"Country fans want heavy lyrics over heavy songs."
The simple secret guiding the success of the Big Loud Records-signed singer-songwriter trio of Ben Burgess, ERNEST, and HARDY was revealed by the latter as he sat, relaxed on a tour bus before headlining a special Whiskey Jam event at Midtown Nashville's Losers Bar.
The capacity crowd at the event arrived three hours early amid a 100-degree heat index to wait to celebrate in the rock-meets-rap with a heavy dose of countrified culture that has keyed over a dozen No. 1 hits written or performed by the trio in under a decade. The artists currently occupy the genre's most commercially successful and mainstream lane.
Historically, mania ensues at every instance of country, rock, blues, or hip-hop colliding. The Rolling Stones had 1969's Altamont Free Concert, Kid Rock was on the lineup at the now infamous 1999 edition of Woodstock, and for Big Loud Records at Losers Bar, part of the floor on the crowded balcony buckled and hit a gas line. This caused the fire marshal to arrive at the scene. The incident delayed the event's start by two hours. Thankfully, this is a blip on the radar in the legendary annals of musical panics.
HARDY and 'Hixtape' unify Nashville's country community
"It's super cool to be able to blow up who I think are some of the best artists in the genre -- regardless of their experience -- and see them succeed," says HARDY about the "Hixtape" series the Philadelphia, MS native christened three years ago.
Essentially, the releases mirror the early 2000s concept where hip-hop producers sourced artists for exclusive, street-ready hip-hop tracks. Instead HARDY encapsulates radio and honkytonk-faves as songs he's written, aimed at a mainly pop-country adoring audience.
Roughly 50 artists have appeared on 40 tracks on the streaming-ready collection of material that has integrated well onto terrestrial radio and streaming playlists. Keith Urban and Lindsay Ell were among those who appeared at Losers, but artists including Dierks Bentley, Ashland Craft, The Brothers Osborne, Marty Stuart, and Lainey Wilson have also been featured.
Conceptually, what has allowed "Hixtape" to succeed is also what has keyed the trio's rise as artists and their creative aesthetics as defining cultural vibes of country music's leading pop edge.
"Guys in ball caps working hard sure isn't a bunch of professional wrestler-looking guys surrounded by hot girls," says HARDY of the types of stars that his solo and collaborative efforts celebrate. Songs like "Rednecker," "One Beer," and his hardest-edge rock-inspired single to date, "Sold Out" ("Yeah, I can buy a Maybach / But I'm still in my F-150) are all about elevating everyday lower-middle class life to high commerce.
"People like me, Morgan [Wallen], Luke Combs, we're all talking about things that we -- and everyone else -- know about far too well."
HARDY highlights the work of Trace Adkins and Rodney Atkins as crucial to the goal of keeping the fire stoked for approachable and blue-collar rock-themed country music after the era defined by the likes of Kid Rock dabbling in the lane.
"I'm proud to be bringing this culture back to country music," says HARDY.
An unlikely crew resurrects country's rock and roll roots
Morgan Wallen's 2016 signing to Big Loud Records initially brought the crew together, as they were all working with the then 23-year-old as a co-writer. Six years later, Burgess, HARDY, and ERNEST are credited with writing 60% of the material Wallen has spread between two double platinum albums -- his 2018 debut "If I Know Me" and 2021's follow-up "Dangerous: The Double Album."
Burgess is a 37-year-old native of East Dallas, Texas, who won Broadcast Music Inc.'s 2020 Song of the Year award for co-writing Wallen's initially 2016-released No. 1 country radio and sales chart hit "Whiskey Glasses."
His Music City success follows an arduous journey that saw him take his self-admitted "troubadour" desires to Austin, not unlike one of his idols, Willie Nelson. His early success as a songwriter there included placing songs like the Jonas Brothers’ 2010 single “Chillin’ In the Summertime.” The Texan then moved to Los Angeles, where he notes in a 2020 interview that he was "run out of town for sounding 'too country.'"
He settled in Nashville in 2015, gaining a deal with Warner Chappell Music Publishing.
Tireless ambition has guided his path as much as discovering that Nashville is "nothing but all of the open doors," says the singer-songwriter whose debut Big Loud single as an artist (he signed in 2021), "Tears The Size of Texas," has been released to great critical acclaim.
"This town is ready to do everything," Burgess continues. While in Los Angeles, he believes he wasn't a fit because pop music's EDM and hip-hop focus in the 2010s was ill-fitting for the breadth of his musical desires. "Compared to L.A., Nashville's songwriter community is deep, strong, collaborative, and supportive," he adds.
As far as the unique spice he brings to the country-defined cultural melting pot that Nashville is becoming, Burgess "we're trying to make generational music here, not throwaways that you forget after they run up the dang charts" The award-winning songwriter adds that "an inclusive community putting their best foot forward at expanding the city's scope" is his most significant goal.
'You dream of these moments'
In 2021, Nashville native ERNEST was well known in boardrooms and hyper-aware country music circles as a writer with credits with Chris Lane, Jake Owen, Sam Hunt ("Breaking Up Was Easy in the 90's"), and Wallen. He played Whiskey Jam at the event's tenth anniversary at the Ryman. There, he debuted "Flower Shops," a song he'd written and on which Wallen had agreed to collaborate.
"Nobody knew it that time, but this time, yeah, everyone was singing along," ERNEST, sweat-drenched on a muggy evening, tells The Tennessean immediately after stepping off stage. He credits his success to what he feels is the organic nature of artists and fans in Nashville alike, having fun while still staying focused on the goal of "establishing this town and this scene, at this height, for many years to come."
Upon "Flower Shop's" official January 2022 release, apparel brand Stevenson Ranch released a "Flower Shop"-customized trucker hat that the artist sometimes wears on stage.
When ERNEST appeared at Whiskey Jam, he was outfitted in a boldly-colored and custom-embroidered black motorcycle vest that highlighted his pride in being from Music City.
The glow-up is real.
"I'm a hard-working hometown kid made good," ERNEST says, in a self-effacing understatement.
"I don't know how to explain this. It's amazing. You dream of these moments," says HARDY, who quickly finds comparatives to the modern country-meets-rock (and more) moment in the early 70s work of acts like Lynyrd Skynyrd and Waylon Jennings, plus 80s performers including Aerosmith and Motley Crue.
"As long as you're respectful and nice to people, it's fun," he says. "Being on stage is all about letting loose that bad a** thing inside of all of us."
This article originally appeared on Nashville Tennessean: Country, rap, rock collide as Music City's pop music culture shifts