In the Southwest, Hayden Pedigo was already etched into the history of the local music scene years ago. He’s been playing sets at SXSW and having his work covered by Vogue since he was barely in his twenties and he’s been making records for even longer. But most followers of his music outside the region have only gotten familiar with his music recently. Though he did find some underground success on Bandcamp with his first real-deal record, Greetings From Amarillo, in 2017 (with a guest appearance by Terry Allen), his sales and streams got a boost from his 2018 Amarillo City Council run. Specifically, it was because of the viral, Harmony Korine-style campaign videos he released during that election cycle. Those videos amassed thousands of clicks, in part because of the Facebook meme group, Death Grips Snitchposting. Pedigo himself isn’t a huge fan of Death Grips’ music, but what he saw among the 50,000 users who populated the group and had the same sense of humor as him was potential, and their swath of activity landed him in media coverage. After the election, Pedigo routinely made posts in the group and kept in touch, virtually, with some of its members until recently. “I left the group, because I got off of Facebook,” Pedigo adds. “But, I made this ‘final goodbye’ post thanking everyone for the two-and-a-half years of support and so many people still remembered me from 2018.”
When Pedigo hops on our video call, he’s sitting in the backyard of his Lubbock, Texas home, which he shares with his wife, L’Hannah. He’s in a lawn chair, wearing his signature red, wool baseball cap with a blue “Y” stitched on the front, and an earth-tone cardigan, and a quarter of his face is stuck below the screen because he’s holding it an inch or so too close. I’ve never met Pedigo; instead I’ve merely existed within the social media microcosm he’s cultivated over the last three years, or so. He just quit his longtime analytics-based day job at a bank in his hometown of Amarillo to pursue music full-time while his wife gets her master’s degree at Texas Tech.
In April, Pedigo signed with Mexican Summer, joining acts like Best Coast, Drugdealer, and Iceage, after a demo of his new record landed in the label’s inbox. Pedigo doesn’t make music like other Mexican Summer artists, though. Less an indie or psych artist, he makes instrumental guitar songs by himself, inspired by American primitivists like John Fahey. “I’m drawn to instrumental music because it’s what I’m able to make,” Pedigo adds. “Vocals just aren’t my thing. I can’t sing. It doesn’t click for me.”
Pedigo’s social media persona rarely overlaps with his music, The only time those worlds connected was in August 2020 when he first moved to Lubbock. Him and a friend went out to do a photoshoot, and he decided to dress himself up in a white jumpsuit and don black metal-style corpsepaint. “My wife had a Cher wig from a Halloween costume and I put it on with that outfit,” Pedigo adds. “Then, when we went out, we found this big rig, took a photo, and that was it.” The photo in question then became a 12×12 acrylic painting by Amarillo-based artist Jonathan Phillips, and the end product is what graces the cover of Letting Go. “There was never a deeper meaning behind the cover. I just thought, that’s gonna look insane,” Pedigo adds. “The weird thing about it is that it’s a great painting, but there’s something about it that looks amazing and shitty at the same time, in terms of context, not Jonathan’s abilities. The image itself feels very lowbrow, but the painting gives it some class.”
A mixture of lowbrow and high class could properly describe any one of Pedigo’s endeavors. He even admits to being somewhat of a perfectionist when it comes to his photoshoots, specifically. There are the spreads where he’s wearing a lampshade over his head or is posing as a local Scientology prophet, but there are countless pictures that didn’t come out the way he wanted and were eventually scrapped. “If there’s ever been a unifying theme, it’s that I’m really specific on quality in everything I do,” Pedigo says. “That might not be as apparent on social media as opposed to the music, because I think people hear my records and think, Okay I can hear that time went into this. This wasn’t a record made in a day.” And he wants people to hear that quality, just like he wants people to see the same in his posts. “The weird thing is, even with my Instagram, I will admit that I overthink a lot,” he adds. “I try to never put anything out that’s half-assed. Over the past few years, I’ve been going back and removing things that weren’t up to a certain quality because I hadn’t yet figured out how to be, like, humorous on Instagram—and I’m still figuring it out.”
That humor, and the culture it’s created, sometimes bleeds into Pedigo’s attempt at being a bonafide, gig-by-gig musician. He spent six hours a day in the Norwegian black metal makeup filming the music video for Letting Go’s title track, but he’s trying to find a way to balance both the online persona and his music. “At a show I did in Austin, a bunch of people came up to me afterwards and were like, I’ve been following your Instagram for a few years, and it’s clear that they found me not through music.” Pedigo struggled for some time with mentally convincing himself that others take him seriously as a musician. “Sometimes, doing the city council thing, or the goofy photos, made it even harder to be taken seriously,” Pedigo adds. “Part of me did this record in hopes of having people view me in a new way. I don’t know if they necessarily do, but I hope so.”
Pedigo’s efforts to be taken seriously can be traced back to that city council run when he—a fingerpicking troubadour who sometimes wears a five-foot-tall cowboy hat—came of age and momentarily saved Amarillo, or at least he tried to make it somewhat better, or at the very least, he brought it back into the nation’s gaze. “It’s tricky when you try to do earnest work, but your public persona is viewed as severe irony and borderline trolling.” This came to a head when his campaign for city council was just starting, and big-wig publications like Rolling Stone were giving his videos coverage, applauding him for throwing bricks at glass mirrors while pedal steel Pete Drake songs lingered in the backdrop but forgetting to highlight the backbone of Pedigo’s mission: Eliminating corruption in city government by encouraging the youth vote and turning each corner of the area equal, both financially and morally.
The city of Amarillo was named after the relentless blossoming of certain yellow wildflowers through the fecund Texas dirt every spring in the 1880s, but the area is now better-known for its meat-packing industry. Originally, it was thought to be one of the world’s most essential cattle-shipping epicenters and then a milling town that capitalized off the increased production of small grains and the eventual discovery of natural gas. But then there was the devastation of the Dust Bowl in the ’30s, and then an F4 tornado ripped half the town apart in 1949. That history, and the now lingering division in the city, which comes by way of a clear monetary and wage-based barrier separating the area into two subcultures, was part of Pedigo’s motivation to seek real, definitive change. He denounced and pushed for the abolition of local legislature funneling cash into projects that directly benefited well-off families and exiled longtime stewards who lived among the rich, often-forgotten history of Amarillo, especially in the North End.
But to the local political committee Amarillo Matters, Pedigo’s campaign ideologies did not, in fact, matter. When he was not approved by the group, he responded by wearing a white T-shirt with a picture of their disapproval rating silk-screened on the front. When the election results came in, Pedigo finished in second place by around 8,000 votes. His campaign had been a success, especially in how he inspired residents of the North End to find an interest in local politics, even if he was unable to evict the establishment favorites who’ve long had a firm hold on how Amarillo flourishes (or doesn’t).
Pedigo considers Letting Go to be his best work yet, and he’s right. The record is a perfect articulation of a Western landscape not many folks have experienced. There’s power in Pedigo’s music, especially in how synapses in the brain associate sound with memory and the layering of his guitar work can trigger specific emotional reactions from his audience. “Rained Like Hell” and “Some Kind of Shepherd” take shape as if they are soundscapes of wind cooing in the dead of a North Texas night. Pedigo textures the songs like they’re audible versions of his hometown, and as if the characters he portrays on social media live inside the world he’s soundtracking.
Letting Go was written in-response to a long period of upheaval. After releasing Valley of the Sun in 2019, Pedigo was still getting his life back to normal post-election. His work on the campaign was being made into the now-out documentary Kid Candidate, he’d spent months getting publicly dismissed by right-winged local politicians who saw him as some bum kid taking a joke too far, and he was trying to pinpoint just what the hell he was supposed to do next. A collaborative record, Big Tex, Here We Come, with Andrew Weathers, provided a prelude to the final creative push that would become the demos of Letting Go for Pedigo, which included a reunion with atmospheric soundscapes that would eventually wander in the backgrounds of songs on the new record, especially the title track. “In the past, I’d used soundscapes as a crutch to cover things up on a record or fill out my guitar playing that I wasn’t confident in,” he says. “But on Letting Go, I wanted to go out and make a solid guitar album and write through the very emotionally vulnerable state I was in.”
Aside from moving to Lubbock from Amarillo, Pedigo was also decompressing from the trauma of not having spoken to his family in three years. “A lot was going on and I was trying to find some type of understanding during an especially rough time.” And beyond that, every record is a challenge when you’re doing instrumental work and preventing yourself from putting out what might (erroneously) be dismissed as “wallpaper music.” Pedigo translated a heavy time in his life into sounds that sing on their own. “The hardest thing to do is make the connection between instrumental music and emotion,” he adds. “How often has wallpaper made someone cry? That’s big for me, that my work is more than wallpaper. I want it to move people.”
A sketch video Pedigo posted on Instagram and then deleted after an hour comes to mind. In character, he stood in front of a green screen projecting Brian Eno’s face. He wore a tin foil hat like the ones in Signs and rambled in a distorted voice for 30 seconds about how Music For Airports somehow won a Grammy, despite the record comprising only three notes. “It was one of the rare times where I thought, this might be too dumb,” Pedigo adds. “But maybe it was so dumb that it wasn’t dumb? Maybe that was my mistake.” If there’s one thing that’s remarkable about Hayden Pedigo, it’s that everyone is convinced he’s doing a bit. But he’s not. All of this is a fluidity that’s a part of him as much as anything else. He ran in an election because a joke did, in fact, go too far and then became a noteworthy campaign for young people in a disenfranchised city. When he went viral, he couldn’t feasibly move on to the next thing. He goes out into the deserts of Northern Texas for photoshoots just because he gets bored and has to “channel a temporary energy” that hits him every few days.
Tomorrow, a new post will probably go up on his Instagram of him wearing a trash bag as a dress, or posing as a cult prophet trying to save a local failing business. “I’m always scared when a record comes out because I’m left wondering, what happens now and where do I go? Is this the last album ever?” Signs point to no (he has a multi-record deal with Mexican Summer). It’s hard to tell what Pedigo is specifically letting go of on his new record, but it’s certainly not Amarillo. When the new record first came out, he and a buddy traveled east to Nashville to play a gig at Third Man Records. He’d never felt so claustrophobic, noting how there were trees around him everywhere and they made everything feel crammed. “When we finally got back into the Texas Panhandle, everything went flat and I felt like I could breathe again,” Pedigo adds. “I think that’s what’s seeped into my music, this flatness and vast space. That’s incredibly important to me, that my music has breathing room and feels wide open—and that’s where the Amarillo landscape will always be in my music.”
Now, even from his new home in Lubbock, and even after walking the runway with Macaulay Culkin and Phoebe Bridgers at a Gucci fashion show in Los Angeles this fall, Pedigo still dreams of Amarillo and feels a lifelong kinship to everyone there, as anyone does with their birthplace. The characters he plays on social media, the version of himself that was on the campaign trail and in Kid Candidate, and who he is on-stage with a guitar, are all a part of the Hayden Pedigo Cinematic Universe—or just exaggerated NPC versions of Amarillo’s kookiest residents. And that ethos bleeds into Letting Go. On songs like “Carthage” and “Tints of Morning,” there is a clear ethos attached—one of immense westward migration, and the prospect of a dawn rising under a glint of immense hope. “I think Amarillo is a place that’s permanently in my music. It’s just embedded in there,” says Pedigo, pointing to his forehead, as a backdrop of sky behind him slowly turns dark and the sounds in the distant street gallop towards a place just out of sight from my side of the screen.