For several weeks this summer, while opening for singer-songwriter Jenny Lewis in multi-thousand-seat auditoriums from Chicago to Washington, D.C., Hayden Pedigo stepped out on stage, sat down with one of his guitars, and introduced himself this way:
“My name is Hayden Pedigo. I’m from Amarillo, Texas.”
He ended each set of spare, atmospheric fingerstyle guitar music with the same line.
In August, after the tour’s conclusion, Pedigo performed a solo show at Amarillo Museum of Art. More than two hundred locals packed the house.
Pedigo stepped out on stage and said, as he had for weeks, “My name is Hayden Pedigo.” Then, a little self-consciously, “I live in Avondale.”
His fans knew the Amarillo neighborhood. They laughed. Hayden Pedigo had returned home.
Local residents have likely encountered Pedigo in one of three ways:
First, he’s a talented guitarist with a career that’s very much on the rise. His sixth and latest album, The Happiest Times I Ever Ignored, has been met with broad acclaim, from Texas Monthly to Pitchfork and NPR. Previous albums Letting Go (2021) and Greetings from Amarillo (2017) also got attention for their ethereal, mostly acoustic soundscapes.
Second, Pedigo is a prodigious social media performance artist. His avant-garde Instagram account, @amarillohighway—a nod to a song by Lubbock artist and musician Terry Allen, one of Pedigo’s heroes—is littered with intentionally awkward, staged photos. Hayden in a bald cap and grease-paint beard in front of an attorney billboard. Hayden at a Lubbock Red Lobster wearing tights, cowboy boots and a chainmail headpiece. Hayden on a Los Angeles catwalk in the Gucci Love Parade fashion show (an actual, real-life event that happened because of the madcap fashion in his social media feed, but which confused his followers because it seemed like another stunt).
Third, Pedigo ran for Amarillo City Council in 2019. He was 25 at the time, and the campaign originated as a social media video, a bizarre montage in which he claimed to be running for city council. The video went viral on Facebook, and then Pedigo decided to actually run. He didn’t win, but the campaign was documented in the film Kid Candidate by Jasmine Stodel. [Disclosure: Jason Boyett helped connect Stodel to several interview subjects for the documentary.] Part character study and part snapshot of Amarillo politics, the film premiered at the SXSW Conference and was acquired by PBS. It streams on Apple TV and Amazon.
From the outside, these pieces of Pedigo’s reputation seem disconnected. His music is quiet, beautiful and cinematic. A nervous performer, his discomfort is clear during a show. “I struggle with anxiety,” he says from the intimate garage apartment he shares with his wife, L’Hannah. “I have for 20 years.” During the tour, he informed every audience that his trembling hands could bring turbulence to his intricate songs. “That’s made such a big difference, being transparent about it. It’s helped my nerves, like I’ve given them a warning up front where I’m like, ‘This could get rocky.’”
In concert, Hayden speaks infrequently and lets his music do most of the storytelling. When he does talk, it’s almost apologetic. But audiences love the authenticity. “That’s probably the thing I’ve been told the most after every single show, is people going, ‘I love how you brought up stage fright.’”
Meanwhile, his approach to social media is anything but anxious. His photo ideas are bold. His outfits beg for attention. His manic captions stretch boundaries and push buttons.
To Pedigo, the music and the performance art represent two sides of the same creative coin. “Both sides of the music and the satire and the comedy and prankster-type [scenarios], to me, are perfectly blended because I take them equally seriously,” he says, clasping his hands together, interlacing his fingers. “Being funny and being stupid and provoking, to me, is very serious.”
He points out that his Instagram followers likely skew younger but a large number of older audience members attended his AMoA show. He sees the potential disconnect. “To me, my music is very classic. It’s something that would appeal to older people,” he says. But then that potential audience might see, for instance, the cover art for Letting Go. Painted by Amarillo artist Jonathan Phillips, it features Pedigo, in front of a semi-truck, wearing black-and-white KISS-style face paint. For some, the corpse paint is off-putting. That’s why he’s always encouraged upon seeing older fans at his shows. “They’re willing to look past this thing they don’t like because they actually do enjoy [the music].”
He continues exploring the divide between the musical art and his prankster art. “No one’s ever going to be offended by it,” he says of his fingerstyle compositions. “But I do all of these other things because, for one, I can’t just be a guitar player.”
In fact, despite the critical acclaim and concerts, Pedigo says he struggles to “feel” like a guitar player at all. He grew up an outsider, homeschooled in a devout religious family. The home environment clashed with his taste for provocative art, music, and absurdist filmmaking. Looking back, he sees that isolation as part of his evolution—not just as a person, but as a musician.
“For years, I was never really accepted as a guitar player, even in the local scene in Amarillo,” he says. “Which in hindsight was a really good thing. I needed to be ignored because I’m very much fueled by being ignored and being discounted or people not giving me acknowledgement.”
He admits some listeners might identify his music as contemplative background audio. But his social media presence is far from inconspicuous. Pedigo leans forward in his seat, uncrossing his legs. “I want to provoke. Try to ignore this now, right?”
That’s when Pedigo brings up what he calls “the photo with the Realtors.” It got lots of attention locally. It got even more attention outside Amarillo. And, to him, it represents a culmination of everything he wants to do.
“That photo screwed me over because I can never top that, in my opinion,” he says. “It was perfect.”
Amarillo drivers are no doubt familiar with the aggressively pink billboards for Legends Realty Group. “Real Estate Needs? Call us!” reads the magenta headline. Below it are five women—smiling agents wearing pink, professional clothing. As a billboard, it works.
It gets attention.
On May 19, Pedigo posted to Instagram a photo of him standing in front of that billboard. He wore a pink dress, the chainmail head covering, and a devilish smile behind corpse paint. “They told me I ‘wasn’t a good fit’ for their real estate agency?” he captioned. “I wear pink, I’m outgoing, I have a flair for style, and I SELL HOUSES.” The lengthy caption goes on to say he’s starting his own agency in retaliation and the women will eventually beg him to return.
It’s a lot.
“I was very careful with that,” he explains. “From the jump I was aware that it can be viewed as bullying or I was mocking these people and that was not my intention. I viewed them as—they’re exactly like me. They were doing something intentionally provoking.”
While Pedigo’s social media followers loved it, the Amarillo real estate agents didn’t quite get it. “Honestly, I didn’t know Hayden or know what was going on. I was a little confused,” says Tia Van Ryn, owner of Legends Realty Group and the agent at the center of the billboard photo. Then she saw the photo beginning to go viral. She looked at his Instagram account and saw he’d taken that approach with other billboards and public signage. At the same time she started to understand the joke, she also saw the marketing opportunity.
She reached out to Hayden and invited him to the opening of their new office later that week. Hayden had another idea. “I was like, what if instead we meet at the billboard, I wear the corpse paint, y’all wear the suits and we do a photo together there?”
Van Ryn said yes. “I wanted in on the joke,” she says. “No one can make fun of me better than myself.” Besides, she says, the goal of a billboard is to get attention, and Hayden had brought them attention.
The follow-up photo—shown below with Hayden, Van Ryn, and her real estate team together in front of the billboard—is even better than the first. His caption? “UPDATE: I GOT THE JOB!”
Pedigo didn’t take the first photo intending for the second one to happen. Like his city council run and the documentary, it was an accident—but one that ended up being transcendent. “The first one is the ‘knock-knock.’ The second is the ‘who’s there?’” The punchline completes the joke.
“That’s my whole thing,” he says. “That’s why stuff like that is almost more important to me than music. How many things in life transcend our reality, the things we see every day? When you do something like that, you shatter an element of reality where it’s like, there’s no way this should be happening right now, but it does. And that is probably my favorite thing on earth.”
He takes the idea a step further.
“As silly as it sounds, the photo with the realtors, it’s like, that’s a reason to not kill yourself. And that’s so dark, but I just mean it like that. Life can get so boring and nasty for everyone that you need something really to break that.”
For her part, Van Ryn was taken aback when she met Hayden in the real world. “He’s the total opposite [of his social media feed],” she says. “He was genuinely nice, and quiet.” She remembers him being embarrassed about wearing the gaudy makeup in public.
At the same time Pedigo embraces his own shyness and anxiety, his performance art and music push against what he describes as the “boring and nasty” parts of life. He says Amarillo plays an important role in both those realms. “Being from Amarillo—in my experiences here—is all of my persona,” he says. “In good ways and bad ways, on every level and every aspect. If it were all pleasant, I don’t think I would have much to say or much to do.”
And that, he says, is ultimately a good thing.
Musically, his songs are spare. Some pauses are long enough that he warns his audience, ahead of time, not to start clapping too early because the song might not be finished. “It’s my audio representation of when you are on the edge of Amarillo: that’s a giant pause. There’s nothing. Just nothing and everything. It’s just huge. I like to show that in the music.”
Pedigo describes his melodies as a way of conveying loneliness—“I’m a less lonely person now, but it’s always been in the music,” he says—but also points out that this area drives his visual pranks and jokes. In Amarillo’s isolation he sees pockets of frustration and dissatisfaction, which have always driven local creativity within the art scene. It might look like the Dynamite Museum sign project funded by Stanley Marsh 3 or Ed Ruscha’s stark, Amarillo-inspired Standard Station-themed paintings.
“It can make people antsy and maybe frustrated or angry,” Pedigo says of growing up in Amarillo. Those are excellent tools in art, he adds, because they fuel creativity. “I’ve been a very bitter person. I’ve let my anger and frustration get out of hand. But it’s this weird, fine line. How do I use bitterness to create something?”
At the same time, he views living in Amarillo today—between tours, between fashion shows, between photo shoots for international culture magazines—as a way to detox from the world of celebrity. “I believe dopamine and ego and things like that are a drug that you can experience literal withdrawals from in your brain,” he says. “I come back and I go through withdrawals. And I feel nasty, because that’s not real life. You’re experiencing something [on the road] that’s not real life, and you come back here to ultra real life. The difference is jarring.”
He comes home to the small studio in Avondale he shares with L’Hannah. He comes home to convenience stores and gas stations and chain restaurants along I-40. He comes home and it fuels everything he wants to do with his life.
“I was at the grocery store today, shopping for detergent, thinking about nothing,” he says. “And I’m disappointed in myself that I allowed myself to be that boring in that moment. Great art makes you disappointed in yourself. Completely.”
It’s an unhealthy mindset, Hayden acknowledges. But the drive to provoke is urgent. “When that stuff hits you, when art is that potent, it makes you disgusted by how we don’t treat it seriously enough,” he says.
Hayden’s father, Terry, is a long-time local graphic designer and advertising professional with G&P Associates. As a kid, Hayden spent a lot of time at the office, and remembers a sign his dad kept at the agency. “It said ‘A business without advertising is like winking at a girl in the dark,’” he remembers.
“You know you’re doing it, but she doesn’t,” Hayden says. “I saw that from a very young age. I don’t know if that necessarily directly inspired me, but I still bring it up to this day, so it’s interesting.”
Watching his dad help local companies sell their products or services, Pedigo implicitly understood that you have to package a product through storytelling. Otherwise, it’s hard to get noticed—for your business, for your music, or for your art. “People don’t like conceptualizing themselves because they view it as narcissistic. And it is a little bit narcissistic. But you have to be the one that tells that story,” he says. “I have to be willing to view what I do as a product.”
The product is Hayden Pedigo himself. He creates and performs music. He creates provocative visuals and performs absurdist stunts. He appreciates Amarillo because the city’s lonely, open spaces inspire his melodies. He appreciates his Amarillo upbringing because the personal bitterness and isolation inspire his art. He appreciates Amarillo right now because it helps him unwind and loosen his grip on everything he’s doing outside Amarillo.
Amarillo is his muse and Amarillo is his anchor and Amarillo is his identity.
“Warts and all, Amarillo is very difficult, but I’m damn proud of it,” Hayden Pedigo says, and that’s why he opens and closes every show by telling his audience he’s from Amarillo, Texas.
“No one cares if you’re from Austin, Nashville or L.A. Genuinely, no one cares. But when you tell somebody you’re from Amarillo, Texas, there’s power in that. That’s an identity. Hell, yeah, I’m from there. I think it makes me different than everyone else. And I wear it as a badge of honor.”
The Setting: Wonderland Park
We photographed Hayden Pedigo at Wonderland Park on a cool, cloudy Sunday night before school began for the fall. The combination of the weather, bright lights and childhood nostalgia were perfect. A few facts about Wonderland:
- The family-owned park was founded by Paul and Alethea Roads in 1951 as “Kiddieland.” It was renamed “Wonderland” in 1967.
- The park is still managed by members of the Roads-Borchardt families. Founders Paul and Alethea Roads were honored with a Lifetime Service Award from the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions.
- Wonderland’s current land lease with the City of Amarillo extends through 2040.
- Former FDIC Chairman Donald E. Powell, an Amarillo resident and current AISD School Board Member, is a former high school employee of Wonderland.
- The Texas Tornado, which opened in 1985, was the first roller coaster to be designed by Hopkins Rides and is known nationally among coaster enthusiasts for its unconventional layout. The designer, Hopkins, specialized in water rides and got its start after designing the log flume for Wonderland in 1971.
- Wonderland’s Fantastic Journey has a national reputation among “dark attractions” enthusiasts. Paul Roads designed and built the ride himself. The site Dark Attraction & Funhouse Enthusiasts (dafe.org) calls it “one of the best classic dark rides” in the United States.