An Analysis of Country Music Lyrics, Part 3: Michael Hardy and the Country Songwriters Breaking the Mold

In Part 3 of our Country music lyrics analysis, Danny Katz scans 20K Country tracks to discover how Country music songwriters like Michael Hardy are breaking the mold.

An Analysis of Country Music Lyrics, Part 3: Michael Hardy and the Country Songwriters Breaking the Mold
Danny Katz
Danny Katz
March 28, 202312 min read
Permalink Copied

This three-part study of Country music lyrics analyzes the lyrics of ~20K Country music songs to highlight lyric, artist, and songwriter trends over time. Part 1, What More Country Songwriters Means for Country Music Lyrics, features an overview of the dataset, definitions, and trends, including the increase in average repetitiveness, number of songwriters, and total words per song.

Part 2, Neotraditional Country Artists and Lyric Diversity, compares artists within the dataset to examine similar trends at the artist level, including the relationship between higher average number of songwriters, increased repetitiveness, and decreased lyric diversity.

Part 3 takes a similar approach with songwriters in the dataset. Below you can find a table with aggregate and average numbers for each songwriter. Once again initially sorted by number of songs in the dataset, you will notice some very familiar names (likely artist-songwriters) and less familiar names (likely just songwriters). Ashley Gorley, Shane McAnally, and Hilary Lindsay, for example, are three of the most prolific Country music songwriters today.

There is also a field for average number of songwriters, which includes the songwriter themselves. For example, Ashley Gorley averages 3.3 songwriters per song written, which includes himself—not Gorley plus 3.3 others. So, if a songwriter has an average of exactly one writer per song, they only have tracks in the database which are their own solo writes.

The same as with the artists, there exists a positive relationship between average number of writers and the songwriter’s average repetitiveness. You can see a plot of each songwriter below, which includes the same features as the artist visuals from Part 2: trend line, color clustering, sizing by number of songs in the dataset, and a list of top songs based on repetitiveness.

Once again, the data reflect a statistically significant relationship between the two variables, with a strong R-squared of 0.37. This comes as no surprise, as many artists are songwriters of their own music and therefore have similar songwriting and artist averages.

Therefore, you will see Zach Bryan and Tyler Childers in the bottom left with no other songwriting collaborators and a lower repetitiveness. Conversely, in the top right Brad Tursi and Matt Ramsey of Old Dominion have a large number of collaborators and high repetitiveness.

The same applies for songwriters when comparing their average number of writers with average Spotify Popularity (positive linear relationship) and lyric diversity (negative linear relationship). While varying in explanatory effectiveness, these observations are both statistically significant (P-value at or below 0.0001) and can be explored in the visuals below.

When hovering over a data point, each songwriter’s top tracks measured by Spotify Popularity or lyric diversity will be displayed. Examining these lists can help provide insight into songwriters who are not artists. Take, for example, Jesse Frasure, whose data are highlighted pictured below.

Given the fact that the position of most songwriters mostly mirrors their position as artists, these observations are noteworthy but not unexpected. For the primary songwriters, their positions reflect the era they operate in and the artists they most work with (who are usually relatively similar acts as exemplified by Jesse Frasure’s list of cuts).

However, one interesting insight involves musicians with the highest variance in lyrical and popularity metrics as songwriters versus as artists. By plotting the two values for each musician on the same chart, comparisons against a one-to-one ratio become apparent. The further a point is away from the diagonal one-to-one line, the more variance they display.

The first chart of this kind, shown below, visualizes how many songs each musician has in the dataset as an artist versus as a songwriter, filtered for a minimum of 15 each. Blue points indicate comparatively more songs written and red indicates more songs recorded.

As you’ll see, there is a split of artists above and below the one-to-one grey line, with names above it falling more into the songwriter camp and those below it into the artist camp. All of these names are both artists and also songwriters, but to varying degrees. The extreme example is Rhett Akins, who has the biggest difference in songs written versus recorded.

Akins, the famed songwriter and father of current Country superstar Thomas Rhett (real name Thomas Rhett Akins, Jr.) actually has 4x the number of songwriting credits as he does recording credits. Most known as an artist for his smash hit “That Ain’t My Truck” released in 1995, Rhett Akins has experienced the bulk of his success as a songwriter for a slew of artists including his son Thomas.

Other writers above the line include Lori McKenna, Josh Thompson, Michael Hardy (HARDY), Chris Stapleton, and Ernest Smith (ERNEST), who began their careers as writers and have since seen successful careers as artists. This category also includes the likes of Ryan Hurd, Ray Fulcher, Drew Parker, and Niko Moon.

On the opposite side of the line, artists like John Denver, Alan Jackson, Randy Travis, Kenny Chesney, and Blake Shelton all have considerably more songs as artists than they do as songwriters. You can see even more extreme examples by increasing the filter at the top of the visual to show number of songs by an artist up to 752 (the maximum). Doing that reveals legends Dolly Parton, Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash, and George Jones, who were originally filtered out because they skew the chart.

Creating the same visual but for average repetitiveness as an artist versus as a songwriter showcases a similar trend: Many musicians are near the one-to-one line with little variance, but there is a fair number of musicians with large differences in their lyrical styles when writing songs versus recording songs.

One of those artists with a large variance is once again Josh Thompson, who not only has a sizable difference in number of songs but also in average repetitiveness. At a delta of 9.2 percent, the songs he writes tend to be considerably more repetitive than the tracks he chooses to record himself (regardless whether he wrote them or not). Hovering over his data point displays these numbers in detail, listeing 10 songs he wrote but did not record, ranked by repetitiveness.

As you can see, his songs have been recorded by many A-list Country stars, the vast majority of whom lean Pop Country. Given Thompson himself is known for recording more traditional sounding music, he represents an intriguing juxtaposition of someone in the marketplace who operates within two sub-genres simultaneously.

Other large variances, such as those of Scotty McCreery, Dylan Scott, and Brett Young, are not the result of songs written for other artists. You will notice that none of those artists have songs in this dataset that they wrote for other artists, yet they still had differences in average repetitiveness of 3-6 percent. Instead, this difference is due to the variance in songs they choose to record, all of which they had a hand in writing. When artists make track selections for each album, they are making choices that move the needle one way or the other.

On the opposite side of the one-to-one line, the two largest variances belong to Blake Shelton and Niko Moon, who both average more repetition of words as artists versus as songwriters. In the case of Shelton, he has 6.5x as many songs as an artist than as a songwriter, but the songs he wrote and did not record were cut by his ex-wife Miranda Lambert.

These Miranda Lambert songs are relatively less repetitive than Shelton’s own tracks on average, which is in line with Lambert’s overall persona as a storyteller who bridges mainstream appeal and traditionalism.

Niko Moon has a similar difference in average repetitiveness but at even higher levels (66 percent vs. 62 percent). Known for recording extremely Pop-influenced songs with very simple, repetitive lyrics, his songwriting differs due to many collaborations with Zac Brown Band frontman Zac Brown.

The two worked together on an album as a group named Sir Rosevelt and continue to collaborate to this day. Apart from one album, Zac Brown Band’s music has leaned much more Traditional Country, so it makes sense this music was paired with lyrics that reflect a relatively higher level of storytelling, i.e., more unique words.

Overall, artists like Blake Shelton and Niko Moon are in the minority and most in the dataset wrote and recorded music with similar repetition levels. For example, Luke Bryan and Ray Fulcher both have less than 1 percent variation as artists versus songwriters despite having a plethora of writing cuts by other artists. The reality is that many musicians stick with the style they know, and being able to write and record songs of various styles is a unique and difficult skill.

This is further underscored by the last chart, which compares the average lyric diversity score for each musician as an artist versus a songwriter. Similarly, a reference line has been included to show a one-to-one ratio and data point size and colors vary based on the relative differences.

Of the artists plotted away from the line displaying high variance, Sam Hunt and Michael Hardy standout from this list due to their reputations as Bro Country artists. As mentioned in Part 2, which profiled them as artists with high lyrical diversity despite this association, it’s fascinating that by comparison their lyrics tend to be less diverse as songwriters. The reason for this is because they both have a sizable number of written tracks that were cut by other acts.

Specifically, Sam Hunt’s career began by getting cuts from established artists such as “Cop Car” by Keith Urban, “We Are Tonight” by Billy Currington, and “Come Over” by Kenny Chesney. As seen below, these all feature relatively simple and commonly used lyrics.

This means that Hunt has historically saved his most diverse lyricism for his own records, to the tune of more than 22 percent (average lyric diversity scores of 1,158 versus 901). Despite facing extreme amounts of criticism in the 2010s for infusing his brand of Country with Hip-Hop influences, you'd be hard-pressed to say that Sam Hunt was a generic lyricist. In fact, his catalog as an artist contains a multitude of tracks with extremely different word usage.

Look no further than his 2020 album-cut “That Ain’t Beautiful,” which includes words and phrasing such as “Adderall,” “Turks and Caicos,” “cabernet,” and “passport,” all of which are highly unlikely to be found in other Country songs. Whether you like his style or not, Sam Hunt has always had different things to say, and that in itself is interesting and unique.

Finally, the most self-aware of his own artist versus songwriter paradox is none other than Michael Hardy, also known by his artist moniker, HARDY. Hardy got his start writing for more established artists and soon became known as one of the most consistent songwriters of hit Country songs. He quickly amassed 12 No. 1s on Country radio, including multiple with his frequent collaborator and best friend Morgan Wallen (“Up Down,” “More Than My Hometown,” and “Sand In My Boots”), along with “Simple” for Florida Georgia Line and “God’s Country” for Blake Shelton.

The allure of Hardy grew as he got cut after cut from additional artists and became one of—if not the—most sought-after writing partner in Nashville. He has 118 tracks in the dataset with only 48 songs as an artist (a ratio of almost 2.5 to 1). Known as an elite wordsmith, he has a high average lyric diversity score of 1K+ as a songwriter but takes that to new levels as an artist—a fact of which he is well aware.

Hardy recently released his sophomore album the mockingbird & THE CROW through Big Loud. A well-documented fan of heavy Rock and Metal, the 17-song project features nine Country tracks followed by eight Rock and/or Metal songs differentiated by capitalization in the spelling. This differentiation is significant due to who Hardy is as a songwriter and an artist, which is all spelled out in the last Country song of the album that shares a title with the overall project: “the mockingbird & THE CROW.”

In this song, Hardy lays out the concept for the dual-genre album and the internal struggle he faces as a musician between being a songwriter (mockingbird) and an artist (crow). The mockingbird in him (known for repeating sounds) is prone to writing radio hits with more generic lyrics that sound like other popular songs.

I'm a mockingbird
Singing songs that sound like other songs you've heard
Like Friday nights and headlights on some backroad red dirt

These songs, which cater to the latest trends and are likely to see success on the radio, show up in his observed lower lyric diversity scores as a songwriter. He fully understands this, but now that he has found success as an artist, he has an alternative voice to express himself.

I've always been a mockingbird but
Now I'm a mockingbird with a microphone

As the numbers have proven, Hardy’s taken that opportunity to say the things he wants to say, which are different than the radio-friendly hits he writes for his peers. This is reflected in his higher lyric diversity scores as an artist. While he realizes this sound and lyricism may not be what everyone is looking for, just as real crows are not as audibly pleasing as mockingbirds, he wants to make that side of his artistic spirit heard regardless.

The way I sing may not be pretty
May not be music to your ears
But when these wings roll through your city
My last name is all you hear
And I refuse to be another
Mockingbird with a microphone
I'll fly the line I choose to brother
Even if that makes me the crow

This song is a masterclass in self-assessment, self-confidence, and realism that doubles as an artistic manifesto for Hardy both as an artist and songwriter. To see this duality play out within his catalog and in the lyrical metrics we observed is enthralling, especially knowing his position.

So many others with his skillset would have continued to churn out radio-friendly, homogenous tracks that racked up airplay and big paydays. Instead, Hardy has forged his own path by taking risks and creating music that is different, interesting, and successful.

HARDY’s Spotify monthly listeners have grown by 6.5M+ in less than four years.

Between Hardy and artists like Zach Bryan, there are more and more examples of Country stars breaking the assembly-line mold. This success has undoubtedly influenced others to chart their own paths. In mid-February, Chase Rice released a new album self-described as a return to his “sonic roots." The album featured organic instrumentation, features by Texas red-dirt scene artists, and three tracks that Rice wrote by himself. As someone directly linked to Bro Country in the past, this was a vastly different approach made possible by the likes of Zach Bryan and HARDY.

The more that Country music outliers like Zach Bryan and HARDY expand their fanbases and demonstrate that audiences are looking for more original writing and artistry, the more other artists and labels are going to pursue similar projects. This is great for Country music, as a wider range of sounds and themes will interest new demographics of listeners and help drive growth of the genre.