“We knew what the sound was from the beginning,” says HARDY of his musical journey and where he knew it was headed. “We were just trying to dial it in.
You could hear it in his first EP, 2018’s THIS OLE BOY, where the song ‘FOUR BY FOUR,’ he says, “could have worked for this new record, because it was the perfect marriage—very country lyrics but it just sounded like a rock song.”
It was there in spades in the single “REDNECKER,” the song whose smartass cleverness introduced him as an artist.
“That got people’s attention,” he says with a laugh. “It was crazy. It wasn’t viral overnight, but you could tell the people that heard it at the very beginning were saying, ‘What is this? Who is this guy?’”
Meanwhile, it was everywhere in evidence in his songwriting career, which had caught fire, as he turned out hits like Morgan Wallen’s double-platinum “Up Down,” Blake Shelton’s “God’s Country,” and the bulk of Florida Georgia Line’s “Can’t Say I Ain’t Country” LP, including the platinum-plus hit singles “Simple” and “Talk You Out Of It.”
And it was there in a second EP and in the ten-song HiXTAPE, with its all-star collaborations with the likes of Thomas Rhett, Keith Urban, Cole Swindell, and Dustin Lynch and its unabashed walk on country’s rough and rowdy side.
But with A ROCK, his brand new Big Loud Records album, there is no doubt he has put it all together, emerging as one country’s truly important voices, a mature singer/songwriter with a sound all his own.
“The music I love to make,” he says, “just happens to be a lane I saw was wide open. It’s where the music sounds like hit rock and roll—big drums, the works—but the lyrics are clever and country.” The first public taste of the project is “ONE BEER,” whose fast rise on the charts reflects its poignant, unblinking, highly accessible look at a moment that changes two lives, sung with the help of Lauren Alaina and Devin Dawson.
“GIVE HEAVEN SOME HELL” turns the funeral sendoff of a hell-raising friend into a meditation on living fully on two levels, while “A ROCK” unfolds a cradle-to-grave saga as heartfelt as it is clever.
“BOYFRIEND,” a conversation song spun from an offhand remark Hardy made to his girlfriend Caleigh, brings that big sound to a lyric with a classic country twist.
With “UNAPOLOGETICALLY COUNTRY AS HELL,” Hardy revisits the territory of “REDNECKER,” and gives a nod to his fans that he can revisit those roots on an album that otherwise broadens and deepens his themes and embraces all of life in a modern, edgy framework.
Nowhere is the sound bigger than on “BOOTS,” a tour-de-force of tempo and dynamic shifts that, says HARDY, “became the cornerstone, the song I wanted everything to sound like.” It has also quickly become a fan favorite.
The journey from rural Mississippi to the front ranks of contemporary country began in his dad’s pickup, with classic rock—Pink Floyd was a favorite, along with Pearl Jam and Skynyrd—coming out of the speakers as the two traveled back and forth to their chicken farm. He was only ten or so when father and son traveled to Birmingham to see Aerosmith and then to Jackson for a KISS concert. Hardy picked up his penchant for storytelling and lyrical depth from John Prine and a further appreciation for clever twists and turns of language by listening to Brad Paisley.
He could play a few chords by 12 or 13 and started taking the guitar seriously as a high school junior, writing his first song a year later.
“When I got to junior college, being one of the few kids who could sing and play guitar was good for my confidence,” he says. “I remember being in a buddy’s dorm room and playing a song, He said, ‘Who sings that?’ I said, ‘I wrote that.’ He said, No way!’”
Soon he was playing at every party and gathering, with everyone singing along. A visit to his sister, then a student at Belmont University, opened his eyes to the career possibilities waiting in Music City.
“Music was everywhere – I had no idea,” he remembers. “That’s when I found out about publishing deals and that you could make a living writing songs. That was over one weekend, so when I went back home I told my mom, ‘Hey, I’m moving to Nashville.’” He enrolled at Middle Tennessee State University, majoring in songwriting and posting videos online.
The musical template he would later refine for himself came together fully with his appreciation for Eric Church’s album Chief, and the song “Homeboy,” which helped him realize country music could provide a welcome home for his vision.
“That was a real pivot point,” he says. “Chief was the first country record besides maybe Hank Jr. and Charlie Daniels that I could listen to from front to back, over and over again.” He put out an independent EP and put together a band when he landed a gig—his first—that would make a big difference.
“I hired some buddies for a hundred dollars apiece to help me open for Rodney Atkins. I was so nervous because I’d never played a live show before. But somehow I got two thousand dollars out of them. They paid me in cash, and I paid the band, paid off the hotel rooms, and lived off the rest for three four months so I could write songs and not work—and that led me to my publishing deal.”
His first cut came in 2017 with Tyler Farr’s single, “I Should Go To Church Sometime,” a song he says “gave me the confidence to keep going.” Later that year he was co-writer of Wallen’s “Up Down,” which featured FGL. HARDY had met Tyler Hubbard briefly in 2012 and when the friendship rekindled, it wasn’t long before the duo asked him to join them on the road to write together.
“I’d been writing with some of the great Nashville writers,” he says, “but this was taking it to another level.” HARDY’s co-writes comprised the bulk of back-to-back FGL sessions for their next album. No fewer than eight songs on their 2019 album Can’t Say I Ain’t Country bear his name and his stamp. While he had long been content to write, the people around him had begun pushing him toward becoming an artist.
“Friends had been saying, ‘I think you could do it if you ever wanted to, but I wasn’t really considering it,” he says. “My publisher got in my ear about it. Then Tyler Hubbard was pretty heavy on me for a while, and finally, Joey Moi called me out of the blue—I hardly knew him—and said, ‘I just wanted to tell you if you ever want to cut a record, I would cut one on you tomorrow.’”
Given that Moi had long been a favorite, he took it seriously. Then Big Loud offered him a label deal and he was in.
His style was his own. “I tried to stay away from that predictable boyfriend country. It’s got to be a little different, on the edgy side. I don’t want the buzz words and I don’t want it to sound too in the format. It’s gotta be different and I fight for that pretty hard.”
The rest was that process of dialing it in. With producer Moi at the helm, with co-producer Derek Wells and additional production by David Garcia and Jake Mitchell, A ROCK introduces the wider world to a major musical force with an already huge impact on the genre.
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