Politics

Hayden Pedigo Moves On With ‘Letting Go,’ But His Heart Is Still in Amarillo – Texas Monthly

Technically, Hayden Pedigo isn’t in Amarillo. This is an important distinction, it turns out, one that somebody out there is closely monitoring. A few days before our interview, Pedigo says, Rolling Stone wrote up a track from his new album, Letting Go, while referring to him as an “Amarillo guitarist.” When Pedigo checked back thirty minutes later, it had been amended to “West Texas guitarist.” I tell him something similar happened to me after I reviewed the 2021 documentary, Kid Candidate, which chronicles how Pedigo turned an absurdist viral video into a quixotic run for Amarillo City Council. Barely a half hour after the article was posted, a correction appeared in my inbox: Actually, Hayden Pedigo doesn’t live in Amarillo anymore. Someone in Amarillo must really miss him, I say. 

“Either they miss me or they don’t want me associated with their town,” Pedigo laughs. “He’s not ours!”

Anyway, yes, technically Hayden Pedigo now lives in Lubbock, some two hours south of where he was born and raised. He moved there in 2020, shortly before the release of Kid Candidate, and after his bid to enter Amarillo politics ended in a noble defeat but symbolic victory. As Jasmine Stodel’s documentary chronicles, Pedigo started out semi-joking, but he soon became a contender, the first viable challenger in years to Amarillo’s clannish, political action committee–controlled local government. His campaign—and the subsequent film—successfully exposed some of the cronyism and inequity that plagued the city. 

Kid Candidate also gave Pedigo a much bigger national profile, garnering warm reviews in the Los Angeles Times and the Austin Chronicle—although Pedigo notes that it barely made a dent in Amarillo itself. “You’re not exactly gonna be the hometown hero for the bigwigs, in a movie that’s shining a light on some of the things that they shouldn’t be doing,” he shrugs.

During the campaign, Pedigo’s wife, L’Hannah, turned down a scholarship to Texas Tech so the couple could stay put. But once the election was dusted, it was Pedigo’s turn to sacrifice. He figured he could live in Lubbock for a bit while his wife earned her master’s degree—even if it meant leaving the hometown that’s so inextricably linked to him that watchdogs are out here making sure “Amarillo” no longer turns up in his profiles. 

Understandably, that relocation left Pedigo feeling a little lost. For the past ten years he’d held down a day job working at an Amarillo bank, and he easily found another one in Lubbock. But his sense of self was a little harder to replace. “You go from being the subject of a documentary, your life’s a whirlwind, and then you’re living in another city, and you’re just some normal dude working in a cubicle,” he says. 

Before Kid Candidate, Pedigo had been largely known for his music, an audacious, windswept tangle of finger-picked guitar and desert-sky soundscapes that had earned him his first Texas Monthly profile at the age of twenty. But the demands of the campaign, then promoting the movie, then changing towns, had kept him busy. Pedigo’s last proper solo album was 2019’s Valley of the Sun. (Big Tex, Here We Come, a collaborative EP with the Littlefield-based composer Andrew Weathers, debuted in early 2021.) He wanted to make another one, Pedigo says, but he hadn’t written any new songs since moving to Lubbock. When he learned that a musician friend of his had recently signed to a big record label, Pedigo reached a breaking point: he decided he needed to make a bold move, or be trapped in a cubicle forever.

“I’ve always been the guy who’s like, ‘I gotta work [a day job], I gotta work,’” he says. “But I went home and asked my wife, ‘Can I quit the job and start writing an album?,’ my wife was like, ‘Of course, do it.’ And I was like, ‘I’m gonna write the best damn guitar record I can.’”

The result is Letting Go, an album that Pedigo describes as his “definitive statement,” something he’d be comfortable leaving behind if, God forbid, he died tomorrow. Although he describes it as “the sound of loosening your grip,” it’s also a record of unusual focus, centered entirely on the guitar he plays in an intricate, syncopated style that’s heavily influenced by masters like John Fahey and Leo Kottke. Pedigo recorded all of his guitar parts live, with no overdubs, adding only the faintest touches of synthesizer and pedal steel to lift them out of the high lonesome and into the ether. Gone are the droning, purely ambient pieces that used to bring a touch of Cluster & Eno or Fennesz to Pedigo’s Western palette. With Letting Go, Pedigo intentionally set out to make a “very pretty, song-oriented record”—something even his parents could enjoy.

That’s kind of a big deal for Pedigo, who’s spent much of his adult life estranged from his devoutly religious parents who kept him homeschooled and largely cut off from the world. They didn’t always love his videos, especially, which tended toward the dark and absurd—and they were embarrassed by his city-council run. For about three years, as partly documented by Kid Candidate, Pedigo and his parents weren’t on speaking terms. That rift only became more pronounced once the film was released. 

“A word of advice I’ll give people: if you’re ever having conflict with your family, and you end up in a documentary, it’s probably not the best idea to air out your family grievances in a film,” Pedigo says. “It makes things awkward for a while.”

But as he began putting together Letting Go, Pedigo embarked on a path of forgiveness. He set aside old resentments and patched things up with his folks. (“I had to make the realization that a lot of the things they did were out of love,” he says. “At 27, I have a lot more clarity on how these people cared about me and were trying to do what was right.”) And as he confronted his grievances, Pedigo ended up writing the exact kind of record his parents always told him he should make, one filled with the sort of gentle notes he used to spend hours plucking on the family porch. 

The songs on Letting Go feel light and airy, almost courtly in their tenderness. Many of them are divided into two movements: Pedigo’s guitar beginning with confident melodic runs and contrapuntal low notes before it pauses, takes a breath, and starts again—this time slower and more deliberately, as though meditating on everything it just said. The album is united by themes of reconciliation, although without vocals or lyrics, Pedigo admits, a lot of that is up to interpretation. The sole voice heard on the album arrives at the tail end of “Rained Like Hell,” in a partially buried recording of Pedigo’s old guitar teacher, John Ferrell, that Pedigo took from Ferrell’s YouTube channel. “If people can find hope,” Ferrell says, “they can endure almost anything.”

It’s a sentiment a lot of people could probably relate to right now, but Pedigo rejects any notion that Letting Go is his “pandemic” album. It’s not just that he finds that context “boring”; the record is also a lot more personal than that. Take its cover, which finds Pedigo buried under a long wig and garish corpse paint that makes him look like a Norwegian black-metal star, standing awkwardly in front of an eighteen-wheeler. Like a lot of Pedigo’s videos, the image seems deadpan and silly at first, but a deeper subtext soon reveals itself: when Pedigo was growing up, his dad was a truck-stop preacher who delivered sermons to long-haulers down at the local Petro. Those eighteen-wheelers still carry a lot of meaning for Pedigo, who grew up in their shadow, always feeling like “an outsider, somebody that was mismatched with my surroundings.” The video for the title track expands on this idea, following Pedigo’s goth alter ego as he weathers the glares of hostile locals in their ball caps and Bud Light T-shirts, and then drives out into the desert. Pulling over to the side of the road, he sets fire to a pile of old drawings and other personal effects, before his newly liberated spirit slips away into the sky. 

Of course, Pedigo admits the deeper meaning behind both the album cover and video only occurred to him later. “There’s always been a lot of accidental symbolism that I’ll never claim that I was deep enough to have come up with on my own,” he says. “That goes back to the city-council video. Purely a dumb video where I’m having fun that later had a bunch of deep symbolism that wasn’t intentional.” 

This also begs the question of whether Pedigo is, you know, just screwing with us. How do we reconcile Pedigo the prankster—although he prefers the word “jester”—with Pedigo the musician? How does the guy who vamps for Instagram, standing outside Long John Silver’s in a trash bag, platform heels, and cowboy hat, make such winsome, earnest music? 

Pedigo doesn’t believe there’s any contradiction. He couches his career in terms of his personal hero, Lubbock’s own Terry Allen, whose work has cut a similarly multifaceted swath. “You don’t view Terry Allen and go, ‘Well, he’s a piano player, he’s a songwriter, he’s a sculptor,’” Pedigo says. “He’s Terry Allen. With enough history, people come to you on your terms. Eventually it all catches up. I’m not worried about being ‘political Hayden,’ ‘movie Hayden,’ ‘music Hayden.’ It’s all the same thing. It’s a big picture for me.”

Besides, chances are that anyone who listens to Letting Go won’t be thinking about the narrative of Hayden Pedigo—even if he admits that the backstory definitely helped him land his three-album deal with Mexican Summer, the label home to indie-rock heavyweights such as Kurt Vile, Weyes Blood, and Ariel Pink. When I ask Pedigo who he pictures as his audience, Pedigo suggests stressed-out college kids who are looking for background music to study to, or maybe “fortysomething record-collector types” settling in front of their turntables with fresh tumblers of scotch, or possibly fans of indie bands like Deerhunter “who want some relaxing tunes in their playlists, next to their shoegaze.” The album is mutable, with widespread appeal, in other words, and ultimately it has less to do with Hayden Pedigo than with the pictures it stirs in your mind. I’d humbly add that, if there are any documentarians out there looking for their next soundtracks, “Some Kind of Shepherd” and “Rained Like Hell” would make fine additions to your movie about plucky pioneers in the 1800s, and “Carthage” and “Tints of Morning” seem tailor-made for a nice nature film about, say, rescuing oil-slicked hermit crabs off the Gulf Coast. You can credit me later.

As with Kid Candidate, however, Pedigo doesn’t expect Letting Go to find much of an audience in his hometown, even though its sound seems organically sprung from those beautifully desolate surroundings. When Pedigo recently checked his Spotify stats, he says, Amarillo didn’t even rank among his top fifty listeners’ locations. But Paris, France, did. 

“That’s been the common theme throughout my entire career,” Pedigo says. “The stuff I thought would make the most sense to Amarillo didn’t translate, and I don’t understand it. I never will. But if that’s what fuels my creative process forever, I’m okay with it. I try to use that frustration to my advantage.” 

In fact, Pedigo says he still wants to be the biggest artist to ever come out of the Panhandle, to become as famous as Terry Allen, or the Amarillo eccentric Stanley Marsh 3, or maybe even more so (even though Pedigo acknowledges that saying it out loud probably makes him sound “a bit asshole-ish”). This is why Pedigo says he’s never seriously entertained the long-proffered suggestion that he just decamp to a bigger city, someplace where he’d be more celebrated and likely to fit in. He knows that there’s something special about the juxtaposition that comes from making strange art in a place that doesn’t necessarily get it. Besides, Pedigo says, if he were some avant-garde artist living in Portland or Austin, who would care? The feeling may not always be mutual, but Amarillo lives forever in Hayden Pedigo—even if, okay, right now he’s a little further down the road.



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