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    Sunday, March 26, 2023

    How Hardy became Nashville’s nü-metal king

    Los Angeles — Michael Hardy wanders into the bar at the Troubadour on a recent morning — last night was a long one, so he’s wearing mirrored shades beneath his camo-print trucker hat — and catches sight of some heroic-looking scuzzbuckets on the wall.

    “What’s that say?” he asks, pointing a skull-ringed finger toward a framed flier advertising a Guns N’ Roses gig at the Troubadour in the mid-1980s after one (or perhaps several) of the band’s members just got out of rehab.

    “‘Fresh from detox,’” Hardy reads aloud. “God, that’s (expletive) awesome.”

    In a few hours, this 32-year-old singer with a dozen No. 1 hits under his belt will take the same West Hollywood stage that once hosted GNR, then zip up Doheny Drive to play a second sold-out show at the Roxy. Hardy, who performs under his last name, didn’t ascend through the Sunset Strip’s storied hard-rock scene. His success has come on the country charts with songs he wrote for other acts like Blake Shelton’s “God’s Country,” Florida Georgia Line’s “Simple” and a string of tunes by his good buddy Morgan Wallen that includes “More Than My Hometown” and “Sand in My Boots.” In 2020 he scored his first No. 1 as an artist with “One Beer,” a slyly touching account of a couple’s quick trip from shared Bud Lights to a shared baby.

    “Hardy has a way of taking something that sounds familiar but adding a flavor that only he can bring,” Wallen tells the L.A. Times. “His instincts are just almost perfect. I don’t know anyone touching him when it comes to those lyrical qualities.”

    Yet with his new album, “The Mockingbird & the Crow,” Hardy is leaning into — way into — the rock music he says he loved before he ever thought about writing for Nashville. Released in January, the 17-track LP is split into halves: eight polished country tunes and eight jock-jammy aggro-rock tunes, the two sides connected by a title cut that gradually shifts from plaintive strums to fuzzed-out riffs.

    The doubleheader in L.A. is meant to replicate the album’s “duality,” as Hardy puts it, with a tidy Troubadour set followed by a much rowdier one at the Roxy where he’ll end up stage-diving into a crowd of contest winners and industry types as celebs such as Machine Gun Kelly and Yung Gravy cheer him on.

    “Hardy’s live show feels like a WWE wrestling match,” says Lainey Wilson, who duets with him on “Wait in the Truck,” a Top 5 country hit found on “Mockingbird” that’s been streamed more than 70 million times on Spotify and YouTube. Seth England, chief executive of Hardy and Wallen’s label, Big Loud Records, describes the singer’s onstage presence — at one point at the Roxy, he shotguns a beer, then sprays it on the front row — in a slightly different way: “It’s like the redneck System of a Down.”

    So far, Hardy’s foray into rock is paying off. “The Mockingbird & the Crow” debuted at No. 1 on Billboard’s country albums chart — the only LP other than Wallen’s blockbuster “Dangerous” to reach the peak since July — while “Jack,” a moody single narrated from the perspective of a bottle of whiskey, made it into the Top 10 at active rock radio behind tracks by Metallica and Five Finger Death Punch.

    For Hardy, the bruising guitars and screamy-growly vocals are a way to differentiate his stuff from Wallen’s slicker, hip-hop-inflected country music even as he maintains the momentum their long bromance has provided. (Wallen didn’t know when they met that Hardy was a metalhead, he says, though “I kind of had that feeling just off his vibe.”) Hardy co-wrote several tracks on Wallen’s upcoming “One Thing at a Time” album, and he’ll tour this summer as one of Wallen’s opening acts.

    But the rock sounds also point to Hardy’s upbringing in small-town Mississippi, where his dad introduced him to Led Zeppelin and Pearl Jam before he discovered Puddle of Mudd and Linkin Park and P.O.D. for himself on MTV. “Country music was corny to me,” he says. “You couldn’t bang your head to it.” Asked whether he identified with the adolescent-male rage coursing through turn-of-the-millennium nü-metal, Hardy scoffs.

    “Nah, dude. I didn’t even understand half the lyrics. I was going to church on Sunday and going to Little League baseball practice, then getting home and putting my headphones on and listening to ‘Break your (expletive) face tonight!’” he says, quoting Limp Bizkit’s era-defining “Break Stuff.” “I just liked it because it made me feel good.”

    A naturally gifted writer who excelled in English class, Hardy began to change his mind about country music thanks to the deeply crafty tunesmithing of Brad Paisley — “You see Post Malone do ‘I’m Gonna Miss Her’ on YouTube?” he asks excitedly — and Eric Church, who was “the first country artist I heard that appealed to good ol’ boys who grew up like I did, deer hunting and fishing and all that stuff.”

    After high school, he studied songwriting at Middle Tennessee State University, then moved to Nashville, where his older sister was trying to start a career as a singer and where he fell in socially with the crew around Florida Georgia Line. His big break came at the expense of hers, he says now. “This was right as the whole bro-country thing was blowing up, and so there was just no room anymore for a soulful white girl,” he says. “That was done.”

    Defined by Hardy and Wallen’s producer Joey Moi as “active rock with a banjo on it,” bro-country dominated Nashville for much of the 2010s through the likes of FGL, Luke Bryan and Jason Aldean. And though he was well aware of its creative limitations, Hardy quickly mastered the form. “Songwriters know when they’re writing a douchey song that’s gonna be a hit,” he says, citing a couple of his own in Chris Lane’s “I Don’t Know About You” and Cole Swindell’s “Single Saturday Night.”

    Adds Moi: “‘Guy and girl in a truck go down a gravel road and have an alcohol-flavored kiss under the stars’ — we’re all guilty of cutting a bunch of those. But we all kind of knew that was the gag.”

    Indeed, there’s a shrewd self-awareness to Hardy’s own music that lifts it to a kind of meta-bro level, where you can’t quite tell if a given lyric — “There ain’t no ‘I’ in country / But there’s a ‘Y-O-U’,” for instance — is brilliant or stupid.

    “That’s kind of my thing,” he says with a grin.

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