ‘You can do it, we’ll go quick.’ So, we get out of the car, we take the photo, we go home. I’m like, ‘That’s it. That’s the photo.’”

Regal Realtors was not happy with the post, but only because they didn’t understand the joke. Pedigo attempted to explain to them that it was satire, but his message didn’t get a response. The tides only turned when a friend of his in Amarillo vouched for him to one of the firm’s realtors and reiterated that it wasn’t a malicious stunt. In turn, the group invited Pedigo to come to a grand opening celebration for their new office, but he had a better idea. “I was like, ‘Hey, would y’all be willing to wear the same outfits on the billboard, go to the billboard and take a photo with me in the corpse paint and chain mail, all of us together?’ And [one of the realtors] wrote back and she’s like, ‘Yeah, absolutely.’ So I showed up to the gas station, they wore their pink outfits, identical to what’s on the billboard. They were super nice, and we took the photo and, in less than five minutes, we were on our way,” he adds.

A black metal account from the UK posted the video of Pedigo and the realtors posing and it accumulated over 17,000 likes, which means that it was a mutually beneficial moment: He got a nice bump on his Instagram, and the Regal Realtors group got exposure all around the world. “It was one of those beautiful things that’s like winning the lottery, when you find these funny moments that, to me, transcend reality. That just doesn’t happen often,” Pedigo adds. We both laugh and I reply, “It’s like taking fake Gucci photos and then walking on a Gucci runway, right?” He chuckles and says: “It’s like making a fake campaign video and then running for public office. Start it off as a lie and then turn it into the truth.” If it’s worked three times and Pedigo’s batting 1.000 on it, then he must be onto something there.

I wanted to tell this specific story because it’s that playfulness and desire to take things the extra mile for the sake of a bit that makes Pedigo such a world-class person. In 2019, he put up a billboard that read “HARMONY KORINE PLEASE COME TO AMARILLO, TEXAS” and the cult-favorite director did end up calling Pedigo for a chat after a few national outlets picked up the story. His music has even garnered love and support from Tim Heidecker, Gillian Welch and Jenny Lewis, the latter of whom he’s going on tour with later this summer.

Pedigo is someone I’m always game to interview for whatever project he puts out. I discovered him when Rolling Stone covered one of his Lynchian campaign videos in 2019. He used Pete Drake’s “Forever” as background music, and I knew, instantly, that he was a guy I could become pals with for the rest of time. After being mutuals on Instagram for a few years, our paths finally crossed when he was about to release Letting Go and I was freelancing full-time and I spent months pitching every editor under the sun about that album—in the hopes that I might get to tell a part of Pedigo’s story. You can use the city council election virality as a springboard, but the meat and potatoes of the Texan’s allure is not just the music itself but the man who is making it. And you’d be foolish not to root for him.

When he premiered the music video for “The Happiest Times I Ever Ignored” last month, he adopted the style of a 1990s, Paul Gilbert, shredder-style instructor persona. It was shot like a decades-old VHS tape but, beneath the surface of the joke, Pedigo is at the center of it playing a live rendition of the song and flaunting the beauty and euphoria of its delicacy. Wherever humor arises in his artistic orbit, it comes from a place of deep passion and an endless yearning for discovery. Whether he’s inheriting his grandfather Harpo’s sod farm, buying NFTs of oil rigs or doing test-screenings for Asteroid City, Hayden Pedigo is chasing something. The Happiest Times I Ever Ignored may not hold every answer he’s looking for but, like any outfit he dons or chord he plucks, it eventually becomes the truth.

Matt Mitchell is Paste‘s assistant music editor. He lives in Columbus, Ohio, but you can find him online @yogurttowne.

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