“This has never been done before,” HARDY says over a bumpy phone call, somewhere between the coast of Georgia and Tennessee. The chart-topping country singer is referring to the uncharted intersection of country and hardcore music, where he has carved out a lucrative home for himself. “Or,” he adds, “at least, not to this extreme.”
HARDY has a syrupy, Mississippi drawl that mulls over each vowel. It’s the same buttery twang that melts his lyrics into anthemic choruses. “I’m just happy to be one of the people that’s mixing two genres that pretty much could not be further apart.” The wind whips through the cracked windows of his truck as he drives back to his home in Nashville after picking up a boat in Georgia. Much of HARDY’s life unfolds on the road, whether it’s penning a 17-track album on his tour bus or taking an interview from the car.
Michael Hardy, the self-proclaimed “redneck” from Mississippi who records under his last name HARDY, is the newest ambassador of the provocative crossover between two seemingly contradicting camps: trailer-park honky-tonk and head-thrashing metal.
This isn’t the first time we’ve seen country music borrow from the harder-edged attitude of rock ’n’ roll. Bands like Creedence Clearwater Revival, Lynyrd Skynyrd, ZZ Top, and Eagles brought mainstream cachet to the country-rock subgenre in the ’60s and early ’70s. However, country has since continued to evolve in sound from the days of hillbilly boogie, bluegrass, and rockabilly. Its contemporary comfort zone hardly pushes beyond the boundaries of pop or alternative rock. Until HARDY came along, nü metal and country were still relative strangers.
Growing up in the 8,000-person town of Philadelphia, Mississippi, HARDY was one of a small group of kids who discovered and chased the metal scene. “Probably 20 kids that I knew, we all would occasionally go to Jackson, Mississippi and see a metal show.” HARDY explains. “I’m 32, so I developed my musical taste before the internet really took off.” MTV and whatever played on the local radio were his only media wellspring for music, setting narrow limits on the vast world of sounds. But new sounds did trickle in once in a while. HARDY became obsessed with anything nü metal: Puddle of Mudd, System of a Down, and Linkin Park were his favorites. As a teenager, his taste refined, finding metalcore bands like August Burns Red and A Day to Remember.
Philadelphia was the kind of Southern town that had more churches than pharmacies, and where nothing was open past 9 o’clock. There were two high schools, and the Williams Brothers Store had been the town’s general store since 1907. “Mississippi is super rich in terms of music,” HARDY says. “There were always a handful of bands that played country or a little bit rock. Mostly cover bands. There was a teeny tiny metal scene,” he says, laughing. “A lot of people played music, a surprising amount for a town that small.”
At its core, country is rooted in storytelling: unambiguous narratives with memorable, stripped-back hooks. The traditions of country music are evident in both its sound and culture. The genre remains the de facto home of the political right, with lyrics that routinely espouse conservative Christian views about family, God, and the nation. “I think that country is definitely playing catch up in times,” HARDY says. “It’s just a little bit slower in time.”
Meanwhile, rock has mutated into hundreds of harder offshoots, like metal, hardcore, and screamo, as new sounds grew from the industrial hustle of urban life. Politically, aesthetically, sonically, and geographically, the two genres are at odds. But with HARDY’s 2023 conceptual album, the mockingbird & THE CROW — which wrestles both genres into a cohesive, albeit risk-taking project — he’s bringing metalheads and country fans into the same mosh pit.
Over the past five years, HARDY has solidified his place as one of Nashville’s most prolific country songwriters. His unorthodox rise to fame began behind the stage, penning songs for country big-names like Morgan Wallen, Blake Shelton, Florida Georgia Line, and others. HARDY’s songwriting partnership with Florida Georgia Line and the charting success of Wallen’s No. 1 hit “Up Down” led to Big Loud Records signing him in 2018.
HARDY’s 2020 album, A ROCK, was the artist’s first step away from the collaboration-heavy work of his past. Songs like “ONE BEER” and “GIVE HEAVEN SOME HELL” were evidence of his writing craftsmanship beyond radio ear-candy, expressing the powerful stories of more heavy-hitting issues. The album was his audition to the industry, one that he nailed. A ROCK dominated the country music charts, even with the harder riffs and explosive hooks. And songs like “BOOTS” and “WHERE YA AT” were laying the groundwork for his next chapter. “I really dipped my toes in the waters of rock ’n’ roll, but with country lyrics. That opened a kind of a chamber in my brain,” HARDY says. “I felt like I was really becoming myself sonically with those few songs that leaned a little more rock.”
Enter the mockingbird & THE CROW: a conceptual album that features the silvery, lean country tunes of a Nashville pro with an unexpected B-side. The album stars several cowboy anthems, a burning Wallen-featured “red” with vivid small-town imagery, “wait in the truck” with Lainey Wilson, a brooding murder ballad about domestic abuse and vigilante justice, and “screen,” which playfully compares phone screen time to porch screens.
Exactly halfway through the record, and two minutes into the epic title track, comes the junction between country territory and the frontier of something angrier. With a moody key shift (from C-major to an ominous C-minor), HARDY sings out: “Do this, do that/That shirt, this hat/Don’t forget to smile/Kiss the ring once in a while/Don’t say, those words/Put down your finger/Throw in a slow love song or two/Well fuck that, and fuck you.”
By the last line, HARDY is screaming: the crunchy, thrashing screams symbolic of the metal sound, and a direct flipping-of-the-bird message to country itself. What follows are the red-hot, adrenaline-fueled rock bangers of “SOLD OUT,” “I AIN’T IN THE COUNTRY NO MORE,” and “RADIO SONG.” The latter features Jeremy McKinnon, his childhood favorite metalcore band A Day to Remember’s frontman. With sinister chords, hardcore riffs, and very un-country titles like “KILL SH!T TILL I DIE,” the grunge-y back half of the album is a testament to HARDY’s updating and expansion of the country sound.
The concept of the album happened organically, having written a handful of country and rock songs in the weeks leading up to a meeting with his record label. With four songs of each, he began writing intentionally. The end product had a clear message, which laid in the divide between genres. “I saw this crow flying through the sky one day, and there was a mockingbird flying right behind it, pecking at it and bothering it. I was like, ‘Damn, this perfectly describes the record,’” HARDY says. The track was a theoretical and tangible tie-up for the record, existing as the functioning ampersand to the bifurcated album.
the mockingbird & THE CROW hit No. 1 on the Top Country Albums chart, signaling a growing movement of country’s potential and transition to the harder edge of rock. And perhaps most shocking of all, the second, harder-edged half of the album has generated more collective streams than the first, with standout hits like “JACK,” “TRUCK BED,” and “SOLD OUT” bringing in over 100 million streams. In January, HARDY’s “SOLD OUT” was the theme song for the WWE Royal Rumble, where he performed the song. Afterward, the son of wrestler Dusty Rhodes, Dustin Rhodes, tweeted: “That shit ain’t country. Sorry, not sorry.” HARDY doesn’t mind.
HARDY’s laid-back attitude is what allows him to operate in a contentious zone. “I see a few grandma Karens talking about the middle finger or, ‘That’s not appropriate’ or whatever. If there’s something you don’t like, you don’t like it,” HARDY says with a chuckle. “It’s more of the conservative country fans that have an opinion about my harder stuff, but it really doesn’t bother me. There’s plenty of people that dig it.”