Growing up, Hunter Hayes didn't know where he fit in. Today, he's convinced it's in front of an audience in theaters, arenas, fairs and clubs.

"I wasn't fueled by dreams of playing stadiums in my own town," he says. "I just wanted to keep doing what I loved."

Performing on television at 4 -- that's right, 4 -- Hayes latched onto music and never let go.

"In high school and middle school, there was no place for me," the Louisiana native says. "I just didn't fit in. It was lonely and, at times, it got very confusing. But it didn't feel I was doing anything wrong. I just knew it was going to pay off."

And, yes, it has. Last year, Hayes got three Grammy nominations (more than any other country performer), opened for Carrie Underwood and made the kind of first impression few artists ever get.

Hits? He rolled through the charts with "Wanted," "Somebody's Heartbreak" and "Storm Warning" and now has an "Encore" CD (filled with five new songs and several re-recordings) waiting for release.

"I don't want anyone to know I'm working on my next (all-original) record," the 21-year-old says. "It's in a vulnerable state. I want to protect it...I don't want to talk about a deadline. Records are chapters. You don't just release them when someone says it's time to release them. So I'm taking my time with it."

Last week, Hayes and several writing partners produced five songs in three days. He liked the process. "But, I'll be totally honest, I don't think you know if a song is good. I can walk out and say, 'I love this. I'm attached to this.' But the song's success is determined by the receiver. My music means nothing until it means something to someone else."

In concert, Hayes says, he's still shocked when fans sing along. He crafted a version of "Wanted" that invites participation and now, "you can't hide the massive smile on my face when they sing with me. It's very emotional."

Life has changed in other ways, too. In those early years, Hayes' parents served as his support staff. They handled all the business aspects of his career so he could deal with the creative side.

"They didn't know the first thing about music," he says. "They learned what they had to to manage and protect me and they were really good about it. Looking back, I'm really grateful they were always open-minded."

Now, they frequently drop in and see his show and smile at the growth he has made. "They get to see it all and meet the 12 people who do what they used to do. It's a cool process."

And yet there are still hurdles.

Underwood, he says, has taught him plenty about the business. "She's a phenomenon. She's always consistent, always cool and always willing to try new things. She's a superstar and yet she's still the sweetest person you'll meet in your life. If anything, I've learned by example."

Hayes dreams of headlining, too ("I have a whole mental list of things I want to do"), and making other "musical connections."

He appeared with Stevie Wonder on "The Academy of Country Music Awards" (and later "Dancing with the Stars") and was surprised at the level of fun they had. "We started messing around with the arrangement and this magical music connection started happening. I expected to meet a hero, a musical icon. But he was so much more. When he let me collaborate, I was stoked. And now we're both looking forward to doing it again someday."

Hayes was equally thrilled when the Grammy folks asked him to perform on their nominations show. "It was awesome, the faith they put in me. I got the names of the songs a couple of hours before the show and I had to arrange the songs. I figured once I was done with that I was home free, I could breathe. I sat down in the seats for the announcements and my name was mentioned twice. I was not expecting that. But it made me feel like I was part of the business."

Convinced he still has plenty to learn, Hayes says he looks back at that dreamer who wanted to be in country music and smiles.

"Honestly, the business is better than I ever thought it would be. You can theorize a million different ways and build all kinds of expectations but it's more fun than I ever thought it could be. And it just keeps getting better."

Life, though, is still hard. "I'm 21. I'm still trying to get the basics down, figure out the personal stuff. You never lose your insecurity. But there has been a change. I'm waking up every morning and I'm getting to live my dream."