This is the first part of his tenth LP and the first project since the death of his son at the start of 2019. As with several other acts such as Chase Rice and Maddie and Tae, we’re getting an album in instalments.
There are eight tracks on part one. Set opener Country Things checks off fireflies, polite phrases and the act of dying and going up to heaven. That’s Why I Love Dirt Roads is a catchy hymn to rural life with rivers and painted skies. There are many ways to get by on dirt roads such as Chevys and Hemis and Yotas and Fords: this is music to listen to while cruising around on your truck and it definitely sounds like it, with crunchy guitars and processed drums. Granger’s friend (and comic alter ego) Earl Dibbles Jr is relegated to rapping on the final track Country & Ya Know It, which made me laugh out loud: instead of clapping your hands, the listener raises his beer if he really wants to show it. Tyler Hubbard from Florida Georgia Line is one of five writers on this fun ditty.
Being a Texan, Granger is aware of the proximity to Mexico, where he has never been but ‘laying with you is so damn close’. We’ve got tequila, sunlight and ‘places I’ve never been’. It’s a love song in the way that Hate You Like I Love You is a break-up song by numbers. I Kill Spiders, meanwhile, is in praise of Granger’s role as a dad guiding the way and getting rid of arachnids and Heroes is one of those ‘here’s to the unsung heroes’ songs that every artist will release in the next few years. Eight varied songs which are all sung and produced well that put me right in Texas in country country. 4/5
Justin Moore – Live At The Ryman
Did you know a live album isn’t really live? A lot of parts are re-recorded in a studio. I don’t know if anyone will remember Justin Moore when the dust settles but he can certainly sing songs pleasantly. He is the latest star to release a Live at the Ryman album, after Brothers Osborne. It’s one way of putting together a lot of hits and perhaps sell tickets to a live show in future (hmm). I’ve never fallen in love with Justin but I like the songs he is given to sing in his rich and wonderful voice.
My own favourite is set closer Point At You, from his third album Off The Beaten Path. By his fourth album Kinda Don’t Care he was a singer rather than a songwriter, gifted smash hits like the pairing early in his set: You Look Like I Need A Drink and Somebody Else Will were both big radio smashes thanks to Big Machine putting money marketing a guy with a fine voice and a cowboy hat. He is their ‘country guy’, their Aldean or Luke Bryan.
Happily his recent Late Nights and Longnecks album from last year reverses the trend and gives him writing credits on every track. Because the show was recorded in 2018 no tracks from this album feature, which gives it the air of a contract filler. The crowd gets to sing some of the choruses to give a simulacrum of a live show but they sound muted otherwise.
Then there are the covers and cameos. Chris Janson shouts his way through Country State of Mind, which proves that Justin has listened to Hank Williams II, who is given a namecheck on both the Aldeanish set opener Hank It and wistful driving ballad Flyin Down a Back Road, whose chorus includes drinking, fishing and hayfields. David Lee Murphy helps out on a cover of Waylon Jennings’ I Ain’t Living Long Like This and Nashville legend Ricky Skaggs lets Justin join him (or perhaps was invited to give Justin’s set some kudos) on his own Honey Open That Door.
There is no doubt that Justin is definitely country, judging by his setlist. I Could Kick Your Ass, Hank It, Backwoods and Small Town USA all came from Justin’s debut LP of 2009, while Flyin’ Down a Back Road, Bait A Hook – which ticks off Merle Haggard, Jack Daniels and trucks – and soppy ballad If Heaven Wasn’t So Far Away are found on his second album Outlaws Like Me. He’s not an outlaw, he’s a guy who makes money for Big Machine because Taylor Swift couldn’t reach that demographic.
On two occasions he shouts out to country radio, which allows him to play the Ryman by playing his tunes. Business. 3/5
Luke Laird has an enviable CV of writing, production and publishing. As well as being sober, a father, husband and Christian, the chap who grew up on Laird Road in Pennsylvania is one of the most respected writers in Music City. Check out his achievements: Last Name, Undo It, Temporary Home and So Small for Carrie Underwood, Hillbilly Bone and Gonna for Blake Shelton, Take a Back Road for Rodney Atkins, Pontoon with Little Big Town, 1994 for Jason Aldean, I See You and Fast for Luke Bryan, One of These Nights and Diamond Rings & Old Barstools for Tim McGraw, Radio for Darius Rucker, American Kids for Kenny Chesney, Head Over Boots for Jon Pardi, Hide The Wine for Carly Pearce, the terrific Suitcase by Steve Moakler, Talladega and others for Eric Church and assorted songs for Miranda Lambert, Old Dominion, Devin Dawson, Cam, Tenille Townes, Hunter Hayes, Brett Eldredge, Lee Brice and Florida Georgia Line. His closest collaborator has been Kacey Musgraves, with whom she has co-written six tracks on her first two albums.
That’s who Luke Laird is. He also hosts a show on Apple Music Country and launched his record Music Row at an empty Bluebird Café last week. The album is bookended by songs about songwriting, my favourite genre. Music Row namechecks Tony Arata and is in the tradition of 16th Avenue, the bleak song from the 70s about writing, while Country Music Will Never Die goes through Hank Williams, Johnny Cash, Merle and Dolly and ‘the ones who knew the way…and put it all in a song so we had a way of dealing with life’. These include the man who coined the phrase ‘three chords and the truth’, Harlan Howard, a hero to songwriters like Luke. The chord pattern is gorgeous here, as is the line ‘prom night regret’ to rhyme with cigarette.
That one is, like the eight others, a Laird solo composition. The album is Luke’s attempt to put his life in a set of songs, so to that end we have tunes about his beloved wife Beth (Hanging Out), his beloved kids (Jake and Mack, with uncredited vocals from the kids themselves) and his good friends (Good Friends). We also have songs about his sobriety (That’s Why I Don’t Drink Any More, with a spoken word intro which sounds like a confession) and why he is who he is (the terrific and melodic Why I Am Who I Am, which is driven by a Laird Loop).
Equally excellent is a tribute to his late friend Corey, Leaves On The Ground which begins the second side of the album. One More Divorce, which Luke says was recorded by his friend Kacey Musgraves, is about small-town life and is sung at the bottom of Luke’s range with double-tracked vocals (a trick also employed elsewhere on the album). Branch on the Tree was written with Lori McKenna and Barry Dean, who are the kind of company Luke keeps in the writers rooms of Nashville. I love the line about living ‘on a rock that ain’t rolling around’ and the song itself is a page from a gratitude journal. I am thankful for Luke Laird and Music Row. 4/5
Tyler Childers – Long Violent History
This album came out to no fanfare except for a six-minute video in which Tyler talked about how he has a platform to talk about social issues, especially to his ‘white rural listeners’. I hope some of his more bigoted fans listen to his appeal to be aware of problems of black people. Proceeds from this album of instrumentals go to his own relief fund, Hickman Holler. ‘Love each other, no exceptions’ was his sign-off.
The album itself is released on Tyler’s indie label of the same name, with a push from Sony RCA. This is the same arrangement as many acts including Jack White and Cody Johnson; for Tyler, this album follows last year’s well received Country Squire album, which was up for Album of the Year at the Americana Music Awards.
Long Violent History opens with a waltz version of the great Stephen Sondheim number Send In The Clowns set to twin fiddles, one of which is played by Tyler himself, and banjo by John Haywood. There follow seven instrumentals, many in the public domain and thus out of copyright, which incorporate jauntiness (Squirrel Hunter and the effervescent Camp Chase) and mournfulness (Zollie’s Retreat and the beautiful melody of Midnight on the Water).
Whenever I talk about folky bluegrass mountain music I just say it sounds like Nickel Creek but this is music that sounds like and is as old as the hills, brought to the States by Scots and Irishmen who entertained themselves with fiddles and guitars and tunes to get them through the long afternoons on the porch. It is appropriate that the lurching, lumbering Sludge River Stomp sounds just like that, evoking Appalachia.
Tyler is from Kentucky and, like Chris Stapleton, is steeped in country music. He has previously said that Americana is a bogus genre and, though only 29, he has cultivated an enormous audience who respond to his deeply American music. Folk music sometimes gets pigeonholed as a museum piece but there are so many musicians keeping it alive. If you heard this played live, unamplified, you would be knocked over by the expertise; on record it’s no less stunning.
The final track is Long Violent History itself, where we hear Tyler’s voice emerge from a gorgeous fiddle-and-banjo intro. ‘It’s the worst thing it’s been…updated footage…hearsay and absolute lies!’ Tyler spits in the opening stanza. It goes on to become a Steve Earle-type State of the Union address which ends with the line ‘tucking our tails as we try to abide’. Worth a listen, and if it’s too folky for you, just go for two or three of the instrumentals and the title track. All proceeds to charity. 4/5
Tyler Rich has been building his fanbase steadily. The Difference is his best-known song, a gift to him from Devin Dawson, Devin’s twin Jacob and Rhett Akins.
He has co-written eight of the tracks on his debut album Two Thousand Miles, enlisting some fine writers who have given him some tips. On album highlight Leave Her Wild it’s the superstar pairing of Chris DeStefano and Jon Nite; Lindsay Rimes was in the room for Still Love You (‘When I don’t even like you’), while Lindsay worked with Nite and the late Andrew Dorff on the minor hit 11:11. Brad Tursi of Old Dominion helped Tyler and Lindsay on Rather Be Us.
There are some excellent lines: ‘You’d kill to be the train she wrecks’ on Leave Her Wild, a song about not taming a crazy lady or ‘dull the shine’; if you don’t like the idea of hearing someone sing about a ‘hottie riding shottie’, this isn’t for you. Like Hardy or, more pertinently, Morgan Evans or Chris Lane or Russell Dickerson or Dustin Lynch, the music is aimed at the 18-35 demographic who watch The Bachelor and post pictures on Instagram. The production on the album, especially on The Difference and Real Love, has a hazy sheen on it. The first line of Rather Be Us has Tyler looking at a couple on Instagram. So there.
Adrenaline opens with Tyler downcast, ‘throwin rocks at the Starbucks where she and I met’ but by the chorus is able to kiss lips ‘stronger than medicine’. Tyler wants his new angel to ‘run through my veins’ like adrenaline. It sounds a lot, A LOT like Get Me Some of That by Thomas Rhett. Opening track Feel Like Home namechecks 90s country star David Lee Murphy over some enormous guitars in 12/8 time. A lot of the tracks are driven by the production, much like his Big Machine mate Thomas Rhett. There is a little bit of a Keith Urban twang in his voice (especially on an acoustic version of 11:11 I heard).
It’s a corporate country album and I don’t think Tyler minds about it. Instagram couples need something to dance to and I don’t begrudge Big Machine a need to get profits through selling this music to them. Thomas Rhett does it better and more country, but at least the songs on Two Thousand Miles are palatable, in the way that salad is palatable. I admit I left some of the salad on the plate, ie I skipped a few songs at the second chorus mark.
Take It or Leave It gives the girl an ultimatum: ‘If you want that high we’ll light it/ If you want that slow we’ll ride it’. I can take or leave this album, which is 3/5 because there is no point criticising it for being marketed at a young audience rather than being full of Ring of Fire. The cover of Billie Jean, should you be interested, is fine but Keith Urban does this sort of thing better. I’ll talk about Keith’s album in two weeks’ time but next week it’ll be the UK Country Top 40!
Mickey Guyton – Bridges EP
At the 2020 Country Radio Seminar Mickey Guyton received a huge ovation for singing a song called What Are You Gonna Tell Her, which is a good indication of which acts will do well this year. She also performed it at the ACMs, which was televised to the public. The song is found on her EP Bridges which positions her as the ‘see, we DO give black women a chance’ artist of 2020. I’m afraid Nashville has sat on their hands about Mickey for too long.
Yet to release an album, Mickey is in her mid-thirties and is yet to break through to mass consciousness in the same way that, I dunno, non-black acts have done. (Gabby Barrett, by the way is still at number one on Airplay with I Hope, and she is half Mickey’s age. Gabby got her start on TV.)
Mickey is expecting her first child early next year which will irritatingly play havoc with the promotion schedules for her next project but she is a keen Instagrammer, where she has 58,000 followers. To that child she will sing the likes of Black Like Me, Heaven Down Here and What Are You Gonna Tell Her, which she debuted in public at the Ryman and also sang at the ACM Awards, with Keith Urban on piano.
‘She thinks life is fair’ draws you in, ‘skin’s just skin’ makes it clear that race in an issue, then the next line is about sexual abuse. The chorus, which Mickey sang with a quavering voice on the verge of tears in the emotional performance, underlines the helplessness of a parent in the face of a world that will ‘let her down’. Informed by Mickey’s struggles in her job, this is surely her career song.
Following Kane Brown and Jimmie Allen, Mickey is the latest star to address race in her music. Black Like Me was a song she was scared to put out but I am glad she did. Over piano accompaniment, and with my favourite chord (a diminished fifth) in the middle eight, Mickey remembers how she ‘did her best to fit in’ when she was a kid in the playground. As an adult it’s the same nonsense, making a mockery of the slogan Land of the Free. ‘It shouldn’t be twice as hard’ for a black person to live their life.
Kudos to her label for putting a political song out into a country landscape which, as I will keep saying, must change or die. Yes we can have Thomases and Lukes, and Kane Brown is in the top three with Cool Again. Indeed, as I mentioned at the top of the show, Wendy Moten is playing the Opry this weekend and she is black.
Heaven Down Here is a plea to God, a character who has all but disappeared from country radio. In a year with thousands of deaths from a pandemic, this is a timely song which will resonate, even if it’s a little vague and general rather than specific. The EP’s title track, which adds a click track to a groovy piano riff and an electrifying chorus, talks about the ‘great divide’ where people are ‘on their knees holding Bibles’. Why can’t we all just get along, Mickey asks, 30 years after Michael Jackson wanted to heal the world. Stop making peace happen.
The EP also includes the charming Rose, where instead of moonshine, sangria, tequila and strawberry wine, Mickey chooses to sing about Rose-e-e-e-e. It’s catchy and perfect for TikTok should anyone be interested. Salt, meanwhile, is another song for the compilation Now That’s What I Call Ladykiller: ‘You think you’re getting sugar but you’re getting salt’. I like the line about being as fake as her extensions. It’s a fun pop song which feels a lot like a lost Carrie Underwood classic. We know why Carrie has sold so many records and Mickey hasn’t. Clue: use your eyes, not your ears.
Notable in this project is that four tracks were produced by Karen Kosowski, who is also from Canada! 5/5 with very little to criticise.
Riley Green is another country star who looks pretty, with Big Machine’s money behind him. He previewed some songs from his new EP on the Opry stage the day after it came out. He may have been a little intimidated by the space but he’s a very contemporary singer: trucker hat, denim jacket over a white vest, gentle strumming of a guitar.
We have so many of these that it’s hard to distinguish between them but I loved Riley’s debut hit There Was This Girl. I’m less keen on his smash I Wish Grandpas Never Died and so I went into his follow-up album with intrigue. Who is Riley Green and why should I subscribe to his world view so that Big Machine can earn some money to funnel into his career?
If It Wasn’t For Trucks is a five-track EP and we know where we are by the titles alone. I love the punchy Jesus and Wranglers, co-written with Randy Montana who helped Luke Combs have a smash with Beer Never Broke My Heart. I think the riff that runs through the song is terrific. The people behind Riley’s career have definitely looked at Luke Combs and Jon Pardi and sought to create a similar product. Riley is some way behind them both, but well done for trying.
If I Didn’t Wear Boots and If It Wasn’t For Trucks are essentially the same song: ‘I am only with you because I grew up in the country and have experience with farming and small towns.’ It’s a bit silly to put two identical songs on a product, even though they have both have suitably country instrumentation rather than processed beats.
Better Than Me is better. It includes Randy Owen from Alabama, in which Riley sings how ‘the good Lord’ knows where his life is heading. I like the line about the grass looking like Augusta, the pro golf course. Riley himself is from Alabama so this is a lovely collaboration full of heart and a lovely fiddle solo.
Behind The Times is basically Waiting on a Woman by Brad Paisley or People Are Crazy by Billy Currington, as Riley is the youngster being spoken to by a chap with the wisdom of an old timer. The man sits reading a paper and wants ‘another Reagan’. The chap tells Riley to ‘trust the Lord, buy a Ford’ and find a girl to love, just like he did. It’s sentimental and gooey and very country, and it’s good product. Three out of the five tracks are ace, which is why this EP gets 3/5.
Keith Urban – The Speed of Now Pt 1
The Sunday Times reviewer loved the country vibes of We Were and God Whispered Your Name, less so everything else. I agree with this professional opinion.
We heard much of the album before it came out: Polaroid and Superman were both heard on Radio 2 where Keith presented four hour-long Playlist shows where he showed off his love of all kinds of music, including country, rock and r’n’b. He also popped up on Radio 2 on the day of release, in his role as mum’s favourite country star. His brand is Keith Urban: experienced musician who can play good guitar solos and write fine country songs, but who has excelled as what Bo Burnham calls a Stadium Country star.
Keith Urban is not country. He’s Keith Urban. You know how Prince is Prince and Stevie Wonder is Stevie Wonder? Columbia music bet the house on making Keith Urban a star, and a star he duly became. Keith has given up on genre, having started out in the 2000s as ‘that country guy from Australia’ and the 2010s being ‘Mr Nicole Kidman’. In 2020, in his fifties, he has a huge fanbase of fans of what the late Tom Petty called ‘bad rock with a fiddle’. As shown on his patchy last two projects – Ripcord and Graffiti U – the Keith Urban brand is a bit pop, a bit rock, a bit dance and a lot of stadium-sized anthems. It means he can afford more guitars and more school fees for the kids.
Credits on those last two albums include Nile Rodgers, Pitbull, Ed Sheeran, Shy Carter, Jeff Bhasker, Benny Blanco, One Direction co-pilot Jamie Scott, JR Rotem (producer of Jason Derulo’s best stuff), MoZella (who wrote Wrecking Ball), Justin Tranter and Julia Michaels. And yet he remains country enough not to be called a pop star, working with the A List writers in Nashville where he has his own studio.
The Speed of Now opens with a hiphop beat and a funky bit of banjo-guitar. Out The Cage may make people spit out the CD but we know what Keith Urban does by now. It’s pop music with Nashville approval; here, Breland adds to his growing reputation and Nile Rodgers pops up with his patented guitar line. I had to listen to it twice to catch all the nuances (‘white men’?? No, ‘wild animals’!) but this will be an astonishing set opener if he dares open with it. The chorus is syncopated as hell and Keith really wants to be let out of the cage.
Soul Food, which I reckon kicks off the album’s second side, is another song co-written with Breland and it harks back to the Keith Urban of the 2000s. It’s got a lovely melody and gentle production, as well as mentioning ‘Friday night’, ‘little slice of paradise’ and how ‘nothin sparks my appetite’. It’s very light and fluffy and it perked me up after a quite awful first side, where songs are pleasant but unmemorable.
One Too Many, a dull song with a fun chorus featuring Pink, was previewed at the ACMs. I have no idea why Keith is drinking in the bar and wants his designated girl to pick him up. Live With is wretched while Superman (track four) is all production and is ‘country’ because Keith is Johnny in the Ring of Fire.
Say Something – with the lines ‘intimacy’s so hard for me’ and the awful ‘I wanna live my truths wide open’ – rhymes mama with karma and there’s another processed beat with those annoying digital hi-hats and some fun harmonies on the chorus but it’s all very blah, showing off vocal and production rather than song. Who wants a fiftysomething father-of-two wanting to sound like a cool, hip star? Answer: Keith’s fans. I won’t begrudge them.
There are rock songs here, like the Cadillac Three gift Tumbleweed, which is all action and no talk. Forever, also written by Jaren from TC3 along with songwriter Brent Cobb, is a rootsy track set over a looped beat that reminisces about tattoos, cigarettes, sunshine, cars and ‘this Podunk town’. The production is a bit muddy, as you would expect when you put Keith Urban guitar solos over a processed beat. The message is to remember the days when life was easy and free…and that Keith is country music’s guitar hero.
There are ballads here, as there always are. Change Your Mind sees Keith in Brooklyn wanting to speak to the girl who dumped him. Better Than I Am is a plea to ‘fall at your feet and let you in to where you can so damage me’. Keith likes to be Vulnerable Man, even if it’s ‘more a truce, less a surrender’. Interestingly Keith wrote this with Eg White, still best known to me as the writer of Leave Right Now for Will Young, a wonderful pop song that Keith should cover, as well as You Give Me Something for James Morrison and Chasing Pavements for Adele. This one, even with some OTT production, ranks up there too, with a proper middle eight.
Ain’t It Like A Woman sounds a lot like a John Mayer song and it’s another song from Now That’s What I Call I Love Nicole Kidman: Keith’s woman has stopped a ‘runaway train’, taken the reins and tamed ‘a wild horse’ with ‘her strong and her sexy’. I like the line in the chorus about how she has her hands on the wheel at ‘ten and two when I would’ve wrecked me’. Grady Smith, my favourite country commentator, won’t like the vagueness of how ‘she do the thing oh so well’. It’s just a very blah song and he’s done this before.
With You does the same thing: ‘If I was more like water I’d surround you like the tide’ is a good lyric but it is wrapped in tedious production that makes it scream ALBUM FILLER. Far, far better, in spite of its unnecessarily long outro, is God Whispered Your Name, which is a fine showcase of Keith’s vocal skills. It is one of many tracks given to Keith, whose pitch sheet for The Speed Of Now must have detailed specific requirements for songs which will fill out an album, like With You and Live With.
I don’t know why we need both the Eric Church duet and the solo versions of We Were but I think it’s because this is an album to be cherrypicked and made into playlists. There is no narrative cohesion to this album, which ticks off the elements of a Keith Urban release and will provide him with some tunes to stick into his hit-packed set. None of these songs, except perhaps We Were, Better Than I Am and God Whispered Your Name, will be played in 2030, when Keith will be over 60 but still out on the road because that’s what he does. He’s better on stage than on record, but at least he enjoys his job.
2/5 for The Speed of Now, Part 1, but it’ll be a 4/5 if it lost five tracks.
This EP follow the Getting Good EP in a common release pattern for country acts like Maddie & Tae who prefer five-song drops to satiate their fanbase. Notably, Lauren has popped up as a guest vocalist on hits by Kane Brown (What Ifs) and Hardy (One Beer), as well as album cuts by Dustin Lynch (Thinkin Bout You) and Chris Young (Town Ain’t Big Enough).
The EP’s lead single is Run, which takes the word ‘run’ and runs with it, in the way Nashville songwriters love to focus in on all possible angles on a particular word or phrase. As the clock is running, we run like hell.
Getting Over Him is excellent, a thrusting rebound song with enormous guitars, the polar opposite of Run. Lauren’s vocal is as sleeky as Maren Morris’ except Lauren can hit every note spot on. The role of the man is played by Jon Pardi, whose delivery is awesome too. Never has a one-night stand sounded so fun.
A Bar Back is someone who puts drinks together, rather than the bartender who takes the orders. It is a wonderful title and the song is about giving things back after breaking up with someone, except Lauren wants her bar back. I am sure this has some personal slant for Lauren, who broke off an engagement last year.
Lauren wrote that with Jon Nite, David Garcia and Hillary Lindsey, who is incapable of writing a bad song. It’s interesting that Lauren, whose voice is very close in pitch to Carrie’s, is writing with them, but since Lauren also releases music through Simon Cowell’s 19 label. I don’t think autotune is necessary on any of Lauren’s terrific vocals, much as Carrie and Dolly do.
If I Was a Beer is co-written by Lauren with Garcia, who is Carrie Underwood’s producer and, of all people, Hardy. You can tell it is because of the silky riff running underneath Lauren’s vocal about ’11 good friends by my side waiting their turn’. Girl as beer is a fun image.
Seen You in Your Hometown is a funky pop song over three chords in which Lauren extols the virtues of a boy who is different from the loud football-playing jock when he goes back to mama. A good premise and very country, even if the production is poppy thanks to Paul DiGiovanni, the man who has made Dan + Shay sound like the future of commercial country music, for good and ill.
What Do You Think Of is a fascinating reminiscin’ song full of details inspired by Lauren’s life, I reckon. Lauren came up as a teenager on American Idol so she has an audience in the pop sphere; because she has a twang and is from Georgia, it makes sense to market her to country radio but with Lukas Graham on this song popping up it’s clear where she is heading. The chords and chorus melody are gorgeous and if Lauren plays the long game (she’s still only 25) she can be a star of the era. She needs a few more radio hits, like Carrie, but she is an electric personality and the pride of Georgia. 4/5.
Hardy – A Rock
Hardy landed in my consciousness when I heard the demo to the song Up Down, where his voice was processed through a vocoder. I did not like it one bit. I preferred Rednecker, his anthemic tune which invented a word, rednecker as a comparative adjective for redneck. The song – which included the line ‘I piss where I want to and I fish where I swim’ – stalled at 26 on country radio.
Hardy is the redneckest in fact, and beloved by many artists for writing hits for them. Here is a snapshot of his success, all achieved before he turns 30 on September 13. After graduating with a degree in commercial songwriting, Hardy has written plenty of songs by Florida Georgia Line including four huge hits of theirs: Up Down, Y’All Boys, Simple and Talk You Out Of It. Blake Shelton had Hell Right (Hardy’s personal catchphrase) and God’s Country which, like Chris Lane’s I Don’t Know About You and Locash’s One Big Country Song, gave Hardy another number one record as a songwriter. Only Luke Combs and Thomas Rhett are in his class as a writer-performer.
And Morgan Wallen. Morgan used five Hardy co-writes on his number one debut album If I Know Me, including the title track, Happy Hour, Had Me By Halftime and Whatcha Know Bout That. New song More Than My Hometown is another Hardy co-write which is hurtling up the chart. The pair were due to come to the UK in May 2020 but the pandemic scuppered that. If Hardy comes to London in 2021, I will be there with bells on.
Hardy is a prolific writer whose songs have been picked by many of the artists who guested with him on the Hixtape collection from last year. Jameson Rodgers actually took Some Girls off the shelf, having bagsied it for a few years, and that single is all over radio now. A Rock emerges after that mixtape, which as well as Rodgers, Wallen and Thomas Rhett featured the likes of Keith Urban, Cole Swindell, Dustin Lynch and even Joe Diffie.
His two EPs have included songs called Throwback, Signed, Sober You, This Ole Boy and All She Left Was Me, piquing the interest of one listener at a time. Many of them are assisted by the type of programmed rock guitars you get on Morgan Wallen and Florida Georgia Line songs, and have a lyrical content that appeals to the lucrative 18-35 demographic. Hardy might be the Lewis Capaldi of country music, if Luke Combs is clearly the Ed Sheeran.
One Beer is climbing up the charts, thanks to a blockbuster video and a quirky topic for a song: one beer turns into an unplanned pregnancy and a shotgun marriage. He told The Boot website that he is an admirer of Brad Paisley’s knack of mixing humour and heaviness. I admire Paisley too and I think Hardy is the closest thing to a country act (Luke Combs aside) who can bring in non-country fans. Even Florida Georgia Line, who have duetted with Jason Derulo, cannot compete with Hardy, who is rednecker than them.
A Rock contains songs which we have heard before the album’s release. Breakup song Boots begins with Hardy realising he woke up without taking his boots off after a heavy night and that he is more into drinking than spending time with his lady, making his exit speedy. I loved Give Heaven Some Hell, which is an ‘I’ll miss you brother’ weepie’ that is placed as the third track on the album, just after Boyfriend, a song about a man wanting to turn his status from In A Relationship to Married.
Having already written a song called 4X4, Truck is next on his list of modes of transport to use as subject matter. This is definitely a country song by Hardy: over a three-chord loop and with a gorgeous melodic shape, he universalises the ‘red white and blue collar’ bloke in every town in America whom you can judge by the contents of his truck. What a great premise. The chorus is enormous and I am sure many listeners in trucks will find much to love about a man who wears a trucker’s hat onstage.
Hillary Lindsey never writes a bad song, and she has written four pearls with Hardy on A Rock: Hate Your Hometown, Boots, One Beer and the terrific So Close, which is influenced by Def Leppard and contains the voice of Ashland Craft, a singer also on the Big Loud label. It’s a finely structured breakup ballad with an explosive chorus that fellow Big Loud acts (Morgan Wallen and Florida Georgia Line, Jake Owen) would kill for. I wonder why Hardy chose to keep this one and the 11 others for himself.
Where Ya At is a lot of fun regardless of whether you have ‘hick in your blood’ or not and, in the way that Tim McGraw namechecked his label Big Machine, Hardy namechecks Big Loud. The pace is electric, though note that the drill sergeant middle section contains some swear words. This will be a live favourite wherever Hardy is at.
Ain’t A Bad Day is another interesting twist, as Hardy looks into his pit of despair after a breakup and realises today isn’t a bad time for Armageddon. It seems like a song that very lightly prompts people to seek advice for their demons and I hope the decade sees more of an awareness of this sort of thing in country music, which has spent a decade mostly saying that girls and trucks and beer are wonderful.
Like One Beer – which is about the perils or wonders of girls and trucks and beer – Broke Boy is a love song which begins at a party and leads to Hardy having a ‘Mississippi Queen’ in his bed. ‘I didn’t have a dime to my last name but she took mine’ is such a good lyric. Hate Your Hometown, is a kiss-off which uses the ‘I hope’ formula so beloved of songwriters. For a better kiss-off try He Went To Jared, a song from the Hixtape.
I was intrigued when I saw that track 11 is called Unapologetically Country As Hell. We’ve had these songs for decades and a keen listener can play Hick Bingo. The rules are simple: drink a shot of Florida Georgia Line’s own brand Campfire Whiskey when you hear ‘moonshine’, ‘truck’, ‘beer’, ‘Chevrolet’, ‘chicken’, ‘dogs’ and ‘George Jones’. Please don’t end up in hospital or play this game/ This is Rednecker part two, equally singalongable and targeted at the 18-35 demographic in Mississippi and other Southern states who may wish to purchase some merch with the phrase Unapologetically Country As Hell on it.
A Rock the song closes the album, on which Hardy thinks about life and stuff. The terrific song was brought into the world with an extraordinary music video. It’s country because it talks about skipping rocks on the water, being stuck between a rock and a hard place as a young adult, being alive on ‘a rock’ and eventually having your name written on a rock and placed on a tombstone. I wondered where the chorus would be and laughed when I heard him go la-la-la-la.
Hardy is doing all the right things and should be talked about in the same breath as Luke Combs. Above all, I believe Hardy’s music is a fair representation of himself. This isn’t a construct or a persona. Sometimes the songs can be sonically very similar, cranking up in the chorus and having Hardy shout-sing the lyrics rather than croon them, so perhaps 12 in a row is a bit too much without sonic variation. Lyrically there are love songs, break-up songs and those two Country Songs (Where Ya At and Unapologetically Country As Hell).
I have no hesitation giving this album 5/5 and hope you give it a go before he becomes famous like Luke Combs.