Ryan Hurd is still figuring it out.
The songwriter from Kalamazoo, Mich., who opted to try his hand at music after graduating from Nashville’s Belmont University with a degree in sociology, seemed to have made the right decision.
Over the past few years, he has racked up some pretty impressive writing credits including chart-topping hits including Luke Bryan’s “Sunrise, Sunburn, Sunset,” Blake Shelton and Ashley Monroe’s “Lonely Tonight,” and Lady Antebellum’s “You Look Good.”
But now, Hurd is making waves as an artist as well, a place he never expected to find himself.
Disarmingly humble and still kind of wide-eyed, Hurd’s first headlining tour to support his single, “To a T,” was so successful that he added more dates. The song, on which his wife, Maren Morris, sings harmony, has been streamed more than 100 million times and hit number one on SiriusXM’s The Highway’s Hot 30 Countdown.
Before that, he wrote and released “Diamonds or Twine” as a wedding gift to Morris with the video showing clips from their relationship and the final scene a snippet from the marriage ceremony.
Hurd didn’t see music as his life’s mission growing up. His father is in advertising and his mother is an occupational therapist, and Hurd was more likely to be found on the baseball diamond than in the church choir in his youth. But after graduating from college he wanted to stay in Nashville, so he started writing songs with friends as a way to pay his rent.
“My story starts in Nashville as somebody trying to figure out how to get their foot in the door on Music Row,” he said.
When he began to make a mark as a writer, he was often asked if he wanted to become an artist, but his answer was always the same. “I said, ‘Not really.’ I just love writing songs and I wanted to get good at it.” He said being a songwriter is “a really fun life, constantly being creative without a lot of obligations outside of just showing up every day and making something happen.”
But a couple of years ago, he recorded a songwriter EP, printed 500 copies, held a showcase and handed them out. “That’s when everything changed because people really liked my voice on stuff,” he said. So he decided to go with it.
“But it’s taken a long time to get the ball rolling on the artist side,” he admitted. “I thought when I started making my own records and got a record deal that the credibility part of being a songwriter would translate, but it turns out it does not. They’re very different things and people might respect what you’ve done as a writer and find your story valuable and cool, but you’ve got to have hit songs with your name and your voice on them. That’s taken a second for me to understand.”
Then there are the other obligations that come along with being behind the microphone.
“There’s so much that goes into being an artist that has nothing to do with music,” he said. “How do you walk on a red carpet with your wife and not look like a goober? How do you cultivate an online following? What’s the part of you that people connect with and how do you support that constantly? That’s what I’ve really had to figure out over the past two years, but it’s now snowballing in a really cool way.”
He’s opened for popular acts including Florida Georgia Line and Thomas Rhett, but while fans were receptive, “there wasn’t a whole lot for them to grab onto because we just had four songs out.”
This year marks the first time Hurd has toured on his own and he’s been pleasantly surprised at the reaction. “We found out there are fans of Ryan out there who will buy tickets. We’ve sold out every show we’ve played so far,” he said.
And while he still has a soft spot for songwriting, he’s enjoying his artist side, too. “I still can’t let go of [the songwriting] part,” he said. “Maybe someday I’ll have to, but being creative for other people keeps you creative. But I feel like my life is super balanced right now. Most people don’t get to do what I’ve gotten to do in country music. I still like writing for other people. It helps my brand, it helps me stay engaged and creative and feel success in other parts of my career.”
Hurd is hoping by late summer or fall he’ll release a full album and he’s busy figuring out the material that will make the cut.
“Country music is very broad, so finding and creating your own lane is very important. I think we’re doing a good job figuring out what a Ryan Hurd song is, and that’s an empowering place to be,” he said.
One that he knows for sure will be included is “Wish for the World.” Although he has yet to record it, “we play it at our live shows at the end of the night. It’s just me on the acoustic guitar. I don’t know how to do an encore because I don’t have any hit songs to do it with, but I want to end the show in a way that everyone knows that it’s over. This is a really personal thing and that’s my favorite song.”
Songwriting has changed his life in other ways as well — most notably it’s how he met his wife. “We met writing songs. She had just moved from Texas and said she didn’t want to play any more shows, she just wanted to write songs. We started writing together every week and had a cool, creative partnership, and that’s all it was for a long time.” But eventually, the relationship blossomed. “You see a lot of songwriters getting married because they spend time getting to know one another in a very vulnerable place,” he said. “But a little less than two years in, she got the desire to record and do her own thing and that rocket ship took off.”
Indeed. Morris’ first album, “Hero,” was certified gold. She won a Grammy for Best Country Solo Performance, was named the Academy of Country Music Awards’ New Female Vocalist of the Year and was Billboard’s Top Country Female Artist. Her massive hit “The Middle,” with Zedd and Grey, was nominated for Record and Song of the Year, as well as Best Pop Duo/Group Performance.
In fact, Hurd was in New York to accompany Morris for the launch of her second album, “Girl,” which had the largest streaming week ever for a country studio album by a woman with 24 million streams its first week.
“I had to be there for that,” he said of the release. “It’s a huge week for her and I believe there are some things you shouldn’t miss and this is one of them.”
He also has writing credits on two of the songs on her album — “All My Favorite People,” a duet with the Brothers Osborne, and “Great Ones.” “It’s a hard album to get on,” he said with a laugh.
And although they’re newlyweds with grueling touring schedules, they make it work.
“Everybody who’s married and building a life has two jobs now,” he said. “We just look at it like we’re traveling for work. A lot of people think we don’t see each other ever, but we’ve seen too much of each other in the past six months, at least that’s what Maren would say. I get on a lot of airplanes. It’s like the backwards commute, it’s like you’re commuting from work instead of to work. So we see a lot of each other.”
And Morris has also had an impact on Hurd’s style.
“Maren has such a defined sense of style — she knows what she loves — and it’s been fun for me to get to explore it, too,” he said.
Hurd says he’s partial to sweaters and knits, pointing to a Missoni cardigan that he wore over a John Elliott white T and Paige jeans. But he also tends to gravitate to the same pieces: “Maren’s annoyed at me because she’s tired of Air Max’s showing up at the house. She’s sick of looking at the same shoe in 50 colors.”
But having a stylish spouse in the spotlight also requires some other changes. “I have to get spray tans now, that’s something I didn’t know about,” he said. “Other than that, I love the style part of this. I get to wear a lot of cool clothes and a lot of cool suits. I’ve never worn Missoni before today and that’s really cool for me because I’m so into cardigans and this is like the Holy Grail for stuff like that.”
He’s also enjoyed dressing up. “The suiting part has been really fun for me, finding suits that fit perfectly, I really enjoy that part. And I’ve really gotten into watches. Maren got me a Shinola watch for my birthday a couple of years ago from Detroit — I’m from Michigan. And I wore a Shinola watch for our wedding.”
He also likes to accessorize. “I love beads and stuff like that. The jewelry part is really fun for me. I don’t like rings, but my wedding ring is the only one I really want to wear.”