updated 10/15/2013 AT 5:00 PM ET
•originally published 10/16/2013 AT 12:00 PM ET
What a difference a year makes.
The 22-year-old is one of five country music stars who’ve been named CMT’s 2013 Artists of the Year.
“This year has been amazing, and I thought it couldn’t get any better, and then they told me this,” the “Wanted” singer tells PEOPLE exclusively.
Hayes, who was named the CMA’s New Artist of the Year in 2012, has had a meteoric rise through the country music ranks, and admits “it’s mind-boggling” to be on a list of honorees that includes Jason Aldean, Luke Bryan, Florida Georgia Line and Tim McGraw.
“I’m so honored to be in this group of artists. I looked at the list and thought, ‘What the heck am I doing here?’ ”
The CMT Artists of the Year are determined by radio airplay, album sales, individual downloads of their current singles, ticket sales and video streams
. “I’m not making music with one eye on sales figures,” says Hayes, “but when you get something like this it’s a great reality check that, ‘Oh yeah, this is happening too,’ and the hard work is paying off.”
The Artists of the Year will be honored in a 90-minute special featuring performances by the honorees and special guests that airs live on CMT on Dec.. 3.