By: Lauren Tingle
Kelsea Ballerini just scored her second #1 with “Dibs.” Joey and Rory have the top-selling country album in the nation with Hymns That Are Important to Us. Tim McGraw’s “Humble and Kind” is gaining in spins.
And Ryan Hurd wouldn’t have it any other way. He is genuinely happy with his time in country music, and it shows. He was grinning from ear to ear when we met for coffee at Nashville’s upgraded Edgehill Cafe.
When I asked him what country music needs right now, he said it’s fine. “I think it’s doing great,” he said. “There will always be stuff that’s for everybody and stuff that’s not. We’re in a really good spot right now and not enough people say that. It needs more artists that are unabashedly themselves.”
His music is a country mix of alternative rock and blue-eyed soul. Onstage, he rocks like Anthony Kiedis and Eddie Vedder, but he has the potential to be country’s George Harrison.
There are many things I would change about my format. But if I could change one thing right now, it would be to get his Panorama EP (that’s currently blasting in my co-workers’ offices) on the airwaves. He’s proven he can write ear candy by co-writing Rascal Flatts’ “Payback,” The Swon Brothers’ “Later On” and the Grammy-nominated Blake Shelton and Ashley Monroe duet, “Lonely Tonight.”
Is it true you could be in grad school right now?
Hopefully I would have been out by now. But yeah, I went to school and got a degree in sociology and economics. But I couldn’t pull the trigger. I worked for my friend in Alabama who owned a biodiesel company for eight months and wondered what I was going to do. I eventually came back and started writing songs with Aaron Eshuis, Joey Hyde and Matt McGinn. The short story is we all got publishing deals at the same time with different companies and started a monthly songwriter round in Hillsboro Village at Belcourt Taps and Tapas. That grew and grew. Then we started getting cuts. We’ve all had songs on the radio at this point and ended up here now. I love being in Nashville. I don’t want to be anywhere else. This is where my friends are, where I feel most inspired and where I feel most at home.
What was your “writing on the wall” that music was what you needed to be doing?
I think about that time a lot. I just wanted to try it. I didn’t do any music in college. I think the most important part about doing music in Nashville is learning how to be resourceful. Aaron was doing well in production. He got internships at studios and we would go in after everyone was done recording. We would have to turn all the gear in back where it was. We paid people in pizza and beer to make demos and started meeting publishers. They’d say, “That’s cool.” Then we’d go write songs for another six months, do another demo session, turn in songs and it was better. After the third or fourth time we did that, eventually we started getting attention and signing deals. It was a really cool time. I miss that a lot, too. If you know what actually goes on to get hit songs or get on the radio, you probably wouldn’t do it. But I’m really proud of the way we did it. I think a lot of people focus on getting somewhere and not getting better. The four of us really focused on getting better every day at writing songs. They’re the guys I write the most songs with – Joey Hyde, Matt McGinn and Aaron Eshuis.
Panorama is a killer introduction for folks who are new to your music.
I just wanted to make a record that was kind of the broad stroke of what I do as a writer. I made it for me. And I know the next thing I do is not going to be the same. I’m proud that Aaron, who I grew up with, made the record for me. Every song is a little bit different and everyone has a different favorite. It means that it speaks to somebody, which is the only thing you can really ask for in music — that somebody connects with each part of it.
Are there aspects of the human condition that you either know best or would like to explore more?
With my music? I think that I covered a lot of ground on this first shot. “Panorama” talks about the question of why we’re even here. I think it’s to love somebody. And then, “Good As You Think I Am” talks about wanting to be better for somebody who loves you. “I’ll Be the Moon” talks about wanting something that you can’t have. “Mississippi to Me” is a really interesting way of being broken up with and “Drunk People” is just fun. As far as the human condition goes, it’s all of those things. It’s one-half introspective and the other half just living. I think the next thing we’re doing is ginoing to be a lot more of just living and more music that translates live because we’re on the road so much this year. That’s kind of where my head’s at right now. But I’ll never stop writing songs I think can connect in country music and things I’m exploring emotionally. But that’s a question I’ve never ever been asked before.
I heard you nearly wrecked your car when you first heard a song you wrote on the radio.
I wrote “Payback” with Neil Mason and Aaron Eshius. Neil’s one of my most supportive friends in town. The Cadillac 3 have been so good to me. Yeah, I was on Wedgwood and I almost hit the telephone pole at the Tiger-Mart. I heard the guitar come in, and it just floored me. I pulled into the gas station and lost it. I’m sure I looked hilarious, but that is something you always dream of happening. You never think it will until it does. Getting on the radio is the most romantic idea in music. There’s no goal after that. Nobody dreams about having platinum records or gold records. They dream about hearing their song on the radio. But yeah, I almost did crash my car.
I was going to ask you more about your stage presence. You bring bring a great alternative rock presence and I appreciate it.
We’re getting there though. We released Panorama and then I did a release show and it sold out. I toured with Brett Eldredge and Thomas Rhett on the CMT On Tour. We played all those after parties. Some nights, there would be zero people and some nights there would be 200. But it was a crash course in entertaining a crowd. You come off that exhausted but bulletproof. I feel like you can’t really throw a show at me that I’m not prepared for. I’m proud to be associated with CMT. They were the first champions of my music in a big way. That legitimized me as an artist. It made me solid as a performer, and gave me the opportunity to go earn it. I’m glad I had that opportunity to dive head first and play some great shows. I think that comes back to if you’re worried about getting somewhere and not worried about not getting good, then you’re worried about the wrong thing.
Who are some of your favorite front men?
Kenny Chesney. He’s unbelievable. Thomas Rhett. He’s the best show in country music right now. There’s nothing even close. But my inspiration are acts like Jeff Tweedy and Jimmy Eat World — great bands that people love. I don’t play a guitar because I feel like my job is to entertain and connect with these people with my eyes and my voice. I like being right up front of the stage and leaning out.
Every time I see you, you always seem like the happiest guy in the room.
That is very nice to hear.
It’s contagious. What is your secret to overall positivity?
I don’t know. I think I could give you so many answers. I wake up every day and I work with my very best friends in the whole world. That is one of the greatest gifts I have in life. Other than that, I focused the last year on living honestly with people whether or not that means making everybody happy. That’s been a real struggle for me is being the person I want to be and not the person everybody else expects me to be. When you say, “You seem like the happiest guy.” That wasn’t always the case. I think that once you make a conscious effort to live honestly, you sort of let the chips fall where they do and enjoy yourself.
Who do you think we’ll be listening to in 30 years?
We’ll be listening to Chris Stapleton, Sam Hunt, Maren Morris, Eric Church and Kacey Musgraves — artists who have created their own space in the marketplace. I feel like we woke up the day after the CMAs and everything had flipped on its head with Chris. This is the best part about Nashville right now – the artists who people are responding to are the ones that have created their own space in the market and they didn’t get into anybody’s lane. That’s what country music is supposed to be. It’s not supposed to sound like anything else, it’s supposed to sound like Nashville right now. I love country music. I love having my little piece of history of it. Lyrically we’re bulletproof.
Definitely go see Ryan play at Tuesday night’s Whiskey Jam at the Basement East. It might be the last time Nashville gets him live before he completely blows up. If you miss him, he’s on tour for the rest of the year and booked to play all the major country festivals including Arizona’s Country Thunder music festival on April 7 and the Tortuga Music Festival April 15-17.