On his first tour as a headlining artist, Ryan Hurd wasn’t sure about encores — how to do one, whether to do one. Of the onstage experience generally, Hurd told the crowd, “I don’t feel very good at it yet.”
The packed audience at Gypsy Sally’s on Thursday night, however, greeted Hurd as though he were a performing veteran. Banners sprung on either side of the stage heralded a corporate sponsorship befitting a prospect whose future is worth investing in. Before he began releasing music under his own name two years ago, Hurd’s job was to churn out content for Nashville pop-country acts such as Luke Bryan, Dierks Bentley and Lady Antebellum. Last year, he married fellow singer-songwriter Maren Morris of the crossover smash “The Middle.” Together, they’re a burgeoning power couple.
Now Hurd, 32, has arrived. Not at stardom, exactly, but something like its antechamber.
There’s an unmistakable formula at work in the industry today, and Hurd is closely attuned to it. “We Do Us” and “Hold You Back,” from an EP in 2017, feature verses cushioned by programmed beats that give way to surging power-ballad choruses. Nashville will continue to purvey these sounds until the public signals it’s sick of them. Hurd, who’s traveling with a three-piece band that can replicate the genre’s digital textures, yielded a polished, arena-ready sound that was all the more striking in such a tiny venue.
Maybe too polished.
He has worked in proximity to tastemaking songwriters in Nashville, and that might account for some blurry lines in his music. The melody and groove of “Diamonds or Twine,” for example, bears a strong resemblance to the Zac Brown Band’s hit, “Day That I Die.” Or it could be that Hurd’s quiver is simply short on arrows. He padded an hour-long set list with a couple of covers, including a winning take on Kenny Chesney’s “Anything But Mine.” But Taylor Swift’s steamy “Dress”? A choice as perplexing as it was bold.
Hurd no doubt will continue to develop his craft. One hopes more songwriters like him will follow. To watch him front “Sunrise, Sunburn, Sunset,” made famous by Bryan, was to wonder why we need Bryan in the first place. If we must have bearded bros in country music, then instead of the synthetic variety, why not one with a plausibly authentic experience to share?
Call it a campaign to eliminate the “middle-bro.”