Ka-Ching…With Twang: Hardy – The Mockingbird and The Crow

Michael Hardy is a genius, if you define it correctly as a little bit of talent plus a lot of hard work.

As a staff songwriter he wrote Up Down and Talk You Out of It for Florida Georgia Line, God’s Country for Blake Shelton, I Don’t Know About You for Chris Lane and Some Girls for Jameson Rodgers. He is also a key part of the Morgan Wallen camp, writing seven songs on Dangerous including Still Goin Down, More Than My Hometown, Beer Don’t and the smash Sand In My Boots, which he wrote with Ashley Gorley.

When he won the BMI Songwriter of the Year Award in 2022, to add to awards from the ACM and AIMP organisations and marking his 12 career number ones, Hardy joked that the only way he could beat his friend Ashley at something was to be published by BMI! His style is similar to that of Rhett Akins, using as few chords as possible to tell his stories, on which he uses the poetic technique of assonance, finding similar vowel sounds (‘Big Dip spitting in a Big Gulp cup…Eatin’ meat and three fried green tomatoes’)

As an artist, Hardy arrived on the scene by claiming ‘I’m Rednecker than you’. He also hit number one as part of Beers On Me, the latest number one for Dierks Bentley (who also has new music imminent). In 2019, he took a cue from hiphop and put together the first of two Hixtapes, either writing or performing on tracks like Boy From The South (where the assonance in the previous paragraph comes from), Red Dirt Clouds and the smash hit song about teenage pregnancy One Beer. The second set was issued one song at a time across autumn 2021, with the final track Goin’ Nowhere the last out because it featured Morgan Wallen. Intriguingly, the Hixtape sets are classified under Hixtape, not under Hardy, on Spotify; he told Holler Country that he wanted them to be the country version of Now That’s What I Call Music, taking on a life of their own.

Hardy was due to go out on the road with Thomas Rhett and open for Morgan Wallen in the UK in 2020, but he had to stay at home and write some more songs. He also found time to get married in 2022, after which he announced this second solo album which follows 2020’s A Rock. The big song on that album was a funeral song written with Gorley called Give Heaven Some Hell, which went to radio and had an impressive run considering it wasn’t about beer, girls or heartache.

Wait in the Truck, the impact single from his second album, goes further away from the quotidian themes of country radio in 2023. It’s a murder ballad where Hardy helps a woman, played by Lainey Wilson, take vengeance on her abuser who left her ‘bruised and broke from head to toe’. It is so believable and the production is like Roger Deakins’ cinematography in how it creates a mood over which the narrative takes place. What boldness from Hardy to send a song to radio that includes pistols, policemen, the chorus ‘Have mercy on me, Lord’ and a jail term for the narrator which ‘was worth the price’ of what he did.

The most stark title on A Rock was Unapologetically Country As Hell, which sounds like a bumper sticker or t-shirt slogan. In fact, as we discovered on A Rock and more starkly when Hardy covered Blurry by Puddle of Mudd, he is also rock as hell. Sensibly, the folks at Big Loud Records have given him the creative freedom to make two records in one, although the lines blur in part thanks to the production. The Mockingbird represents country music, which marks the first half, and The Crow is the rockier second half.

When the album was announced, Hardy released three ‘instant grat’ tracks. The title track is the literal centrepiece of the album, with plenty of autobiography: he grew up in Philadelphia, Mississippi, ‘a little town named after another’ from where Marty Stuart also hails. There’s some satire too, as the power chords amp up and Hardy turns into the crow like a regenerating Doctor: ‘Do this, do that/ That shirt, this hat/ Don’t forget to smile, kiss the ring once in a while’.

Sold Out, one of the rock tracks on the collection, was released back in March 2022. It’s an odd lyric, given that Carrie Underwood’s producer David Garcia was in the room to write it which is as mainstream as country gets. ‘Keep your in crowd, I’ll be the outcast’ doesn’t work as a line given that Hardy has all those gold records and songwriting awards. The narrator is full of curse words and redneck pride. I know Hardy is playing the role of a rock’n’roller who growls the song’s key lyric (‘wall to wall and I still ain’t sold out’), but it reminds me of comedian Bo Burnham’s song Pandering, where the narrator looks like a farmer but wears $3000 boots.

Morgan Wallen could afford a whole closet of boots now. He hit paydirt by combining rock motifs and his southern drawl, and he appears on Hardy’s track Red, which was written with Rhett Akins and passes the baton from grandpa Rhett to kid Hardy. It’s another songwriting exercise where the pair hymn various red things: college football jerseys, stop signs, the American flag, a bank account in debit, necks which have toiled in the sun all day.

Hunter Phelps, another member of the Wallen crew who has had a very good last few years, was in the room for nine of the album’s 17 songs, including Wait in the Truck, Drink One For Me – which is effectively Give Earth Some Heaven, since the narrator tells his mates to celebrate his life when he goes because there’s no alcohol up there – and the Florida Georgia Line-ish Screen, which are all notionally part of the country set. The drums on the last of these are massive, built for the stadiums where Hardy will be supporting Wallen this summer. He’ll tour this album in smaller venues across America in the spring, as part of a double bill with Jameson Rodgers.

There were two other pre-released tracks from the rock set. Jack, written with Hillary Lindsey and David Garcia, is one of those songs about whiskey and its effects on folk, both positive (‘I can fix your problems, always got your back…rock bottom ain’t as bad when you’re rocking with me’) and negative (‘you’re broken and you’re soulless and it’s all my fault’). I expect a lot of reviews will mention Limp Bizkit and the genre ‘nu-metal’, especially when the title track turns emo, but this is rock music with a country tinge.

The song acts as a companion piece to the album opener Beer, which is credited to Gorley, Hardy, Phelps and fellow hitmaker Ben Johnson. Immediately we know where we are: ‘Hank and Blink 182’ both get namechecks as Hardy personifies his alcoholic friend to the backing of enormous drums and power chords courtesy of the great Joey Moi, the architect of the Nickelback sound who has brought big loud production to Big Loud Records. Sort of the Max Martin of country music, Moi produced Cruise and Wallen’s album Dangerous. He’s laughing all the way to his (one assumes) very big house.

Hardy says he ‘woke up on the wrong side of the truck bed this morning’ on Truck Bed, another catchy tune which had Ashley Gorley in the room for its composition. Our narrator was thrown out of the bedroom and forced to sleep with ‘a camo jacket for a blanket’. I appreciate that assonance and also the in-joke about how ‘at least I took my boots off this time’, which refers to his track Boots, where he was so sozzled that he didn’t even take his shoes off when he crashed.

The third song released back in October was Here Lies Country Music, a heck of a title which reminds me of Murder on Music Row, the famous Alan Jackson song about the state of Music City in 2001. Two decades on, ‘the cause of death was a lonely broken heart’; concerts, whiskey, beer, Ring of Fire, Family Tradition, ‘names that I won’t mention’ (coward: name them!!) who watered down the genre and ‘three chords and the truth six feet in the ground’. And then Hardy woke up and it was all a dream. It’s a similar tale to his Worst Country Song of All Time, which wraps a hymn to the genre in a negative (what I call the alpha-privative type of song, but that’s all Greek to most of you).

I almost stood up and applauded when I heard the lyrical reveal on I in Country, a power ballad which I won’t spoil except to say I can’t believe nobody had written it before Hardy. When you write hundreds of songs a year, you can afford to experiment for your own material and give away tunes with familiar topics. Happy, meanwhile, is a Hardy 100%-er, with music and lyrics from the performer as he once again gives characteristics to an abstract concept. It’s smart without being overly smart, and vaguely hippieish (‘hey Happy, why can’t everybody just be you?’). Rather brilliantly, as he revealed in this chat with Holler Country, the seed of the idea was a children’s book he wanted to write.

I think Hardy has used Jaren Johnston from The Cadillac Three as a model for this album. Like Hardy, Jaren is a respected staff songwriter with a band which provides an outlet for his hankering for live performance. I can imagine TC3 doing Radio Song, which features Jeremy McKinnon, frontman of Floridian rockers A Day To Remember: it purposefully sounds like pastiche, putting in a candy-covered chorus (‘kiss you in the moonlight…Everybody sing along’) before a bellowed swear word. You only need to hear it once. When you’ve written so many Wallen tracks, you get to stick a gag near the end of your album and Hardy makes a valid point about the commercial imperative of Music City.

The rock set makes me think a live Hardy show will similarly demarcate rock and country. Perhaps he’ll do the country set for Wallen gigs and the rock set in the sticky clubs. Both sets can include I Ain’t In The Country No More, a mood piece with an opening blast of staccato guitars where rural kid Hardy finds himself among the beggars, the ‘concrete’ and ‘choir of singing sirens’.

In the modern rock style where genre is dead, Kill Sh!t Till I Die is anchored by a riff which is overtaken by a drum loop and Hardy espousing his country boy philosophy. The song .30-06, which opens with some power chords straight out of an old Green Day album, has a title which represents the Springfield cartridge for a popular rifle. The narrator has a gun taken by an ex but, he suggests from the back of his throat straight out of an old Green Day album, there are plenty more where that came from.

The album ends with Redneck Song, a sort of pirate song transferred to country boys, which starts with a singalong chorus that is drenched in vinyl crackle. The middle eight is a hymn to mixing Mountain Dew and George Dickel whiskey. Fans of Hardy’s delivery here will love the work of Jaret Ray Reddick, a Texan best known for his rock band Bowling For Soup but who put out a country album in 2022. I wonder if Hardy and Jaret will connect this year.

The key to this album is believing the vocalist and realising Hardy is a bulky guy who, despite his Music Row A-List status, will always be the guy from Mississippi who does country stuff. I am sure he’ll talk to rock publications to establish his credibility; he’s already booked for a summer festival in Florida. It’s interesting that the big rock release in January 2023 is the first post-Eurovision set by Maneskin, the Italian quartet who have worked with Max Martin. Otherwise rock is a heritage genre with big stars like Jeff Beck and David Crosby already passing on in the first three weeks of the year.

On the country side, Wallen’s album has been number one for most of the last two years. Hardy’s set won’t surpass it but it does cement the Big Loud Sound as one of the sounds of contemporary country. I hope we’ll see Hardy and Wallen in the UK soon; for the moment, we’ve got the recordings.

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