Ryan Hurd on the success of 'To a T,' learning from wife Maren Morris and meeting Taylor Swift (Exclusive)
Ryan Hurd is country music's next big star.
As the singer-songwriter tours the country with his first-ever solo show, he's also cementing the biggest hit of his career with "To a T," which is nearing the top 40 on Billboard's Hot Country Songs chart -- a career high for Hurd.
For Hurd, such success was never assumed or a foregone conclusion. In a recent sit-down with AOL's Gibson Johns, the singer explained that he's finally "getting used to" people knowing his music after several years in the business, putting forth a humble-yet-assured outlook that comes off as refreshing.
"I’m kind of getting used to it and finally opened up to the idea that it might actually work, because you don’t let yourself believe that something is going to happen until it actually does," he said.
Hurd recognizes that in country music, more so than in any other genre, there's a lot of groundwork that needs to happen to make a song a hit -- visit countless radio stations and play a ton of shows around the country. In short, it requires a particular amount of face time, and he loves that about his corner of the music industry.
"I like talking about my work and my single and I like finding people who have different perspectives and get to hear what they think," Hurd explained. "It reaches one audience in one way and another audience in a different way. [...] I’m country enough for the country music fanbase, but I can also exist outside of that in a really fun way. It feels like the audience is really similar to me, and so it’s fun to look out at a crowd and think, 'These are my people.'"
Check out our full conversation with Ryan Hurd below, where we talk about the success of "To a T," his future debut album, country radio's women problem and what it was like meeting Taylor Swift (who counts herself as a fan):
"To a T" is at 20 million Spotify streams and counting. What's it been like watching the biggest hit of your career so far take off like this?
It’s cool, because I think we finally figured out the best way for me to connect with people who love country music, and “To A T” is a really special song because it’s such a universal desire to want to get to know somebody as much as you can. It’s said in a really fresh way that I don’t think a lot of people have heard before. I’ve been on the charts before and I’ve had songs that have been hits that I’ve written for other people, but this one feels different. It feels like there’s a lot of heat behind it. Every time I talk to a radio programmer or a fan, they’re always like, “I love that song. That song is a hit.” And I’ve never had that before, and I’m kind of getting used to it and finally opened up to the idea that it might actually work, because you don’t let yourself believe that something is going to happen until it actually does.
What have you learned about what it takes to get a hit song in country? It requires a lot of on-the-ground promotion.
Luckily for me, I’ve already had one single go to radio called “Love In a Bar,” and that went to No. 50, and I’ve watched Maren do the radio game over and over, so this feels familiar. The work part is not the thing that is intimidating about it. There’s so much promotion that goes into it, especially in country music. Stations expect you to be there in person a lot and expect a lot out of you, which is a good thing because there’s a lot of loyalty there. That’s the part that we talk about every day, is that the radio game is a lot of work, but when it pays off, it pays off in a huge way.
I also like talking about my work and my single and I like finding people who have different perspectives and get to hear what they think. It reaches one audience in one way and another audience in a different way. It’s so fun because what I do reaches a really broad amount of people. I’m country enough for the country music fanbase, but I can also exist outside of that in a really fun way. It feels like the audience is really similar to me, and so it’s fun to look out at a crowd and think, “These are my people.”
Similar in terms of their taste in music?
Tastes in music, world view. You kind of cultivate the people who are drawn to you in what you say and how you present your music, and I think that it's hard sometimes to say or be something that isn’t necessarily what the market always expects of you. The Brothers Osborne and Maren have done a really good job at saying, like, “Just cater to the people that already like you. The people that don’t like you are never going to like you, and there’s nothing you can do about it, so the people that are absolutely in love with what you do, let’s make music for them.” They’ve both been really inspiring in that way and made me a little more fearless and it’s cool. I have some really amazing people to look up to. Maren’s done it for three years -- it’s not like she’s done it for 10 -- but both of them I’ve learned a lot just from watching their ascension: The way they work, treat people, speak their truth. It’s really inspiring.
You're currently on tour. What's the reaction like to "To a T" when you play it live? Are there other songs that you've been playing that have also gotten notable reactions?
I havn’t played “To A T” without Maren yet, so I’m kind of nervous. I’ve played it acoustic with my guitar player, but I haven’t played it with a band or without her yet, so I can’t tell if they’re really excited about the song or just seeing her. I got in trouble because I kept saying, “You better blow the f--king roof off this place!” And she’d walk out and it would be so loud and then they’re like, “You should probably figure out a different way to introduce her.” [Laughs] They know she’s coming out and I’m proud to have her there. “To A T” is a huge moment in my set, but it’s weird because I’ve got seven singles out and people know the songs I’ve written for other people, and there’s only one song that isn’t released at all that I play, but otherwise they know every word to every song, and that’s everybody’s dream. Like, I never really imagined that part. That’s the thing you’re always hoping for, and I hadn’t experienced that until January of this year. This is all new for me, and I’ve started to really figure out how to be a performer, what my voice is and what I want people to leave my show feeling like.
And you can really only find that out by doing it.
That’s true. I toured a lot with Thomas Rhett and [Florida Georgia Line], which were great arena tours, and I had four songs out, but it was just not enough music. I know what it’s like to fight for a crowd and try to win them over. It’s hard. But when they’re buying your name at the top of the ticket, I’ve yet to play a show where I wasn’t nervous that no one was going to be there. Like, “What if they find something else to do?” I’m nervous about that every day, but it’s so cool when they’re there for you. You can cultivate this really special night.
You've covered Taylor Swift's "Dress," an album track from her most recent "Reputation" album, which has become a great moment for you and got some awesome press. Talk to me about deciding to cover that song and what it's like singing it live.
When I listened to that record, that was my favorite song on it, and then I thought it would be a cool cover from the guy’s perspective, and you don’t have to change any words or pronouns, which is really cool. You just sing it the same and it works. Then we got to meet Taylor in Dallas when Maren played on the end of her Reputation Stadium Tour, and it was just the most … I had already planned on doing the song, and then we met her and she was incredible and her family was so nice to us and we had the best time. But we had just planned on doing that song, and it’s more of a rock ’n’ roll version than hers, because I’m not a pop star by any means, and I think it surprised a lot of people. Then I realized that if you forget the words, you’re toast. [Laughs] Most people are going to come after you, so I spend a lot of time before my show going over those words and just those words, because i don’t want to ever mess them up. But I love doing that, it’s cool to cover other songs. I do a Kenny Chesney song, too, “Anything But Mine,” which is one of my favorite country songs ever. It’s what country music songwriting should be. I do those two covers back-to-back and both of those songs feel like what I do musically in two songs back-to-back. It’s fun to put the setlist together.
What was it like meeting Taylor backstage in Dallas?
She was in one of her green rooms, I don’t know what she was doing and we had just gotten to the stadium, and it was like, “Taylor wants to say hi to Maren!” “Okay!” And I was walking away and she was like, “Ryan, you come, too!” She played both of our songs at the beginning before her show. She put the playlist out, and it was a huge deal. Only she could put out a playlist and have it be huge. But, yeah Maren was like, “I’m in this Taylor Swift thing … oh, my gosh, you’re in, too!” It was awesome. [Taylor] said, “I love that song” and something about her and her boyfriend and referenced my song and I was like, “That’s cool.”
We talk a lot about women and the radio in Nashville and part of the thing is that Taylor Swift isn’t a country artist anymore, and she was our biggest star. She was a country artist, and I still feel like she’s so locked into what’s going on in country music, so it’s cool that she would know a song that wasn’t even a massive hit and run with it. That’s a very cool thing.
So, we have "To a T" as a single that's continuing to rise, but what can you tell me about a potential album. Is that in the works for later this year?
That’s the plan. I’m working on it, and I’ve recorded a bunch of songs for it. I’m going to go back in and record a few more. I love “To a T” and “Michigan for the Winter,” and I love the direction that my music is going sonically, and I’m not ready to be done exploring that in the studio, so we’re going to do a couple more tunes and piece together something that we’re gong to be really excited about. But the single thing is cool because you can constantly be putting something new out, and I want to do at least one more single by summer time, then we’ll start talking full album.
You mentioned women and country music earlier, and I just wanted to get more of your thoughts on that problem, since you have skin in the game with your wife. It’s a frustrating situation to watch as a fan of the genre. What’s the fix for it? It feels so entrenched in the landscape that female artists just don't get the same airplay as the men.
The fix is the hard part. I think everyone agrees that there should be more women played on country radio, but it is a complicated problem. I don’t know. I’m really proud of Maren, because she could very easily say nothing and people would keep playing her on the radio, but she’s choosing to use her very, very large platform to advocate for her peers, and I think that’s cool. I don’t have a fix, but there’s so much great country music that’s not being heard. You can point at Kacey Musgraves and men who are making awesome records, but the radio game is very specific. Our genre is very loyal to those who have had hits and have done the work to promote those stations. There’s a reason why we all go out and try to get on those stations, but sometimes just pointing at the problem helps the situation.
I could go in and start from the beginning to find out why this is the way it is, but I love pointing out that there’s great country music being made. Tenille Townes is about to have a big year, and she’s about to have a big hit on the radio because of iHeart and that record’s great. Jay Joyce made it, and he’s one of my favorite producers in Nashville. It’s crazy to me that this is something that we talk about all the time. Whenever we’re doing a non-country interview, someone brings it up because people who have done a lot of work are shining a light on it, and I think that’s great. I love country music and even the parts that other people outside of the genre might not love. I love simple music and I love that it meets a group of people right where they’re at and I love where country music comes from and I love where it’s going, and I think that’s a hopeful place. I’ve dedicated my life to this, and I’m looking forward to the day where we don’t have to answer that question.
You alluded to how your music can appeal to people who like country and people who don’t. Do you envision embracing that going forward even more -- going beyond Nashville?
I don’t know if I would ever have aspirations to be outside of my genre. I love the idea that country music is for everybody. I tell people at my show that I don’t care what you look like or who you love, you’re always going to be welcome here at my shows and at my wife’s shows. To me, that’s so important. Instead of trying to work outside of country music, I would rather work within country music and say, “We can all claim this.” I would love to exist outside of that, but in my mind I can’t imagine that at this point. You never know, though. The biggest thing is to just treat your fans with respect, and then they’ll be with you forever.
This interview has been edited and condensed.