Ryan Hurd was deep in tour rehearsals when he was awarded his first gold plaque from his label. His single “To a T,” recently a Top 30 hit at country radio, crossed the 500,000 threshold (sales and on-demand audio/video streams) and fulfills a dream of Hurd’s 14-year-old self.
“It feels more of a starting spot than I thought. I think I’ve always been doing the thing right in front of me when it comes to music,” he said. “This is the only job I’ve ever really wanted – to write songs.
“Now, I get to sleep on a tour bus. I don’t know if I would have to say much [to myself]. I think that kid knew how special that is – to have a gold record and fan base,” he added. Hurd is currently on the road with Old Dominion.
Hurd moved to Nashville in the mid-2000s to study sociology at Belmont University. Initially, he took one music business class and thought, “‘Ok, I think I got it,’” he recalled. “I think I’m a bit of a contrarian. Being at Belmont and loving the school, everybody’s doing this one [music] program, and I was like, ‘I’m not going to do that program!’” he said of his studies, a double-major is sociology and economics. “I thought I was going to go do graduate school for urban planning or something like that. I really wanted to go to the University of Michigan.”
After graduating, he began to have an inkling songwriting could be a viable career choice. “I don’t think many people know that that’s a job, especially as a staff songwriter. Unless you grow up around it, you just kind of assume everybody writes their own songs. I got here, and I just loved Nashville,” he said.
His group of songwriter friends – Joey Hyde, Aaron Eshuis, Matt McGinn and Steve Moakler – began writing songs together on their own time. “There wasn’t much going on for people wanting session time. I just straight-up started writing songs with my friends. I had a contract job that kept me floating and didn’t have many commitment timelines for me. I could write songs during the day, and that’s how I got started with my group of friends I still write with today.”
Soon, Hurd’s hard work began to pay off. He collected cuts from such country stars as Dierks Bentley (“I’ll Be the Moon”), Tim McGraw (“Last Turn Home”) and Blake Shelton (“Lonely Tonight,” featuring Ashley Monroe). He signed a publishing deal with Universal in 2012 and has earned other placements on records by Hinder, Brothers Osborne, Maren Morris and Florida Georgia Line, among others.
In his solo work, including his new EP, Platonic, Hurd balances commercial viability with a very grounded and organic songwriting approach. Songs like “Wish for the World” hit for powerful messaging in trying times, while “Half Hoping” (an outside cut written by Laura Veltz, Chase McGill and Matt Dragstrem) is fun radio fair.
American Songwriter recently hopped on a call with Hurd to discuss his early songwriting influences, his 2012 publishing deal, how he’s grown as a songwriter and landing on Lady Antebellum’s new album, Ocean.
How did you try to “figure out how to write country songs”?
I think I’ve always naturally gravitated toward hook-based writing, like verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge. That format of songs has always been easy for me to wrap my head around. As a kid, I always liked Brad Paisley, Alan Jackson and Willie Nelson. I don’t know if it was as much studying as sitting down and spending enough time to figure out how to get good at it. I was also figuring out how to get a foot in the door, and once you do that, it was figuring out how to write something cool enough to get on a record. It was definitely a process to figure out how to get into the conversation on Music Row.
What led to your publishing deal with Universal in 2012?
I had a buddy named Joey Hyde. He had just signed a publishing deal with Sony/ATV, and they’re like, “Who wrote all these songs?” I got meetings because he was getting a lot of attention. That’s how I started making relationships. We would take them some demos, and they’d tell me they were great and come back. We’d write more songs and go into the studio on the weekends or at night and try to make more demos.
We did that process for about a year, three or four rounds of that. It was less about a song and more about them seeing that I was a self-starter in that way. They’d see growth every time I’d come back. I had a handful of offers, which was cool. I mean, they weren’t super lucrative in any way, but it was fun to have that attention. It was validating, and I think that’s important for artists and writers – to have some sort of validation come from the community they’re trying to work in.
Looking back over your solo work, as well as your major label cuts, how do you feel you’ve grown as a songwriter?
I spent the first two years at Universal writing sometimes twice a day. You understand language better, how language fits to music. Melodically, you’re just immersed in music, and you know when you have something special. I remember writing “I’ll Be the Moon” for Dierks Bentley. I had recorded it on an EP [2015’s Panorama, which was re-released earlier this year], but Dierks always wanted it. I remember when I wrote it and knew it was really special, saying, “I know this is a little bit weird, and I know it’s probably not an obvious hit song. I know it’s really special.” It was the same with “To a T.” When you know you have something really special, you know your compass is right. That’s what has improved about my writing. Not just the fact the more you do something, the better you get at it, but also, I know when it’s right. That’s when you really push the pedal down and work a lot harder on that piece of work.
The closer on your new EP, Platonic, “Wish for the World” has a special magic to it.
It was a title I had, and I’m not even sure where it came from. It was just in my phone. I was sitting with my friends [songwriters Joe Clemmons and Aaron Eshuis] and didn’t have a song that day. I said, “I got this title ‘Wish for the World,’” and then I sang the first line. It’s a country song in a really special way. The imagery, especially of the chorus, is about sitting around a fire and looking up at the sky. That’s a very country storyline. It doesn’t feel like a statement song.
For me, it’s a breath of fresh air. I love everything we’re doing right now. I know we’re putting on our own sound and groove with “To a T,” but this is the one that’s more on the organic side. It’s really special to people, and I think it’s something people need to hear sometimes. I think it’s really well-written, and I’m proud of the way we did it. I started playing it live before we ever recorded it. When you know it’s hitting people where they are, and they’ve never heard it before, you can tell they’re really listening. I’ve always known that was going to be something we recorded and ran with at some point.
You didn’t write “Half Hoping,” but what was it about the song that made you go, “Oh, I wish I would have written that!”?
The songwriting community in Nashville is the best in the world. I felt like crossing over and doing more artists’ work, I owed it to writers to not have to write everything. I also feel, as an artist, the best ones record outside songs. I’m almost forcing myself to do it sometimes. I’ve done it a couple times. There’s another song I recorded that I haven’t released yet that’s an outside cut.
I heard it, and thought, “ I can’t do it better than that. It sounds like my voice because those are the people I write with.” If you’re a songwriter, it feels kind of left-footed to record somebody else’s music. I’ve been doing the writing part for so long, but it’s important for country artists on Music Row to record outside songs. There are so many great ones that don’t get heard. It’s a tip of the hat to those who are writing four or five times a day trying to get on records.
You recently landed a song on Lady Antebellum’s new album, Ocean, called “What If I Never Get Over You” (a co-write with Laura Veltz, Sam Ellis and Jon Green). How did this song come together?
I had this title “If I Never Get Over You,” and I wanted to write it from the perspective of “If I never got over you, what would I do? Where would I be?” Laura said, “No, it’s ‘What If I Never Get Over You.’ She changed the perspective of the title. Jon is spiritual with melodies. He started singing that chorus melody, and it all came together.
The one thing that’s special about that song somebody pointed out is there’s no imagery. They said it like it was a bad thing. Then, I thought about it, “You know what? We don’t need imagery for this feeling.” Everybody’s lost somebody, whether that’s somebody passing away or a relationship. That’s not something you need to spoon-feed a listener. You really just gotta say it. It hits them right where they are. I’ve had so many people reach out and say, “This is a really special song to me.” That’s really amazing.
Which co-writers have inspired you the most in your career so far?
The first one that made me go “oh my god!” is Rivers Rutherford. He’s my first huge songwriting inspiration. When I signed at Universal, he was the biggest writer there at the time, and I was blown away to be in the same building as him. He has written so many amazing country songs. It’s amazing that the more you do this the more the people you’re inspired by are right next to you – people like Laura Veltz. You just feel inspired by their creativity.
There are people who write songs that make you go, “Oh, how did they come up with that?” Like Jessie Jo [Dillon], Chase McGill [and Jon Nite] writing “Break Up in the End” for Cole Swindell. That’s one of the best country songs of all time. I get to hang out with those people, you know what I mean? Those are the ones I’m most impressed by. People around you become your songwriting heroes.
What newer songwriters do you find are going to be doing big things for country music in the future?
I think Jessie Jo Dillon is having one of the best runs I’ve ever seen, as far as the lyrics she’s putting out. She just did “10,000 Hours” and “Break Up in the End.” She wrote “Rich” with Maren [and Laura Veltz]. She’s a person I’d point to. She’s been pretty inspiring lately. I think Joey Hyde is going to make a big run here. He’s a guy that’s been around for a while, but his music and writing are so good and been so steady for so long. Something is bound to pop.
It’s been fun to be in this community and not only celebrate wins I’ve had but wins other songwriters have had. It takes a long time to get there. This is a really fun job, and it’s really rewarding. The work itself is what’s the most rewarding. If you write a hit song, that means you get to do it again. It means you get to wake up everyday and try to come up with something new.