How country hitmaker Hardy became Nashville’s nü-metal king
Michael Hardy wanders into the bar at the Troubadour on a recent morning — last night was a long one, so he’s wearing mirrored shades beneath his camo-print trucker hat — and catches sight of some heroic-looking scuzzbuckets on the wall.
“What’s that say?” he asks, pointing a skull-ringed finger toward a framed flier advertising a Guns N’ Roses gig at the Troubadour in the mid-1980s after one (or perhaps several) of the band’s members just got out of rehab.
“‘Fresh from detox,’” Hardy reads aloud. “God, that’s f— awesome.”
In a few hours, this 32-year-old singer with a dozen No. 1 hits under his belt will take the same West Hollywood stage that once hosted GNR, then zip up Doheny Drive to play a second sold-out show at the Roxy. Hardy, who performs under his last name, didn’t ascend through the Sunset Strip’s storied hard-rock scene. His success has come on the country charts with songs he wrote for other acts like Blake Shelton’s “God’s Country,” Florida Georgia Line’s “Simple” and a string of tunes by his good buddy Morgan Wallen that includes “More Than My Hometown” and “Sand in My Boots.” In 2020 he scored his first No. 1 as an artist with “One Beer,” a slyly touching account of a couple’s quick trip from shared Bud Lights to a shared baby.
“Hardy has a way of taking something that sounds familiar but adding a flavor that only he can bring,” Wallen tells The Times. “His instincts are just almost perfect. I don’t know anyone touching him when it comes to those lyrical qualities.”
Yet with his new album, “The Mockingbird & the Crow,” Hardy is leaning into — way into — the rock music he says he loved before he ever thought about writing for Nashville. Released last month, the 17-track LP is split into halves: eight polished country tunes and eight jock-jammy aggro-rock tunes, the two sides connected by a title cut that gradually shifts from plaintive strums to fuzzed-out riffs.
Tonight’s doubleheader in L.A. is meant to replicate the album’s “duality,” as Hardy puts it, with a tidy Troubadour set followed by a much rowdier one at the Roxy where he’ll end up stage-diving into a crowd of contest winners and industry types as celebs such as Machine Gun Kelly and Yung Gravy cheer him on. (Also in the VIP: comedian and accused sexual predator Chris D’Elia, looking a bit wary of being seen out and about.)
For years after moving to Nashville, Wilson called a 20-foot camper trailer home. Now, she’s nominated for six CMA awards, including song and album of the year.
“Hardy’s live show feels like a WWE wrestling match,” says Lainey Wilson, who duets with him on “Wait in the Truck,” a Top 5 country hit found on “Mockingbird” that’s been streamed more than 70 million times on Spotify and YouTube. Seth England, chief executive of Hardy and Wallen’s label, Big Loud Records, describes the singer’s onstage presence — at one point at the Roxy he shotguns a beer then sprays it on the front row — in a slightly different way: “It’s like the redneck System of a Down.”
So far, Hardy’s foray into rock is paying off. “The Mockingbird & the Crow” debuted at No. 1 on Billboard’s country albums chart — the only LP other than Wallen’s blockbuster “Dangerous” to reach the peak since July — while “Jack,” a moody single narrated from the perspective of a bottle of whiskey, is currently in the Top 10 at active rock radio behind tracks by Metallica and Five Finger Death Punch.
For Hardy, the bruising guitars and screamy-growly vocals are a way to differentiate his stuff from Wallen’s slicker, hip-hop-inflected country music even as he maintains the momentum their long bromance has provided. (Wallen didn’t know when they met that Hardy was a metalhead, he says, though “I kind of had that feeling just off his vibe.”) Hardy co-wrote several tracks on Wallen’s upcoming “One Thing at a Time” album, and he’ll tour this summer as one of Wallen’s opening acts, including at a July 22 stop at SoFi Stadium. Before that, Nashville-based Hardy will return to Southern California to headline Anaheim’s House of Blues on March 10.
But the rock sounds also point to Hardy’s upbringing in small-town Mississippi, where his dad introduced him to Led Zeppelin and Pearl Jam before he discovered Puddle of Mudd and Linkin Park and P.O.D. for himself on MTV. “Country music was corny to me,” he says. “You couldn’t bang your head to it.” Asked whether he identified with the adolescent-male rage coursing through turn-of-the-millennium nü-metal, Hardy scoffs.
“Nah, dude. I didn’t even understand half the lyrics. I was going to church on Sunday and going to Little League baseball practice, then getting home and putting my headphones on and listening to ‘Break your f— face tonight!’” he says, quoting Limp Bizkit’s era-defining “Break Stuff.” “I just liked it because it made me feel good.”
A naturally gifted writer who excelled in English class, Hardy began to change his mind about country music thanks to the deeply crafty tunesmithing of Brad Paisley — “You see Post Malone do ‘I’m Gonna Miss Her’ on YouTube?” he asks excitedly — and Eric Church, who was “the first country artist I heard that appealed to good ol’ boys who grew up like I did, deer hunting and fishing and all that stuff.”
After high school he studied songwriting at Middle Tennessee State University then moved to Nashville, where his older sister was trying to start a career as a singer and where he fell in socially with the crew around Florida Georgia Line. His big break came at the expense of hers, he says now. “This was right as the whole bro-country thing was blowing up, and so there was just no room anymore for a soulful white girl,” he says. “That was done.”
Defined by Hardy and Wallen’s producer Joey Moi as “active rock with a banjo on it,” bro-country dominated Nashville for much of the 2010s through the likes of FGL, Luke Bryan and Jason Aldean. And though he was well aware of its creative limitations, Hardy quickly mastered the form. “Songwriters know when they’re writing a douchey song that’s gonna be a hit,” he says, citing a couple of his own in Chris Lane’s “I Don’t Know About You” and Cole Swindell’s “Single Saturday Night.”
Adds Moi: “‘Guy and girl in a truck go down a gravel road and have an alcohol-flavored kiss under the stars’ — we’re all guilty of cutting a bunch of those. But we all kind of knew that was the gag.”
Indeed, there’s a shrewd self-awareness to Hardy’s own music that lifts it to a kind of meta-bro level, where you can’t quite tell if a given lyric — “There ain’t no ‘I’ in country / But there’s a ‘Y-O-U’,” for instance — is brilliant or stupid.
“That’s kind of my thing,” he says with a grin.
One highlight of “Mockingbird’s” rock half is “Radio Song,” which consists of three parts: a talky verse in which Hardy lays out the requirements of a hit bro-country tune, a sweetly melodic chorus that embodies those tropes and a furious, Rage Against the Machine-style bridge featuring Jeremy McKinnon of the metalcore band A Day to Remember. “Well, this ain’t no radio song,” McKinnon shrieks, folding the whole thing in on itself.
“I’ve already seen comments on Instagram asking me to release the real version,” Hardy says, shaking his head. “I’m like, ‘There is no real version. That’s the point.’”
He’s also more emotionally complex when writing for himself, as in “Wait in the Truck,” a stark acoustic ballad about a man who kills a woman’s abuser. Wilson remembers receiving a text from Hardy telling her he’d just come up with the best song he’d ever written.
“Which I thought was pushing it,” she says. “But when I listened to it, I knew what he was talking about. This is a subject that a lot of people don’t want to talk about, but it’s real life; it happens behind closed doors all the time. And the way he tells the story, it reminded me of why I fell in love with country music to begin with,” she adds, comparing the song to Garth Brooks’ “The Thunder Rolls” and “Whiskey Lullaby” by Paisley and Alison Krauss. “I couldn’t say yes fast enough.”
A couple of nights ago, Wilson says, she was performing “Wait in the Truck” at a show in Wyoming, “and this lady in the front row just looked at me and kept repeating, ‘Thank you, thank you, thank you.’”
Hardy’s gotten some of that writerly nuance into his hits for Wallen. “More Than My Hometown,” which has more than 319 million streams on Spotify, paints a convincing portrait of a guy torn between a lover and the city she wants him to run away from. Yet two years ago, Wallen’s drunken use of the N-word to refer to a friend — as caught in a video published by TMZ — threatened to derail their partnership as radio stations and music-industry groups shunned Wallen (at least until his enormous popularity drew them back).
Asked how the Wallen episode affected him, Hardy says, “It made me way more conscious of who I’m around and how much I’ve had to drink. It made me think about everything I say and just be extremely careful, which is a good thing.”
It’s hard to imagine Guns N’ Roses taking it as a teachable moment. “Because they got away with everything,” he says. “I behave myself always,” he adds, but doesn’t he long for the days of invisibility? “I mean, yeah, cellphones and the internet make it really tough to do what you want. I’d love to do some wild s— every now and then, but it puts a damper on things when you know everybody’s out there filming or watching.”
Then again, it was the internet that enabled Hardy to build a following on streaming platforms before radio programmers started spinning his songs. And it’s still streaming, according to Big Loud’s England, that’s driving artists to super-serve their fans in highly specific musical niches (like Hardy’s neo-nü-metal) instead of going for more broadly universal styles. In fact, Hardy’s got plenty of company in reviving those early-aughts rock sounds, both in Nashville — think of the face-tatted Jelly Roll or Bailey Zimmerman, who conjures Post Malone covering Creed — and among the veteran acts booked for upcoming festivals such as Sick New World in Las Vegas and Welcome to Rockville in Daytona Beach, Fla., where Hardy’s on the bill alongside Evanescence, Chevelle and Godsmack. Then there’s Staind frontman Aaron Lewis, who’s been veering between his post-grunge band and a solo country career for years.
Does Hardy’s internet savvy extend to TikTok? “That’s a game I’m not ready to play yet,” he says, though he has an official account. “I see all my buddies doing TikToks, but reacting to people covering your songs and all that? Seems very fake to me.” He laughs. “I have written some songs that were aiming towards TikTok, with a buildup and then a drop. I’ve got a Nelly song out right now called ‘Birthday Girl’ that we thought would be perfect for every girl on her birthday — like, she jumps and when she lands she’s all done up.”
Has the song taken off on TikTok? “It hasn’t, man,” Hardy says, picking up his phone to check the track’s stats. “It’s not even in the Top 100. Wow, that’s bad.”
Another realm Hardy isn’t eager to enter is politics. After years in which almost everybody in Nashville strenuously avoided hot-button issues, acts like Maren Morris and Kacey Musgraves (on the liberal side) and Aldean and Kid Rock (on the conservative side) have become increasingly vocal about their views on racism, sexism and transphobia; Wallen’s use of the N-word sparked widespread debate regarding country music’s treatment of Black people. Hardy wants none of it.
“That stuff kind of freaks me out — like, having an opinion,” he says. “I’d rather just watch it all happen and sit in the shadows, right down the middle, not taking a side.” Even as someone who started out in rock, where artists are far more likely to speak out than in country?
“There was a time in my life probably that I would’ve been more outspoken,” he says. “But I also didn’t have a bunch of followers then. A lot of country [artists] are still like, ‘You know what? I’m good on all that.’”
Yet Hardy welcomes some of the changes he’s seen in Nashville since he arrived in town a decade ago. For one thing, he says, men “don’t have to look like professional athletes anymore. Luke Combs, Chris Stapleton, even Morgan and myself — just bigger dudes that are more normal-looking are accepted now.” He’s also happy to see that female country artists are finding a place again on the radio.
“I hated when the women were struggling” during the peak bro-country years, says Hardy, who got married last year to his longtime girlfriend, Caleigh Ryan. “I had a weird guilty pit in my stomach just for being a dude. It was mostly older white men that ran those stations, and they all kind of looked down at girls. But they’re kicking ass right now,” he says, pointing to recent hits by Wilson, Gabby Barrett, Miranda Lambert, Ashley McBryde, Carly Pearce and Priscilla Block. “It seems like more of a level playing field.”
Does their success — and Hardy’s pivot to hard rock — spell the looming end of bro-country? Hardy shakes his head.
“The bro moment will always exist,” he says. “And I’m OK with that.”
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