Michael Hardy has, according to critic Grady Smith, ‘hacked bro-country’. The guy from Philadelphia Mississippi wrote Up Down, Simple and Talk You Out Of It, three enormous yet forgettable singles for Florida Georgia Line. In 2019 he had his own success with volume one of this mixtape and his debut album proper, A Rock, came out in September 2020 during the pandemic. The smash hit Give Heaven Some Hell proves he can do deep and meaningful as well as shallow guff like Hell Right, which Blake Shelton and Trace Adkins took off the shelf.
Hardy himself is a beefy guy with a great sense of melody and rural life. That first album included the bumper sticker/ song Unapologetically Country As Hell, which seems to be a credo. As a songwriter, he must be running out of room on his wall, with Some Girls (Jameson Rodgers), God’s Country (Blake Shelton) and I Don’t Know About You (Chris Lane) all hitting number one. He was due to go out on the road with Thomas Rhett (in the USA) and Morgan Wallen (in the UK) but for the pandemic.
Nonetheless, he was nominated for Best New Artist at the CMA Awards and has enough of a following to put out the second Hixtape. As with the first one in 2019, the songs have been rolled out every Friday leading up to the release of the full set, which is a smart way to do it.
The opening track was the first to be released. Hometown Boys features Dierks Bentley, with whom Hardy has just put out the song Beers On Me, and Matt Stell, and it’s ‘bout time somebody sang a song about them hometown boys’. I also love Small Town On It, where Chris Lane and Scotty McCreery purr about how God created rural life (‘a little rust on the Fender, a little dirt on them boots’).
Interestingly on this second Hixtape, Hardy does not sing on every track, in the manner of Drake or Kanye West on their hiphop mixtapes. With 33 artists to cram in, he has been generous in giving space to some old favourites and some newer names. Thus we have Sean Stemaly and Jimmie Allen who join Justin Moore on WD-40 4WD, a song about working hard and having a four-wheel drive; Larry Fleet trades lines with Jon Pardi on the throwback jam In Love With My Problems; Travis Denning and Josh Thompson are drafted in on Beer With My Buddies, which sounds like a song Florida Georgia Line rejected for sounding too much like them.
Far better is the instant classic Red Dirt Clouds, which hymns the simplicity of ‘riding round kicking up dust in a bucket of rust’ and features ERNEST, Ben Burgess and David Lee Murphy. Hardy didn’t write this and he doesn’t sing on it. It’s hard not to think this album has been dreamed up in the Big Loud boardroom, although the collaborations all make perfect sense.
It’s a good idea to bring Lee Brice and Randy Houser, two of the finest contemporary voices, together on Drink Up. For bro-country heads, Brantley Gilbert and Colt Ford join Hardy on To Hank, where the trio raise a glass to country boy Hank Jr and the original outlaw Hank Sr and quote plenty of their songtitles. Both songs are classic Hardy: simple chord structures, lyrics which celebrate rural life and those who soundtrack it. Above all, they make you feel good.
Respect to Hardy is due because he knows his history. On Jonesin’ (‘for some Jones’), Ronnie Dunn appears alongside two Jakes, Owen and Worthington. Marty Stuart plays a solo on Break Your Own Damn Heart, which is driven by Midland’s vocal contributions and is good fun. Old and new also combine on One Of Y’All, where Rhett Akins and The Cadillac Three tick off rural signifiers including beer, dirt, guns, day shifts and boots.
The complaint from me, and this really is shocking, is that Jimmie Allen is the only black act and there are only two women on the whole set. Ashland Craft, so good on hardy’s track So Close last year, joins TJ and John Osborne on the lolloping I Smoke Weed, while Lainey Wilson kicks off a smashing tune called Beer Song, where Chase Rice and Granger Smith also find room to appear. It has one of the album’s best choruses, which is high praise indeed for a man who is a solid chorus-builder in town.
That song was co-written by Morgan Wallen, who appears along with Chris Shiflett from Foo Fighters on a tune called Goin’ Nowhere. It’s the first new material that Morgan has sung on since his album was released and he had to take an enforced year off to better himself. Hardy takes the first verse and takes the listener on a whistle-stop tour of US cities but the chorus opens up, Hardy-style, with a set of lyrics asking: ‘why in the hell would I leave?’ Morgan takes verse two, picking up the baton and purring about how ‘all those daughters’ daddies were right’. It’s a bit blah, in spite of the guitar solo from Shiflett, but it shows that Big Loud have now un-suspended their cash cow.
Remember that DJ Khaled song with Justin Bieber AND Chance The Rapper AND Lil Wayne AND Quavo? This is an album of that, but with more references to Hank Williams. I hope it finds an audience.