Brian D'Ambrosio

Christy Hays’ Sense of Place

~Brian D’Ambrosio

Lately, Christy Hays is in a funny, in-between place, that undulating one where she is addressing and confronting the ups and downs of existence.

Those big, musical havens where she formerly resided, Nashville and Austin, have gotten too overwhelming, an unending cycle of relentless self-promotion and cutthroat vanities. Dwelling upon too many feelings about the music business, and her place and position within it, she recently purchased a house in Uptown Butte. After a great deal of wandering, wrangling, lessons learned and enough angst reoccurring, she craves a sense of place – and she might even stay in the Mining City permanently.

Butte is part of the plot but not the whole story.  Her story is the familiar one of an artist who has spent a long period culminating their influences and well-worn road experiences into art. She has successfully followed the formula, releasing records, touring, and riding the summits and ditches of the requisite life.

She’s an introverted, circumspect woman of Midwestern stock, the daughter of a welder and a nurse, who was raised in an agricultural town of about 4,000 in Illinois. While she never aspired to be a working songwriter, she has always held the poet’s sense of perspective: reflecting on her first memories of her youth, she described the dramatic shift from small, family farm agriculture to the advent and proliferation of industrial farming. The bitter reality of identity loss imprinted.  

“I’ve always been hyperaware and maybe that’s been difficult for me,” said Hays. “I feel as if I have a deep, internal sense of justice, in a world that is inherently unjust. It’s been a learning process for me over the years to compartmentalize what I don’t understand. I’m definitely an escapist and I’ve lived different sort of lives. I came to Butte and it’s not a Utopian thing for me. Butte is strange and messed up and yet it’s really awesome.”

As a teenager, there was no intrinsic pressure to play music, but the energy of it eventually prevailed. She ditched Illinois while in her early 20’s, within a few months of graduating college, embarking to Alaska. “Disillusioned,” she said, by some our society’s coarser aspects, she disappeared into the woods.

Songwriting and the act of self-dredging ultimately triumphed over her more isolative instincts. She moved to Nashville in 2007, and after two years relocated again, this time to Austin, Texas, which at first felt “more her speed and her vibe.” She expanded her musical repertoire and found a little solace in the city’s legendarily collaborative spirit.

The past ten years she has worked her medium, delivering quality material, landing radio airtime, and even sharing the stage with other talents such as Sturgill Simpson and Jeffrey Foucault, among others. Hays’ singing voice catches like a briar; it doesn’t tear its audiences, but sticks to them. She plays with precision and without prejudice and without illusion. As a singer-songwriter, she has learned to do it right – and done it. If you want a bit of bittersweet joy from the work of a solid vocalist and lyricist (begin with “Town Underground”), Hays is your girl.

At first, Hays spent a few weeks of summertime in Butte, gigging regionally, writing, and embracing her beloved quietude. While she cherished her relations in Austin, she started to find the sort of mental and material culture there very difficult. And while Nashville, she said, was “way more obsessed with commercial success” than any other place she had lived, Austin’s population ballooned as one of the most explosive growths in the country.

“I don’t have that innate drive to live that way anymore,” said Hays. “There is solace here (in Butte). The residents are mostly elderly and at the beginning I was treated with distrust. What’s this lady doing here with her out-of-state plates? But now it has more of a feeling of going home. I can regroup and not be out on the bar scene or worrying about how successful I could be or won’t be. The writing is conducive here. It’s an exciting new phase.”

From the historian Joseph Kinsey Howard, who called the Mining City “the black heart of Montana” to Butte native Berton Braley, who wrote, “If you’ve got red blood in your veins, you’ll like her,” authors, poets, historians and entertainers have interchangeably complimented and criticized it – sometimes all in the very same paragraph. Food critic Anthony Bourdain tidily described the hilly territory built on copper, crime, and plenty of contrast:  “At first look, you'd think this is the worst place on Earth. A ravaged, toxic, godforsaken hill threatened from above, riddled with darkness from below. But you'd be wrong.”

Hays doesn’t glamorize Butte or trivialize it, she simply accepts that for right now it is a calm and peaceful setting which provides her with the legroom and head space to observe her feelings, perceptions and countless thoughts. She’s at a defining point in her relationship with both Butte and her art.  

Reevaluating her own notion of self, she has formed a non-profit songwriter and writer-in- residence program called Dear Butte, an artistic retreat for like-minded people who need to get away from the cityscape to create.

Perhaps the peace and happiness of forming Dear Butte means no more yearning – or at least a temporary cessation of obsession – for Hays. Thinking of Hays abbreviating her fine career is inassimilable, yet she is at the crossroads of realizing different needs.

“I am at the point where I am not completely sacrificing or pursuing or obsessing over carving out my own career. That’s where Dear Butte came from, the need to live a whole and happy and fulfilled life. Music and notoriety are inheritably not fulfilling. To provide the wherewithal and the support and to open up a lot of artistic doors for others, to me, that is exciting.”