Muse never really delved into the world of deer blinds and cleaning kills. But if they did, it would probably sound like “Kill Shit Till I Die.”
Not that Matt Bellamy and company are the only rockers you’ll hear hints of through Hardy’s the mockingbird & THE CROW. You’ll get nods to everyone from Green Day to Sublime to P.O.D. and Limp Bizkit. But instead of lyrics about anarchy, insanity, and angst, HARDY is screaming about dead bucks on his Instagram.
Such is the auditory adventure that is the mockingbird and THE CROW, where HARDY takes his love of country music staples like hunting, fishing, and the outdoors and gives it a hard rock edge. “I grew up hunting and fishing,” he says over the phone from Nashville, after finishing a morning writing songs with Luke Bryan. “But I didn’t listen to country. I’m rock and roll at my core. I don’t hate myself. I’m not depressed. And all I know how to do is a country lyric.”
He has, over his decade songwriting in Nashville, done a country lyric as well as anyone. He’s penned massive hits for everyone from Blake Shelton to Florida Georgia Line. And though he’s released some artist projects before, mockingbird is his real introduction to the masses. And it’s unlike anything the music world has ever seen.
Catching bass and cutting grass
Michael Hardy was raised in Philadelphia, Mississippi, somewhere in the endless sea of pine trees and magnolias north of I-20 between Meridian and Jackson. Look it up on Google maps, and you’ll have to click three times before you see a city name you recognize.
Like most boys from small rural towns, the outdoors was his childhood playground. “Since I was a little kid, I was obsessed with being out in the woods,” he says. “I grew up squirrel hunting with my dad and grandpa. Those were good times, learning how to clean a squirrel, how to pick the shot out as you’re eating it so you don’t chip your teeth.”
He became a sportsman at an early age thanks in large part to the deer camp his family owned in nearby Deer Creek. “There was like an eight- or nine-acre pond out there, and I grew up bass fishing. Just fell in love with it,” he says. “My dad instilled it in me, and I found a love for it myself.”
By age five, Hardy had gone with his dad on his first deer hunt. By seven, he’d killed his first buck. At 13, his grandfather gave him a left-handed bolt-action Browning 30.06, which he hasn’t put down for 20 years. “I’m a big fan of if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” he says lovingly of his trusty Browning. “I’m not big on owning a bunch of different hunting rifles. I’ve stuck with it, I love to hunt with it, and I’d love to hunt with it until I pass it down to my son or daughter.”
At 20, Hardy moved to Nashville, drawn there by the realization that people could actually make money making country music. He got a degree in songwriting, and was introduced to Florida Georgia Line’s Tyler Hubbard and Brian Kelley at a party. Nothing came of the meeting at the time, but a couple of years later Hubbard reached back out to Hardy and invited him to come on the road and write songs with the duo.
The rest, as they say, is musical history. He wrote FGL a string of hits, including “Simple” and “Talk You Out of It.” He also wrote their hit collaboration with Morgan Wallen “Up Down” and has become a regular songwriter for most of Nashville’s A-list.
The deer camp where HARDY fell in love with hunting would also inspire arguably the biggest hit he ever wrote. “I was in the deer stand one morning taking it all in, and thinking how important it is as a deer hunter to have land,” he continues. “(I thought) about the luxury of having your own land and how I wanna pass that on to my kid, and I swelled up with pride.”
He returned to Nashville and wrote “God’s Country,” which Blake Shelton recorded and turned into an instant country anthem. “Everybody has their own version of God’s country,” he says. “I think about how my family has owned this piece of property for 80 years and all the deer that’s been killed there. Every time I hear that song, it’s what I think about.”
Since HARDY now owns that family property, he hunts mostly In Mississippi, shooting deer and the occasional wild hog. The outdoors, and his life in it, has been integral to his success in songwriting. After all, beyond beer, trucks, and girls, there’s no staple subject in country music like hunting and fishing. “One of country’s most iconic lines is, ‘We can skin a buck, we can run a trotline, and a country boy can survive,’” he says. “Most people I know in country hunt or fish or both.”
the mockingbird & THE CROW
HARDY knows his “girl, truck, beer, buck” shtick plays great on country radio. But what works for Michael Hardy the songwriter isn’t necessarily what gets HARDY, the artist, excited. “I’m a rock and roll, heavy rock guy,” he says, “It’s who I am at my core. But I grew up in a small town, and that’s the only way I know how to write.”
And this is the speaker-cranking identity crisis Hardy invites us to with the mockingbird & THE CROW. The first eight tracks of the album are fairly standard country stuff, save for the vigilante-justice-fueled murder ballad “Stay in the Truck,” featuring Lainey Wilson, which brilliantly combines the male country music clichés of guns and trucks with the female country cliché of, whoops, he’s dead.
And just when you think you’re in for another half hour of neatly produced pop country, you get to the album’s title track. “I’m a mockingbird,” the hook on track nine begins. “Singing songs that sound like other songs you’ve heard…I’ve always been a mockingbird, but now I’m a mockingbird with a microphone.”
With that surprising little jolt of self-awareness, Hardy tells us this lovely red dirt road drive we’ve been on is about to take a hard right turn. He may as well have said, “Buckle up.” Halfway through the song, Hardy’s metal-edged CROW side starts to bubble. The mainstream country mockingbird checks him, saying “Don’t forget to smile, kiss the ring once in a while.”
But the chords get progressively darker and angrier, until the Crow finally lashes out with a primal “Well f*ck that and f*ck you!” that would make Fred Durst step back. “A lot of people think that’s me yelling at the industry,” HARDY says. “But it’s an internal conflict. Do I take the success and stick to the format? Or do I carve out my own lane.” He makes his decision by the end of the song, proclaiming, “I fly the line I choose to, brother, even if that makes me the Crow.”
The next eight and a half tracks are the kind of screaming rock and grinding metal that make you want to lift weights that are irrationally heavy. They still sound, as he says, “like other songs you’ve heard.” But you’ve never heard anything quite like it.
“JACK” is a screaming letter from a bottle of Jack Daniel’s to the adult child of an alcoholic, as it tries to recruit the next generation. It’s a vulnerable, semi-autobiographical track aimed at people who’ve dealt with family members with addition. “I have a family history of alcoholics, and (“JACK”) pays homage to those people who’ve had to put up with those people and how scary a situation that can be,” he says.
The song “30.06” comes in with a guitar riff that begs for lyrics of a surrender into insanity like Green Day’s “Brain Stew.” But rather than delving into depression, Hardy instead brags about coming home with a buck in the back of his truck.
The bass guitar and siren kicking off “I AIN’T IN THE COUNTRY NO MORE” tricks your rock fan brain into thinking you’re about to hear about a riot, a la Sublime’s “April 29, 1992.” But Hardy’s first line is about as country as it gets when he sings, “I packed my only guitar in a Chevy Silverado.”
“I grew up country, and I like rock and roll,” he says. “And it inspired me that people who used to have to listen to two different genres could get their fix. And they appreciate the lyrics about hunting and fishing.”
His internal struggle continues with “RADIO SONG,” where a cliché country chorus of obvious self-parody is interrupted by Hardy screaming, “THIS AIN’T NO RADIO SONG! F*CK!” “There’s a lot of me making fun of myself in a way,” he says. “There’s a lot of truth in the artist’s side, the frustration. I’m different enough that it doesn’t work on a radio format. But, ya know, like Sarah Bareilles, “I’m not gonna write you a love song.”
The album isn’t Pink Floyd calling out the music industry in “Have a Cigar.” He’s grateful for everything the Nashville machine has done for him. mockingbird is more showing people who he wants to be as an artist. “It’s really just me doing me,” he says. “I’ve been in the industry for 10 years, I love everything this industry and its people have put me on. I have no angst; it’s just me being me.”
The album hits its rock apex with the first few bars of “KILL SH!T TILL I DIE,” which aims to drive listeners into a frenzy, much like Muse’s “Hysteria.” Again, your ear expects Matt Bellamy to chime in with a soft falsetto descent into madness. Hardy makes you shake your head again when he begins “When I was a boy, my pop bought me a gun, said son this ain’t no toy, bout time you learned to hunt.” And then screams for three minutes about his love of deer hunting.
His identity crisis comes to a calming resolution with “THE REDNECK SONG,” which starts with a scratchy bluegrass recording about “Bisquick on the cast iron, dip spit on my collar.” It’s a big, arena-rock anthem that tells us despite all the hard rock you just heard, “the redneck life is the only life for me.” And even if he delves into screamo, punk, metal, and trap rock, this buck hunter as bass angler is, in his heart, still country.