Give Pop Country a Chance With HARDY’s ‘A ROCK’
If I told you the man responsible for Blake Shelton’s hit “God’s Country” and a chart-topping single with the refrain “I’m rednecker than you” actually was a pretty talented and well-spoken songwriter, I wouldn’t be shocked if you didn’t believe me.
But if you can put your pride aside for a moment and hear me out, I hope you’ll consider that maybe, just maybe, there’s a rising mainstream country artist that manages to break some of the tropes and adds a bit of depth to a circular conversation. No, HARDY is not Jason Isbell, Sturgill Simpson, or even American Aquarium. It’s undeniable that his music is frankly a bit more commercial. But even in spite of his following, he consistently goes beyond the clichés of bro country (or at least manages to approach these topics with a sense of humor and levity).
A ROCK is HARDY’s first LP, following a collaborative project last year and two EPs prior. It continues HARDY’s trend of wordplay, bluntness, and songwriting prowess. It’s no surprise that after writing songs for a number of country superstars, there would be a few bangers here. That’s not to say you’ll always feel dignified listening to these songs—there is still a small-town, truck-driving, beer-sipping vibe here—but perhaps less so than the likes of Jason Aldean or Kenny Chesney. And tracks like “WHERE YA AT” and “BOOTS” are definitely closer to rock than country, with the latter even including some double pedal action.
This isn’t the type of album you run through with a fine tooth comb and a Ph.D in music theory; you need to take it at face value. It can be hard to put our presuppositions aside for genres we don’t typically listen to, but accepting that this is a different context is important. You wouldn’t go overseas on vacation and then laugh how the culture is different. And even if you’re a fan of indie country, it’s easy to approach albums like this with a greater-than-thou mindset. No, it’s not necessarily a big fish in the sea of all albums ever released. But compared to most modern country acts in the mainstream, hearing songs that aren’t about painted-on jeans or parking down by the lake is nice. HARDY doesn’t always take himself too seriously, and it shows—again, he has a bit of a rowdy vibe at times. But it’s this open playfulness, the recognition he’s in on the joke, that makes things different. A ROCK isn’t high art, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be good. You might not relate to some of the sentiments, but if you can appreciate it from a distance—the way you might enjoy a movie based in a fantastical land—you might see some of the beauty.
“GIVE HEAVEN SOME HELL” is a lament of the death of a friend filled with raucous fraternity energy. “BOOTS” is hard-hitting break up track with metal influence. “SO CLOSE” is a ballad duet prime for slow dances. “A ROCK” follows the story of life, from skipping stones to proposing, all in the context of rocks. Even the more somber, personal tracks avoid being depressing by sheer energy—HARDY doesn’t let the world kick him while he’s down by any stretch. And even in his introspection, usually there’s an earworm not far off.
“A ROCK” might not be ground-breaking, but it’s a good album for a casual music listener, a social event, or just an evening of light-hearted fun. Mainstream country doesn’t set the bar high, but HARDY is certainly pushing the boundaries of the scene.