Though the second volume of his collaborative, mixtape-inspired “Hixtape” series is three-and-a-half months into its weekly, track-by-track release cycle of 33 artists on 14 tracks, HARDY — the multi-hyphenate singer-songwriter-producer-curator behind it — is already, when asked by CMT, thinking about the next creative level of excellence he’d like to reach in the series’ creative process.
“I want a pop star or hip-hop artist on it next. The song has to be right, but that’s what I want. It doesn’t matter who, but that’s what I’m thinking,” he says. Pop-to-country crossovers typically err in the vein of a polite co-sign bearing a tongue-in-cheek nod to the awkwardness of the crossover. However, if a pop or rap star were to work with HARDY, that’s not likely.
“Linkin Park’s [2000-released] Hybrid Theory is, front to back, one of the best albums ever,” he says when pressed to name a few essential pieces of his artistic inspirations. “It was released when I was nine years old,” says the 31-year-old artist. “I didn’t even understand what was being said lyrically, but rock music that was — though I didn’t realize it then — in the pop world,” spoke to me.
The “Hixtape” concept is proof of two things. Foremost, HARDY may be the most collaborated with songwriter and producer in Nashville. Moreover, it also offers — from everyone from Dierks Bentley and Marty Stuart to Ashland Craft, Lainey Wilson, and Breland being featured — a sense of the dynamic breadth, depth, and scope of styles and sounds Music City has to offer the country, Americana, and pop environments. When and where they best meet, at present — more often than not — impressively bears something of HARDY’s musical imprint.
In this conversation with CMT, discussing the creative inspiration behind the series, working on it amid quarantine and touring in support of Jason Aldean, plus how vital a mixtape series can be to the past, present, and future of country music, are discussed.
Marcus K. Dowling, CMT: You do so much so well these days. Why did a mixtape need to be added to your already seemingly voluminous workload?
HARDY: I care a lot about “Hixtape” [as a concept]. Unlike my [solo-driven, artist] albums, this is more my baby instead of my passion. If I’m not going to sing on every song, I want to be involved in selecting the songs, their production, everything. I want to have some level of responsibility in every track being as great as it can be.
CMT: So, to me, “Hixtape” reminds me a ton of the early album output from [hip-hop DJ, producer, and tastemaker] DJ Khaled in that he, like you, have created these projects where a superstar set of artists — many at the same, near-breakout status — create these mega-tracks that have a very instantaneous sort of appeal. Is there truth to this belief? If yes, why?
HARDY: What I’m doing is very similar to that. You nailed it! I’ll try to find one or two really big artists — Keith Urban, Dierks Bentley, or someone — and a lot of definitely more emerging country artists. It’s cool because, ideally, this helps move [those emerging] artists along a little bit [in their career]. But, ultimately, I wanted to make these Hixtapes for country music fans because, outside of people having artists for features on their records, nobody is creating experiences for fans where they can hear something they’ve never heard before.
CMT: So, you’re clearly a very busy songwriter. How does the process go insofar as choosing what becomes material that ends up on the “Hixtape?” Moreover, how has that process evolved with time?
HARDY: Foremost, the process of pulling together a “Hixtape” is both really hard and really fun. When writing songs, we’ll come across a great lifestyle or party song that we’ll ship around town — often first to Blake Shelton because we’ve had some great success working together — and if nobody picks up on it, I’ll suggest it for “Hixtape.” And yes, sometimes now, I’ll walk into a writing room and directly say, “Hey I need a few ’Hixtape’ songs.” What’s fascinating is that some of these songs are four or five years old, some are brand new, it’s all different. So at this point, I just intuitively know by my gut feeling if something is for my solo projects or if something is for a “Hixtape.”
CMT: As far as the collaborations themselves, on the latest “Hixtape,” which ones stand out to you as highlighting either artists that people would be surprised could create compelling material together, or in your head, artists you hoped — and succeeded at — achieving the performance you perceived they could?
HARDY: Number one, as soon as you ask that question, the duo that comes to mind are Ashland Craft and Brothers Osborne. People may not imagine that they’d work well together, but their energy, together, is perfect. Brothers Osborne have a trippy, progressive vibe, and Ashland has a [laid-back, folky] thing, and it just works. Another one was David Lee Murphy, ERNEST, and Ben Burgess. Burgess, Ernest, and I are already good buddies and pretty chill guys. David Lee brings similar but different energy that mixed well, too.
CMT: As far as sourcing the collaborations, how does that happen? I have a theory that chicken fingers in green rooms at festivals are the great unifier — but I could be wrong. What’s the most entertaining way that you go about pulling together artists for some of these tracks?
HARDY: Ha! Chicken fingers in green rooms…you’re actually not wrong! For me, a lot of what “Hixtape” is built upon comes from the road and our touring schedules. I’ll make a connection with an artist when we’re playing at a big festival, and — yeah, this’ll sound silly — but say I get drunk with someone and had a great time. That creates a great memory, I get their phone number, and two months later, I text them and ask them to be on a “Hixtape” track. Honestly, that’s how a lot of these songs have come together.
CMT: There’s another belief I have that someone like Kris Kristofferson could’ve easily accomplished this mixtape-style concept in the 1970s, but he somehow didn’t, and we’re all less well-off because of it. Your thoughts about that?
HARDY: Yeah, man! Totally! Even when we were pulling together the first “Hixtape,” it blew our minds that nobody had ever done this before. Nashville’s a small, tight-knit town and community where everyone knows each other — no matter if you’ve just signed a record deal or you’ve been here for 20 years. I imagine that the closest thing to “Hixtape” was when The Highwaymen came together, but even that could’ve or should’ve happened before it did.
CMT: Please break down the struggles that went into releasing this project as country music was amid quarantine and aggressively re-emerging as a touring music industry leader immediately after the first wave of COVID. I’d imagine that the writing and collaborating over Zoom weren’t too bad, but other parts were fairly difficult. How’d it all break down?
HARDY: Writing, doing vocals, and collaborating over the internet and Zoom actually isn’t that bad. [For instance], if someone has their own production and recording rig, there’s so much that someone can do by themselves. The hardest thing — as always — is scheduling the time with a bunch of busy artists to get it done. That was like herding cats! A lot of the second “Hixtape” was pulled together over the summer, too. For the in-person things I wanted to accomplish, that was tough to do over the summer because it’s a time when nobody is here in Nashville because everyone — especially this year — was playing festivals, tours, and county fairs. And, when people are in town after doing all of that work, they’re exhausted. So that means they’re typically too tired to record vocals. However, thankfully, people showed up for me and completed the work on this project.
CMT: So, at the end of the day, if I were to ask, at present, what the best of all possible “Hixtape” collaborations would be — and why — what’s your current answer?
HARDY: If somebody like Post Malone could exist or clash perfectly on the same song with Willie Nelson, that would be my dream “Hixtape” collaboration. Two completely different artists doing their own thing and owning their lanes with one perfect song would be the coolest thing in the world.