Over the past five years, Michael Hardy (who records under his last name, HARDY) has swiftly become one of country music’s most in-demand writer-artists, crafting hit country songs with and for artists including Morgan Wallen (“Sand in My Boots,” “More Than My Hometown”), Blake Shelton (“God’s Country”), and notching his own No. 1 Country Airplay hit with “One Beer.”
But even as he released his debut 2020 album A Rock and was making a sharp impact on country music’s charts, HARDY was already hinting at his hard-rock proclivities on the track “Boots,” and laying the groundwork for his new album, the half-country, half-hard rock project The Mockingbird & The Crow, which Big Loud/Big Loud Rock released Jan. 20.
Early on during his live performances of “Boots,” his rendering steadily evolved into the sung-screamed vocal delivery that fans have come to know.
“There’s a trick to it. It’s not as loud or as harsh on your throat as you would think,” he tells Billboard, seated at Big Loud’s Nashville office. “I kept trying to get better at it, and I had a bit of a conversation with Caleb Shomo from Beartooth about it, and then Hunter Madison from Hunt the Dinosaur. When I wrote ‘Sold Out,’ I had just gotten off the road and was exhausted. My voice was nearly gone, and I thought, ‘I could do the scream really good. It’s better when your voice is raspy. I did, and it’s been a thing ever since.”
In the explosive aggro-rock of “Sold Out,” HARDY asserts that though his last name is “a whole lot bigger than I thought it’d be,” and gold plaques line his walls, he’s “still the same old redneck f–k, don’t give a d—n.” The song launches the rock half of The Mockingbird & The Crow and became HARDY’s first song to crown Billboard’s Hot Hard Rock Songs chart in 2022. He’s followed that with a pair of top 5 hits on the chart: “Jack” and the album’s title track.
“The Mockingbird & The Crow,” a five-minute song that evolves from country to grunge, bridges the two halves of the album.
“For a second, [the album title] was just going to be my full name, Michael Hardy. ‘Michael’ was going to be the country side and ‘Hardy’ the rock side, but I was never married to that idea,” HARDY says. “Then I was on a jon boat on the Cumberland River and I saw a crow flying into the sky with a mockingbird, just fighting each other. I thought that would be a cool song idea.”
The half-country, half-rock album represents both an outside-the-box moment for country music, but also comes at a time when several artists are incorporating a rock sensibility into their sound.
Jelly Roll is in the top 5 on the Hot Rock and Alternative Songs chart with “Son of a Sinner,” a song that recently topped the Country Airplay chart. Zach Bryan’s genre-fluid “Something in the Orange” has been a mainstay on both the country and rock charts. Even country legend Dolly Parton is currently working on a rock album with such artists as John Fogerty and Stevie Nicks, following her induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. But HARDY embodies the full country-to-rock range over the course of the album’s 17 songs.
The first half is chock-full of the kind of red-hot, redneck songs HARDY has become known for. “Screen” espouses trading phone screens for front porch screens. “Red,” his collaboration with Wallen, is no nod to Republican-state politics, but rather themed around the various ways the color is splashed across small towns — including courthouse bricks, rusted and dusted pickups, barn doors, worn Bibles and sports jerseys. He also adds to country music’s canon of murder ballads with his current top 15 Country Airplay hit, “wait in the truck,” featuring Lainey Wilson.
But this Mississippi native also grew up hearing his father play Pearl Jam and Lynyrd Skynyrd. By his early teens, he had added Nelly, Eminem and Kid Rock to the rotation.
“Every song from Eminem has some sort of twist or hook to it. But you can totally listen to those songs and think, ‘That could be a country hook.’ He’s so good at twisting words, his phrasing, and he’s a lyrical genius,” HARDY says. “Huge respect for him.”
HARDY made his first foray into the rock genre with his 2021 cover of Puddle of Mudd’s ’00s metal crossover hit “Blurry,” but also considered covering Stone Temple Pilots’ ’90s alternative staple “Big Empty.”
“‘Blurry’ just fit my brand more. We were testing the waters of rock radio to see if they would bite,” he says. “I’m thankful because rock is really intentional. You intentionally have to go there for it to be accepted and I’m thankful they have let me in that world a bit.”
Wry humor, self-awareness and a distorted vocal permeate “Radio Song,” featuring Jeremy McKinnon of A Day to Remember, which finds the pair playfully jeering country music tropes from moonlight kisses, trucks and conventionally attractive females, as the song itself twists from pop-country verse to an intense crescendo of a chorus.
“I was a huge Day to Remember fan, especially in high school,” HARDY recalls. “Their first three records, I listened to all the time. Jeremy and I started talking on Instagram. After ‘Sold Out’ came out, I started getting some attention from some of the rock guys. I’ve reached out to people, saying, ‘I’m a huge fan.’ I have no shame in telling people I grew up listening to that I’m a huge fan. Chris Fronzak in Atilla, he and I chat quite a bit. Even on the hip-hop side, Arizona Zervas who had the ‘Roxanne’ song, Yung Gravy, just all kinds of people.”
On its surface, “Jack” sounds like another party soundtrack, but one listen reveals a deeper purpose.
“My mom dealt with alcoholism — not herself, but people in her family growing up,” HARDY says. “I’ve always been conscious of that, and making sure that it’s never become a problem. It’s always been present, the grip that alcohol can have on you. I wanted to write a song about how it can tear people away from people. It’s paying homage to my mom and others that have had to put up with alcoholics and stuff like that.”
Though “Here Lies Country Music” is a song he calls “the funeral for country music on this record — if you don’t like the other stuff, start the record over from there,” his lyrics celebrating rural living and small-town pride reverberate throughout the whole of the album.
“I have to write a country lyric. It’s the only thing I know how to do,” he says. “Yes, it’s a half country, half-rock record, but the rock stuff is still my take on how I would like to experiment with country music. When you dig into the lyrics on the rock half of the album, I would argue that some of them are more country than the country side. On ‘Kill Shit ‘Til I Die,’ it’s talking about learning to hunt and clean your own deer that you killed. Even my rock stuff is a spin on country music.”
Looking ahead, the reigning ACM Awards songwriter of the year anticipates returning his focus to writing songs for other artists. “I love when a project is done and my brain switches back over [to writing for others]. I will always love getting cuts with other people, so I’m excited to get back in the room and do that. I was writing with Bailey Zimmerman the other day and I was like, ‘Man you just got your first No. 1′ — and I made that joke about BMI and mailbox money, and he said he didn’t write the song. I was like, ‘Dang, really?’ I think that’s cool that some of these younger kids are cutting outside songs. That’s, like, old-school Nashville stuff.”
HARDY also hopes to someday add writing credits for rock artists to his resume.
“I haven’t pitched any songs yet, but I’ve talked about it with a lot of people,” he says. “It would be cool to write rock songs for other people. I would add that to my list of things I want to do.”