Ryan Hurd’s first ever visit to Europe is taking him way off the usual tourist trail. Instead he’s in a student kitchen at Bristol University, opening a beer on a dustbin edge because I have lost my bottle opener key ring. It’s an hour before he opens at the Student Union, one of the smaller venues on the UK leg of his fiancée Maren Morris’s Hero Tour.
The songwriter turned singer left Nashville with little pre-conceptions of the UK crowds, hardly expecting us to know his songs and resilient that
“If these people hate me, I’ll just never come back”.
The difference between us Brits and our United States counterparts proved disconcerting at first. Compared to the rowdy crowds he describes back home who mainly want to hear radio hits, he wondered if we were even alive before realising we were simply giving his music – unknown songs and all – our complete attention.
Our attentiveness must have won him over. Three dates into this tour, Ryan and his band have already made plans to return twice in 2018. He was tight-lipped about whether or not one of those trips will be for C2C, Europe’s biggest country festival, but I’m going to put my Columbo hat on and start the rumour anyway.
By then he should have a full album out – it’s on track to be finished in January – but for now, a short EP and a lot of red carpet attention is all we have to go on. Ryan knows it’s unusual to get across the world before a first album.
“It’s amazing how much I’ve gotten to tour off these four little songs.”
This year he’s also supported country radio stars Chase Rice, Florida Georgia Line and Thomas Rhett and will end 2017 on tour with Dustin Lynch. It’s not just the four “little” EP songs which have brought him this far. Before his own current success with Love in a Bar, before Rolling Stone tipped him as a country artist to watch, had you looked you would’ve found Ryan’s name in the small print of many a CD booklet. Assuming you still had CD booklets.
If you’ve been listening to country radio for more than a minute, you’ll have heard Ryan’s work as a songwriter. Lady Antebellum’s latest stomper You Look Good? That was Ryan. Blake Shelton and Ashley Munroe’s Number 1 hit Lonely Tonight? Yep, Ryan. And before Dierks Bentley and Maren Morris ever recorded the tragically beautiful I’ll Be the Moon, Ryan had Maren singing the harmonies for him. He’d written it back when they were still just good friends.
Though he says doesn’t regret giving any of these songs away, that’s the one he’d love to release himself one day.
“I don’t want the song back from Dierks but I would love to put out my own version.”
He says I’ll be the moon is the best thing he and his producer have ever done. Surely it’s tough competition to be the “best thing” with a back catalogue boasting songs cut by Jake Owen, Brothers Osborne and Tim McGraw (Last Turn Home which will feature on Ryan’s own album). It’s no easy feat to break through as a songwriter in Nashville where, Ryan explains, most artists are songwriters themselves and there’s an unthinkable level of competition. He’s not taking his success on that front for granted; “It’s a huge honour any time someone records one of your songs because they could potentially sing this for the rest of their career.”
Now, with his own debut album pending, Ryan’s crossing the treacherous though well-trodden Nashville path from writer to artist. It’s a different skill set focussing songs for his own project. “I can write a song about anything. As a writer you throw stuff against wall and see what sticks but as an artist you have to be very specific, like threading a needle.” The songs he keeps all have one thing in common.
“When you record a song yourself it has to hit you in a chest. I have to have an emotional connection to the song. ”
The four EP songs are each from very specific times in his life, times when he’s been “on an emotional ledge” and Ryan feels he’s woven himself into the narrative of each of them. One of the most overtly personal tells the true story of how he and headliner Maren Morris crossed the line from songwriting friends to so much more.
“We were never gonna pitch Love in a Bar, that’s my story.”
The personal connection comes through in the video for that song: voyeuristic vignettes filmed with Maren at Ryan’s family lake house. It has the feel of an intimate home movie (if my home movies had better backdrops and less shots of my uncle Steve’s thumbs).
There is of course a risk in interlacing his music so heavily with his relationship, but it is one country music has often taken, and Ryan is willing – even happy – for so much of his interview time to always stray into questions about his chart topping partner.
“It’s fun to talk about Maren, I’m proud about her. If we were accountants we’d post about each other. I’d rather talk about that [their relationship] than all this.”
He signals to my recorder now full of talk about his songwriting prowess. “She’s really supportive of my career too – I wouldn’t be over here if it wasn’t for her asking.”
But she did ask and so he’s on a whistle-stop UK and Ireland tour meaning intense couple time which Ryan says honestly has no downside. “We’re always on road together; if she’s got a weekend off she’ll come and see me play or I’d have probably been out here anyway to come see the London show…
“…we’ve spent so much time apart it’s like vacation to be on tour together.”
There are no special allowances for being the partner of the headliner though. Around the university building in the rain there is already a long queue of people who’ve shown up early to hear Ryan as an artist in his own right. After a year of opening for such varied acts he’s realised the key to not disappointing them is to find out who you are as a performer.
“I’m not Russell Dickerson, I’m more like Eddie Vedder than a rah-rah guy on stage.”
Indeed, when Ryan did take to the stage – a raspy rock star hugging the mic stand and, thanks to a haircut, looking less like Jesus than in his earlier press pics – he seemed to have found himself just fine.
Ryan Hurd’s self-titled Ep is out on all the usual download sites and we’d also recommend the “Written by Ryan Hurd” Spotify playlist. We’ll keep you posted on when Ryan will be coming back to the UK. Which, y’know, may or may not be for Country 2 Country Festival in March 2018.