Emerging Country: Ryan Hurd, Songwriter For Tim McGraw & Blake Shelton, Embraces Being a Solo Artist

Matthew Berinato
Ryan Hurd

Ryan Hurd never intended to pursue a career as a solo artist. While the Michigan native grew up surrounded by music, taking piano lessons as a child and forming a band in high school, it wasn’t until after college that he started to take songwriting more seriously.

His tribe of early co-writers, which included Joey Hyde, Aaron Eshuis, Matt McGinn and Steve Moakler, started seeing success, and Hurd himself began getting cuts by Tim McGraw (“Last Turn Home”), Blake Shelton (“Lonely Tonight”), Luke Bryan (“Sunrise, Sunburn, Sunset”) and Lady Antebellum (“What If I Never Get Over You”), among others.

Hurd says he treated songwriting like a job and after garnering several cuts, in 2015 he decided to release an EP. The four-song project, Panorama, received a major response in Nashville which turned into a record deal with Sony Music Nashville.  

“It really did start with me just saying, ‘I want to figure out how to write country songs,’” Hurd tells Billboard over the phone from tour rehearsal in Nashville days before releasing his new EP Platonic. “Part of this is me learning how to be an artist. Part of it is me feeling a responsibility to songwriters… Any time you get to release songs, it's such a big dream, and I feel like this is like a really, really special moment for me.”

The new project, out Sept. 20, has Hurd embracing his unique brand of country music which involves synthesizers, a rhythmic singing style and vivid, autobiographical storylines. It also has the singer-songwriter recording his first outside song with “Half Hoping,” penned by Matt Dragstrem, Chase McGill and Laura Veltz.

“Part of that was hearing a song and going, ‘Wow, I really wish I wrote that. That sounds just like me. I’m going to cut it,’” he says. “I feel responsible to songwriters in this town. Everything takes so long to [get a cut in] Nashville. The 10-year town thing is a real thing."

Ahead of releasing Platonic and a fall tour with Old Dominion, Hurd spoke with Billboard to share his backstory as an artist and songwriter.

When was the moment you knew you wanted to be an artist?

I think it started when I decided to make Panorama as a songwriter project in 2015 with my friend Aaron [Eshuis] who I grew up with. I was starting to get some success as a writer. I was really getting my foot in the door and wanted to make my own project, print some discs, pass them out. I didn't have a whole lot of expectation for doing more than just that, and the response in town was such that it really encouraged me to take it a step further.

When was your first public appearance?

Aaron and I were in a band in high school for a second. We moved to Nashville and he did engineering, and I ended up getting a sociology degree at Belmont. When I graduated, I was like, “Man, I'm going to try this songwriting thing.” I had a lot of [friends] who were either playing on Broadway or they were starting to write songs, and so I dove in with those people and said, “I think I can write country songs.” I ended up just doing it and started treating it like a job.

Who’s career do you admire most and would like to pattern yours after? 

I think someone like Jon Bellion. I know that's outside of the country space, but I feel like we have a really similar story. [We’re both] guys who've written songs for other artists and maybe haven't had the most radio success yet. He's built such an amazing fan base and built such a touring fan base, and that's sort of what we're doing too. I have a pretty big fan base now and I don't have very much radio success. I’ve watched Jon do the same thing, and that's what I want to do. We’re just a few years behind him. If my music can turn into what he's doing -- the country version of that -- then that’s absolutely something worth aspiring to.

Who is your dream collaborator? 

If I get to pick anybody, I think I would have to say Taylor Swift. I still think of her as a country artist, even though she’s the biggest artist in the world. Also, she's been so supportive of me and what I've done. She's an amazing songwriter. That would probably be the one that I would put out into the world. Maybe the universe will be cool to me.

What’s the story behind your single “To a T?”

I wrote it with Laura Veltz and Nathan Spicer. We knew it was really special. It was almost like a challenge that [Laura] had for me. She's like, “This is a hard title, I bet you can't write it.” I was like, “Well, we're gonna try.” It took a couple of days. The thing that was different about that song compared to anything else I've ever written is it felt like doing a math problem because of the word play and the rhythm of it and making it all fit together, and also make sense lyrically and be compelling. It’s just a different kind of song. I think that's why people really respond to it. It is a universal feeling: I want to know you more. I want to know my partner in a really intimate way and that it’s said in such a different fresh way.

Lyrically, it comes from a really honest place. Obviously, everybody knows who the muse is. It's been that way ever since before we were even dating. When I originally wrote it, I held it for myself and then kind of forgot about it. Maren [Morris, Hurd's wife] was the one who was like, “No, this is the really special one.” So, that's kind of cool to have a Grammy Award-winning artist on your A&R team.

What song on the EP best describes you as an artist.

I don't know. I feel like on these EPs you get to really explore. It's kind of broad sonically. That's the fun part for me. I get to put out a song like “Platonic” which to me is like… it's just sugar. There's no substance about it. To me it just tastes good. Then there’s songs like “Wish For the World,” which is really important to me. I’ve been playing it live at my shows and people already know that. They're both very much me. And then the other songs sort of fill in the blanks. They connect the dots between those two songs.

What’s the most autobiographical song on your EP?

“Wish For the World.” It’s one of my favorite songs I've ever written. I want to talk about relevant things, things that are truly relevant, and that's what “Wish For the World” is.

The positivity of it I think is important, too. It's hard to be a human on the Internet these days. Putting something like that out is really important. I say take a second in the morning and appreciate things. That’s the first line. Saying, I wish that if you were ever lonely you’d find somebody to talk to. That, to me, is something I wish for all my friends. There's so many people dealing with anxiety these days and it's something that is really personal and so easy to brush off… I hope we can continue to push our genre forward and make great music, but I also hope we find stuff to talk about that's important.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given about the music industry?

Natalie Hemby always says, “Don't be an asshole on the way up and don't be an asshole on the way down.” The other one is, I always tell myself that this is a mostly disappointing business, so we celebrate every step. It's really important when you do win to just take a second and enjoy it.

People ask me all the time, “How do I become a songwriter?” I always say, focus on getting better. No matter what you do, if you focus on getting better instead of getting somewhere, then you’ll really enjoy not only the process, but you'll be surprised at how far you end up getting.

Listen to Hurd's Platonic EP below.

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