Budding Country Stars Cultivate Close Relationship—Onstage and Off
Morgan Wallen isn’t sure why country music fans identify so much with the down-home themes he writes and sings about, but he sure is thankful that they do.
Actually, he does have a theory as to why so many people are drawn to songs about “this Southern small-town way of living,” as he calls it. Maybe they can relate because of their own experiences, or maybe they see it as a simpler, hassle-free alternative to the complications of modern life. “They either have lived it or are intrigued by it,” says Wallen, one of Nashville’s newest stars. “It’s all I’ve ever known, so it seems natural to me. I’m just glad I didn’t have to be someone I wasn’t.”
Wallen and his good friend and touring partner, the artist and songwriter known as Hardy (his full name is Michael Hardy), are part of a wave of young songwriters and performers who enthusiastically embrace and celebrate their backwoods background. Wallen’s first big hit, the infectious and platinum-certified “Up Down,” combined fishing and drinking metaphors while “The Way I Talk” called attention to his natural drawl. His recent summer smash single, “Whiskey Glasses,” tells a more universal story of turning to the bottle to cope with heartache.
Both Wallen and Hardy are fairly late bloomers when it comes to country. Both got their musical start as kids in church—in Tennessee for Wallen and Mississippi for Hardy —and each was heavily influenced by his father’s record collection. Image-wise, neither has the look of a conventional country music star. With his trucker’s caps, oversized eyeglasses, and loose-fitting shirts, Hardy is a comfortably dressed hipster, while Wallen favors flannel shirts with the sleeves cut off and wears a mustache and mullet like his dad did 30 years ago.
The two write songs together and play shows together, and both are on the same label, Big Loud Records. They met when Wallen was on tour opening for Florida Georgia Line, and Hardy was traveling on the bus, too, to write songs with them. They quickly became friends. “It was very organic; we just hit it off,” says Hardy. “Morgan’s a good guy. He’s a hard worker and incredibly talented. We could have fun anywhere.”
In a separate interview, Wallen bounced the compliments right back: “He is one of my best friends in the business and also in the world. It seems like God has put us together. He’s one of the most talented people I’ve ever met, and a lot of other people would say the same thing.”
When not on the road or in the studio, they will link up on a golf course from time to time, but both have a big passion for fishing. “He likes the rivers, but I mostly fish in the lake,” says Wallen. “I prefer going early in the morning, in that peaceful time when it’s still a little cool out, and I can see the sun rise. It helps me to clear my head.”
Hardy says, “When I have some time off, catching a fish is pretty much the first thing on the list.” The Harpeth River in the southern part of Nashville is not far from his home, and it reminds him a bit of the Chunky River back home in east-central Mississippi. “It’s a good spot. It’s not that heavily fished, so it’s fairly easy to catch a big bass or two. I caught a six-pounder last summer.” If he wants to take things even easier, he will set up a trotline or limb line for catfish. “I love going somewhere, drinking some beers, and sitting out there all day long,” he says.
Before becoming concert attractions themselves, Wallen and Hardy each had previous success writing songs for others. Wallen scored his first number-one hit as a co-writer of Jason Aldean’s “You Make It Easy.” Besides collaborating on “Up Down,” Hardy was a co-writer on the millions-selling “Simple” by Florida Georgia Line. He introduced himself as an artist last fall with the debut single “Rednecker.” Over a swampy, hard-edged groove, Hardy reels off a laundry list of reasons why he’s more country than you are. (“My town’s smaller than your town / And I got a bigger buck and bass on my wall… .”)
It’s tongue-in-cheek but rooted in fact. His father owned a chicken farm in Spring Creek, Mississippi (just outside Philadelphia), where at any given time nearly a quarter of a million chicks were being raised as food. The work was demanding and unpleasant. “I was probably eight years old when I started working there. I hated it at the time, but looking back, I wouldn’t trade it for anything because it taught me how to work.”
As a teen-ager, Hardy played drums at Sandtown Methodist Church, and his father introduced him to “all kinds of rock music,” from Led Zeppelin to Pearl Jam, as well as “cool songwriters” like John Prine and Jim Croce. He also remembers hearing Eminem and Kid Rock on the radio, so this may be where his rap and hip-hop influences come from. When he did start listening to country music, it was Brad Paisley that caught his ear, not necessarily for his twanging guitar wizardry but for his clever wordplay—something that Hardy is now known for, too.
His skills as a lyricist are something that surprised him a bit. “I don’t know where it came from,” Hardy says. “I was always really good at writing when we had to write something in English class—not like essays, but more like creative writing. This is why I think everybody has a gift.”
While Hardy was enduring work on the chicken farm, Wallen was playing sports. He had narrowed his focus to baseball by the time his family moved from tiny Sneedville, Tennessee, to the much larger Knoxville. The standout pitcher and shortstop figured he would go on to play in college and maybe even professionally until he tore a ligament in his throwing arm. A career in music happened instead. “When I had that injury and had to have surgery, that’s when my dad gave me a guitar, and I went and bought a chord chart from Wal-Mart,” Wallen remembers.
Even though Nashville was just 180 miles away, Wallen had never even been there. “But when I started writing songs, I found that I could express myself better through country music.” His first brush with an audience was years earlier, at Mulberry Baptist Church, where his father was pastor. “My mom threw me up on stage when I was three years old. She says she knew I had a gift,” he says.
His father, like Hardy’s, was a classic rock fan, so he was exposed early to groups such as AC/DC, Def Leppard, and the Eagles. On the country side, Wallen calls the late Keith Whitley his “favorite old school singer” and cites Eric Church as his gateway into modern country.
Hardy notes that many of their colleagues, including Tyler Hubbard and Brian Kelly of Florida Georgia Line, also got their first taste of performing in church. “We were all raised right, I guess. We have that foundation in us. I think that’s really cool. It’s also very cool that churches give people a place to play music,” says Hardy.
No matter where the future takes them, or how successful they become, both young men say they’ll never stray too far from their small-town roots. “I have been super blessed,” says Wallen. “We’ve played to a lot of empty rooms over the years, but making all these connections with people through my music has been amazing. I just hope to take it day by day and try not to screw it up.”