Hardy has two distinct personalities.
The Mississippi native has made his mark as a songwriter in Nashville using his entire given name: Michael Wilson Hardy. But when he steps out on stage, he’s known simply as Hardy.
So how is an interviewer to refer to him? “It depends on who you’re interviewing,” he says with a laugh.
In this case, then, it’s Hardy.
Raised in Philadelphia, Miss., a town of just 7,500, Hardy attended Middle Tennessee State University where he majored in songwriting. After college, the 30-year-old took the plunge and moved to Nashville, where it didn’t take him long to ingratiate himself with some of the biggest stars in town including Florida Georgia Line, Morgan Wallen — who has become one of his best friends and confidants — and others.
In two years, he has already scored five number-one hits as a writer: Wallen’s “Up Down,” FGL’s “Simple,” Blake Shelton’s “God’s Country,” Chris Lane’s “I Don’t Know About You” and Locash’s “One Big Country Song.” He was nominated for two awards at the recent Academy of Country Music Awards, including Song of the Year for “God’s Country,” which took home Single of the Year honors, and has racked up a slew of other awards from the Country Music Association and other organizations. He was also spotlighted as a Country Artist to Watch last year by Rolling Stone and other industry outlets.
But while his songwriting was paying the bills, Hardy had loftier goals, and last year, he stepped out of the shadows and into the spotlight, opening shows for FGL, Wallen and Dan + Shay. He released two EPs, and on Sept. 4, put out his first full-length album, “A Rock.” The album debuted at number four on the Billboard Top Country Artists chart with over 16.5 million on-demand streams.
Although he had imagined a different promotional plan for the launch, the coronavirus pandemic caused him to get creative for the album’s debut.
“I’m still excited but it really does just suck,” he says during a Zoom interview. “At the beginning, I had a hard time — a lot of people did, but I specifically did because we had just finally hit our stride as a band and we saw everything opening up — these big opportunities — and it was finally time. We were arriving. People knew who we were. And then, everything happened. I’m frustrated that I can’t tour and play the record, but the silver lining is that when we finally get back out there playing shows, people will know the record front and back.”
Instead of touring to launch the album, he launched Hardy 360 Live, a series of full-band performance videos shot in Nashville where he introduced cuts from the album. He also appeared on the “Late Show With Stephen Colbert” and livestreamed a virtual album release concert.
“A Rock” features 12 songs that were all co-written by Hardy and which range from rocking anthems like “Truck,” and “Unapologetically Country as Hell,” to the rap-flavored “Broke Boy,” and the catchy “Hate Your Hometown,” where he implores a homesick love on the verge of leaving to come back to him when her hometown isn’t as rosy as she remembers.
There are lots of references to rednecks — his first solo single was “Rednecker” where he proudly boasts that the bigger buck and bass on his wall are just some of the reasons that he’s “rednecker than you”— but there are also catchy cuts such as “Boyfriend,” a not-so-thinly-veiled proposal to his girlfriend, Caleigh Ryan. “She and I are serious and we’re clearly going to get married, it’s just a weird time right now. We both want to see a light at the end of the tunnel before we get engaged. Not that it matters really, but to be excited about planning a wedding, we’ve got to know that venues are going to be open and people don’t have to sit six feet apart,” he says.
Returning to the album, perhaps the most poignant song is “Give Heaven Some Hell,” which tells the story of a friend who died way too young. The video for that song is a real tearjerker and features a cast of his real-life friends bidding farewell to a buddy. “It was all very organic. We captured a very real moment for a very real situation and I was really proud of that,” he says.
But while he has experienced loss, the story is not based on a real-life event.
“I’ve had a handful of friends who have passed away suddenly, but this is not about a particular person or event — and to be honest, I’m really glad that it’s not because that’s something that would come up in interviews and I would hate to have to tell that story.”
Although Hardy is partial to every song on the album, his favorite is actually “A Rock,” which runs through a man’s life from childhood to death. The video for that is another weeper — “I aim to please,” he says — and was released in conjunction with the album, which takes its name from that cut.
“I love everything about that song,” he says. “It really sums up the record because there’s a lot of life happening here and there, and ‘A Rock’ is just a really good reflective song. And it feels really good to put it right there at the end. It’s like an after-dinner dessert to think about everything you just listened to.”
The album also features “One Beer” with Lauren Alaina and Devin Dawson, which just cracked the top 10 and has more than 118 million on-demand streams and was just certified gold. It’s one of two collaborations on the record; the other is a duet with Ashland Craft.
Last September, Hardy actually released an album of collaborations called “Hixtape” that featured artists such as Keith Urban, Thomas Rhett and Dustin Lynch, so he’s partial to partnering with others. But he’s careful not to overdo it on “A Rock.”
“I do like collaborating — I think it’s fun — and I have plans to collaborate in the future. But for this record, I didn’t want a lot of it. I had done so much of that recently that I really wanted to be by myself and put out my record.”
Although he got his start writing songs for others, he’s embraced his new role as an artist. “I like performing better, it’s a bigger adrenaline rush than writing songs. Having the best show of your life is better than writing the best song of your life,” he admits.
And it also fulfills him in ways that songwriting can’t. “Being on stage is a big outlet for me because I’m not a very flamboyant or rowdy person — I’m actually kind of a chill guy. It does somewhat change my persona but only for an hour and a half at a time. I don’t know why. It’s an outlet for me to get the attention that I need.”
He’s become known for his trucker hats, oversize eyeglasses, “crazy colored boots,” skinny jeans and “vibrant, flowy Hawaiian shirts” that he wears on stage. And while he’s more comfortable in a rock ‘n roll T-shirt or a camo shirt, he’s already made some fashion choices that have raised some eyebrows with his audience. “I like Air Force 1s. I’ve gotten into wearing them a little bit on stage. I hear it from my fans though: rednecks don’t wear tennis shoes. But I’m growing as an artist so I have to do what I like,” he says.
Being in the limelight has also led to some other major life changes. “There’s a lot of things you have to sacrifice,” Hardy says. “There’s an actual show we’re going to do in Rome, Ga., next month that is COVID-19-friendly. I’m playing the first day and I’m in direct support of Morgan Wallen. My girlfriend said, ‘You should come out in the crowd with us the next day.’ And I said, ‘Baby, I don’t think that I can do that.’ That moment hits you: I’m just not going to be able to go to a country concert anymore. Stuff like that kind of changes you and you start to realize a lot of your normal life is going away. But I made the decision and I knew this stuff was going to happen.”
Looking ahead, Hardy has some major goals for his career. “This may sound shallow, but I would love to get to that level of headlining sheds and amphitheaters. I want to grow my audience.”
While that’s happening, Hardy still plans on writing music that he can offer to other artists.
“The second that I turned in my record a few months ago, I called my manager and my publisher and said, ‘I’m done writing for myself.’ In a year or so, I’ll be in the headspace of writing for myself again and so all these ‘great’ or ‘good’ songs, I’ll start keeping for myself, but for right now, I want to write great songs and give them out again. It’s nice to know there’s some breathing room in between records where I can just give away good songs to other people, because I love that. It’s how I started and that feeling will never go away.”