Country musician Ryan Hurd balances artistry, desire for airplay

Andy Downing
Ryan Hurd

Like many country musicians, Ryan Hurd eventually relocated to Nashville. Unlike most, however, he actually moved to the city in order to study sociology nearly a decade ago, earning his degree from Belmont University.

While living in Nashville, Hurd stumbled into the city’s songwriter scene, initially embracing the behind-the-scenes aspect of the craft. “When you’re the artist, there’s just so much more at stake. It’s your name. It’s your song,” said Hurd, who grew up in Kalamazoo, Michigan. “With songwriting, you didn’t have to be the artist, and I just kind of fell in love with it, and that’s how I got my foot in the door.”

With writing sessions taking place three or four times a week, Hurd regularly produced more than 100 songs a year, including Blake Shelton’s Grammy-nominated 2014 chart-topper “Lonely Tonight.” The pace proved instructional, forcing the musician to lean into the craft, because, as he explained, “You’re not going to be inspired every day.”

“Nobody wakes up every day thrilled to go to work,” continued Hurd. “But people learn how to get into a groove, and how to do their job well even if they don’t feel that rush.”

Years of songwriting also functioned as a necessary excavation, allowing Hurd to audition different viewpoints and approaches in order to home in on the type of musician he could be. So while Hurd’s 2017 self-titled debut EP marked his public coming out as a solo artist, he had already invested thousands of hours into the craft. (In conversation, he even referenced Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hours rule, which considers that practicing a specific task for 10,000 hours, or 20 hours a week for 10 years, is the key to success in any field.)

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“Any time you do anything for seven or eight years, you obviously improve,” said Hurd, who performs at the Bluestone on Thursday, Jan. 30. “And now I’m finally figuring out what my sound is, which has been the hardest thing, because I have written so many songs across such a wide sonic scope. Narrowing it down, it wasn’t difficult, but it took a second to figure out what a Ryan Hurd song is and what this project could sound like.”

Being immersed in the industry also forced Hurd to grapple with the business end of songwriting, and the tried and true traits common to radio hits, which can be a delicate balance for any musician as interested in artistry as airplay. “The radio is important for country music, and not just terrestrial radio, but Sirius[XM Satellite Radio] is massive for us, too,” Hurd said. “Sometimes you have to step back and ask, ‘How do I serve my fans?’ A lot of the people in country music who are doing it right are playing the radio game, and it’s actually kind of fun playing those shows, and it’s fun to hear yourself on the radio.”

It’s also been a notoriously uphill challenge for female country artists, including Hurd’s wife, Maren Morris, who this past year joined Amanda Shires, Brandi Carlile and Natalie Hemby in the Highwomen, a group that Shires said formed in direct response to the lack of female representation within popular country music.

“First of all, acknowledging that there is an issue is important. We can’t stay silent about the fact that it’s harder for women to get on the radio. … Anyone who can’t acknowledge that much is doing the whole genre a disservice,” Hurd said. “But there are a lot of great country artists now that are women, and I think we really are at a turning point.”

The Bluestone

7 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 30

583 E. Broad St., Downtown

Ryan Hurd