Welcome to the Writers Round, a monthly column where Sounds Like Nashville sits down with Nashville-based songwriters and learns about each writer’s journey to Music City. This month, HARDY sheds light into his life as a songwriter and the Mississippi storyteller behind Morgan Wallen’s “Up Down,” Blake Shelton’s “God’s Country,” Florida Georgia Line’s “Simple” and others.
If you’ve obsessed over anything on country radio within that last two years, chances are high you’re a card-carrying HARDY fan. He’s a personification of how magic can happen when you’re not necessarily looking for it.
Under the radar, HARDY has been racking up a collection of back-to-back smashes as a co-writer behind Morgan Wallen’s platinum-certified “Up Down,” Chris Lane’s gold-certified “I Don’t Know About You,” Florida Georgia Line’s “Talk You Out of It” and the duo’s platinum hit “Simple.” He went to Wednesday’s (Nov. 13) 53rd annual CMA Awards as a Song of the Year nominee with Jordan Schmidt and Devin Dawson for writing the Blake Shelton behemoth, “God’s Country.”
From the jump, Hardy is showing that he is destined to one day be listed among the pantheon of great storytellers from his home state of Mississippi, the land of Elvis Presley, Charley Pride, Marty Stuart and Jimmie Rodgers. Although Hardy sounds nothing like those entertainers, he sings about perennial country themes that resonate with country people worldwide in the same way songs by his legendary predecessors move others. “REDNECKER,” his hell-raising’ breakout anthem about country cred has accumulated 106 million streams to date. He honors mothers everywhere in Seth Ennis’ Little Big Town collaboration “Call Your Mama.” It’s easy to imagine lines of boots kicking up dirt on a roadhouse dance floor in his Jake Owen contribution, “Ain’t Here to Talk.” He can write one helluva breakup anthem in MacKenzie Porter’s “About You” and deliver soul-stirring material such as Bailey Bryan’s angelic “Songbird.” For the record, BFE in “Up Down,” isn’t an airline. It’s a country acronym for “bum [expletive] Egypt.”
Hardy laughed at the idea of folks researching BFE online when Sounds Like Nashville caught up with him over the phone recently to talk about his rise in country music. At one point during the conversation, he mentioned that in 2017, he had only four songs cut by other artists, but within the last year, that number has jumped to 40. His current songs on the chart include Blake Shelton’s “Hell Right,” and LOCASH’s “One Big Country Song.” Hardy’s 10-song collaborations album HIXTAPE, Vol. 1 co-stars a congregation of world-class acts including Lauren Alaina, Keith Urban, Thomas Rhett, Tracy Lawrence and Trace Adkins. He also has a flair for a good ole fashioned southern visit in that if you give him an inch, he’ll take a mile to tell a good story.
SLN: How did you get obsessed with songwriting? Do you remember a moment when it clicked for you?
Hardy: I wasn’t super good in school, but I was really good at writing. I realized I had a knack for that in fifth grade when we had to write essays. Then that all combined when I was in high school. I think it was summer going into my senior year when I picked up the guitar, could play a few chords, and I wrote a song. I went to junior college, and I played it for all these new friends I was making, and they thought it was really good. I drove three hours to Senatobia, Miss. where this guy that I randomly knew had a great studio. He recorded it for me just acoustic, and it was the first time that I ever did a recording of anything. I was 18 years old, and that’s kind of where it all started. Then I started singing that song to everybody at my junior college.
They gave me the confidence that pushed me to move to Nashville. My sister already lived in Nashville, and she [told me about] a publishing deal and how you get paid to write songs for a country artist.
By that time, I had already started listening to Eric Church, Brad Paisley and Darius Rucker. And I had really no ambition in Mississippi. I loved Mississippi, but I really had no idea what I was going to do with my life there. So, I basically just said, “[Expletive] it, I’m going to move to Nashville and try to get a publishing deal.” My mom said, “You can go, but I still want you to go to school and get a degree.” I went to Middle Tennessee State University, and I got a degree in songwriting.
That’s when I really got into writing. I really learned how to write country songs by sitting in my room by myself and just writing. I probably wrote 50 maybe songs when I was at MTSU all by myself. That’s how I landed my publishing deal because I learned how to develop my own craft. I was listening to country radio and seeing how they do things and paying attention to how to develop a hook. That’s where it all started coming together.
How did you get your first publishing deal?
I write for Relative Music, and that’s run by Dennis Matkosky, who was a really big pop writer in the ‘80s and the ‘90s. Then he had some country hits in the 2000s. Dennis and my grandfather are first cousins, believe it or not. Dennis’ whole mother’s side of the family is from Philadelphia, Miss. But Dennis’ mom married a man and moved to Philadelphia, Pa., which is where Dennis grew up. So, growing up throughout my life, I knew that I had this really cool cousin that was a songwriter. But I had only met him and had been around him like two or three times.
In college, I was posting videos of my songs on YouTube, and he wrote on my Facebook wall back when people were doing that. He said, “Hey, I just wanted to let you know, I’m keeping my eye on you. And you’re doing really good.” I got his number from my grandparents, called him and said, “I would love to come play you everything I got just to see what you could do for me.” I went over to his house, played him my 10 best songs, and he just said, “You’re almost there. If you don’t mind, I’d like to mentor you and work with you for like a year or so and maybe sign you to a publishing deal.”
He had a deal lined up when I was about to graduate in summer from MTSU. And I thought, “I’m about to instantly get a job, and it’s about to be amazing.” For some reason or another, the deal fell through. So, there I was without a job.
In the meantime, that summer 2013 at MTSU, there was this studio called Walnut House. I cut an EP there for free with a bunch of buddies as Michael Hardy, the artist. I just decided to put some music out to see what would happen. So, the deal fell through, I had this EP out, and I had to find a way to make some money because I didn’t want to go bus tables or anything like that. I had a buddy who lived in East Tennessee, and I had gone up there and played this country bar called The Roost and got a few people’s attention. There was a guy there who ran a smaller festival in this little town called Huntsville, Tenn. I convinced these people to let me play this festival based on me playing The Roost, and they let me open for Rodney Atkins. It was crazy. I had gotten enough money out of them to survive three or four months, obviously on bread and water pretty much. But it was enough to get through those next few months so I could write and figure out how to get a publishing deal while I was still working with Dennis.
Then at the end of October, I wrote a song called “Dog Years” by myself, and it’s from the perspective of a dog. Anyway, it was the first of a really good song that I wrote by myself. I sent it to Dennis, and he was like, “Dude, hang tight. I’m going to send this to a few people.” He basically sent it to everyone at KOBALT. So, three months later, I had signed my first publishing deal. And at the time, it was Watsky Music with KOBALT. They did creative. Then I did three years with KOBALT, and I had no cuts. So, for my second pub deal with Dennis, we renamed the company Relative Music since we’re relatives. I’m in a good spot. It’s really small, and we’re just doing things our own way, and it’s great.
How did you come into the Big Loud crew? How did that fellowship start?
Madison, my sister, went to Belmont University and became friends with Brian [Kelley] and Tyler [Hubbard] from FGL. Toward the end of my second year at MTSU in 2012, I went to the Big Loud parking lot party, and they had just signed a publishing deal there. I meet the guys, and they’re super cool. Me and Tyler are hitting it off. I get his number, and we text back and forth, “We gotta write sometime.” We just kind of kept a conversation going, and then “Cruise” happened, and then they were gone. They were superstars. And so, basically, I went on my own path and signed the publishing deal. I get better and better. They start a publishing company, Tree Vibez and sign Jordan Schmidt. I started writing songs with Jordan, and we got in the pocket of writing some really good stuff. Then Jordan comes up to me at a party at Big Loud in 2016 and says, “Hey, Tyler just told me to tell you he remembers you and that he really digs this stuff we’re writing.” Long story short, FGL pretty much had me out to write on the Tree Vibez bus for the rest of the Dig Your Roots tour and the entire Smooth tour in 2017. That is where I met the Big Loud people who were coming out on the road all the time.
I bet Craig [Wiseman] saw a lot in you as a fellow Mississippian.
I think so. We instantly hit it off. The first day we wrote, I gave him this idea, and then he does this thing where he goes outside, and he thinks. He came back in, and I had a whole verse written. He goes, “What you got? You got anything?” I played him the verse I just wrote, and he was like, “That’s pretty damn good.” So, after that, I think it at least proved I could do it, and we’ve been friends ever since. We’re really close.
It was 2017 when I was singing all these demos for Tyler and Brian that we were writing, and they both were like, “You need to try to get a record deal. You have a voice. You have a thing, and you’d be crazy not to do it.” So, I started thinking about it, and the next thing I know, Joey Moi calls me. I didn’t even know him that well, and he said, “I don’t know what you’d think about this, but I just felt like I had to tell you, if you wanted to cut a record, I would cut a record on you tomorrow.” He’s always been my favorite producer, and I just thought all these things are a sign that I need to do this. I did. I was not looking for a record deal. Period. I was writing songs. At the time, it was the last thing on my mind. That’s not to say I didn’t want one, but I wasn’t looking for one.
What are some inherent truths that will never change about you as a storyteller from Mississippi?
There’s a part of me that will never leave Mississippi. That’s the language that I speak so well is that kind of lifestyle. There’s a part of that that will never leave me, and I’m very thankful for that. Mississippi is something that keeps me grounded. I don’t really feel like I put a mask on when I’m doing an interview or hanging out with radio or onstage. I think that’s something I learned from my parents and my grandparents growing up in Mississippi: I’m me all the time.