Ryan Hurd Talks Transitioning from Songwriter to Artist — and Working with Wife Maren Morris

The Nashville breakout just released the music video for his new single "To a T"

Photo: Matthew Berinato

Ryan Hurd has gone from Nashville's best-kept-secret to one of its most promising rising stars.

Raised in Kalamazoo, Michigan, Hurd, 32, received a sociology degree from Belmont University. Upon graduation, he considered grad school before deciding to stay in Nashville to pursue a music career.

After scoring a publishing deal Hurd met his future wife, Maren Morris, during a 2013 songwriting session when they penned "Last Turn Home," which Tim McGraw went on to record. Over the years, he's earned a reputation as a hitmaker around Music City, writing No. 1 smashes for Blake Shelton and Ashley Monroe ("Lonely Tonight") as well as Luke Bryan ("Sunrise, Sunburn, Sunset").

Ryan Hurd. Courtesy Ryan Hurd

And now Hurd has stepped into the artist lane, releasing his own music. Hot off the success of his 2017 release "Love in a Bar," Hurd is back with the love song "To a T," on which 28-year-old Morris — whom he wed last March — provides backup vocals. After opening on tour for Morris, Thomas Rhett and Florida Georgia Line, Hurd is on his first headlining tour, which follows a string of four sold-out shows in Los Angeles, New York City, Chicago and Nashville.

In between tour dates, Hurd (who just released the "To a T" music video, below) caught up with PEOPLE about music, marriage and making it in Nashville.

Maren sings harmonies on “To a T.” How did that come together?

I wrote it with some friends in Nashville, and it kind of started with the title, and we worked back from that. I think that it's just cool because it's like a universal sentiment, wanting to know somebody deeper — and it's said in a really interesting, fresh way that I've never really heard before.

She liked the song before anybody else did, and she kept playing it in our kitchen, and then eventually showed it to our manager and our label, and that got the snowball rolling. She just wanted to sing on it. She knows she has an open invitation to do whatever she wants on my records. We met each other writing songs, so anytime that we get to be creative together is really special.

In terms of upcoming projects, how does that single fit into your sound?

I think when you're confident in your artistry, the sound just becomes who you are, so there's a lot of country music storytelling in what I do, but at the same time, a lot of indie rock n roll and other influences in my music, too.

It started with "Diamonds or Twine" — I put that out for our wedding, and hundreds of people have used that in their weddings, maybe thousands; I've lost count. But so many people have made it a part of their wedding, and that's really special to me. I get invited to like five weddings a week. Can't really go to them, though!

You’ve been on the road with a lot of other big artists. What did you learn about the industry working with them?

It was really neat to see how Thomas Rhett and Florida Georgia Line work. The way that Thomas approaches the people on his team is really special — he's probably the most human artist that I've ever been around. And [FGL's] Tyler Hubbard is probably the most business-minded person in music that I've ever met. He approaches his day in such a disciplined way that it makes you realize what it takes to become somebody who's at that level. Not just in country music but at any level in music.

And obviously I'm on the road all the time with Maren when she tours. It's cool to have her be the guinea pig for what we're doing. Everything that I'm doing now, it sort of feels like I've already done it because I've seen her do it. I opened the Bowery Ballroom [in N.Y.C.] for her sold-out show two years ago — to come back and be like, "Oh my God, it's my name at the top." That's a really cool thing. But it doesn't feel unfamiliar. Despite the fact that I am blown away that people are actually buying tickets, it does feel like, I've seen this before because I already envisioned it. It's really special.

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Tell me about transitioning from songwriter to artist. You were a behind-the-scenes guy for years.

They're different things. I finally struck a really cool balance between writing songs for other people and having my own project. I love both, and I can't imagine my life without both of those things now. I equate it to having two shoes: You need a left and a right; that's the way I look at my music.

It was a bit of a weird transition just because there's so much you have to be good at as an artist that does not matter as a writer. The only thing that matters as a writer is "what idea do I have" and "how do you write it" and who's heard it. As an artist, there's Instagram and interviews and media training and vocal lessons and putting a band together and running a very multifaceted business. Writing songs is pretty straightforward. But the highs are much different when you're behind the microphone.

How do you balance the songwriting and the artist part? How do you know when a song is a Ryan Hurd song?

I have never written songs any differently. There's no distinguishing factor in a tune that makes you go, "That one's for me" or I don't sit down and go, "Today we're writing for my record, but tomorrow we're not." You sort of just have a feeling. Maren and I play each other music in our kitchen, and she's good about being like, "That's a 'you' song."

And sometimes you just know. Actually, with "To a T," I knew it was special, so I didn't turn it in to anybody. My label didn't hear it, my publishers didn't hear it. But I played it at home for whoever was sitting there listening to it. And Maren's like, "That's the one." But eventually somebody [turned it into my label], so it went on hold for a couple artists, and they were about to record it in Nashville.

Ryan Hurd.

I heard Jake Owen wanted to record it.

Jake was one of 'em. He texted me and was like, "What are you doing not recording this?" I'm like, "I think I'm going to, but I'm a little annoyed that you got pitched this song, and you liked it!" I just don't want him to fall in love with something and then be like, "You can't have it!" There were a couple other artists where it was the same thing going on, and I had to make a really quick decision being like, "I either have to do this or don't." There's always a negotiation with a lot of different interests, but that — I had people calling me going like, "I'm gonna cut this." And I was like, "Uh, I gotta pull it, I'm sorry." Hopefully it never happens again like that.

Take me back a few years. How did you get into music?

My journey with what I do now started the second I graduated college, and I started writing songs in Nashville with some friends and just got my foot in the door in Music Row, and I was a songwriter all of a sudden. But as a kid, my mom made me take piano lessons, and I worked, I met this guy in church, and he's still my producer to this day. My dad made a little recording studio for us, so we tried to make some recordings that were really terrible in high school. It was really fun. I remember music really being the thing that I wanted to put a lot of my effort into. But I played so many sports that it was hard to find the time for it. But then I went to college, and I got a degree.

Ryan Hurd. Alex Ferrari

That's when I was like, I have no idea what I'm gonna do, but I'm gonna start writing songs again — and then just got plugged into all his network of people. And then one step at a time, made some demos and eventually got a publishing deal. It's like a snowball the way things work in music. It's very rarely just an explosion: It's just one step at a time, and enjoying each step. I think the older I get, the more I enjoy each step. And it's been fun to look back and be like, "Man, that was a fun time when we were doing all this stuff" — but this is way better.

Who have your influences been over the years?

Willie Nelson is probably my favorite artist of all time, just the way that he emotes with his voice. I don't have a similar voice, but I've been inspired a lot by the way that he can sing emotionally. You know, it's funny now, the more I grow up, the more pop music I listen to, I really still am inspired by songwriters in Nashville, just because I think it's the best music town in America. I think that Nashville has the best lyric writers in the world. So that's inspiring every single day.

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Maren Morris and Ryan Hurd. Steve Granitz/WireImage

In terms of working with Maren — did you have any hesitations collaborating with your significant other?

Whenever we do get to write together or sing together, it's really special. I think that's really helped me figure out our balance. I am definitely songwriter Ryan and husband Ryan at the same time, all the time. So just making sure that the marriage part is the priority all the time. And honestly, we're both such big fans of each other and so supportive. I wouldn't be doing this still if it wasn't for her keeping me going. So that part has made the creative stuff even more fun.

I wrote a couple for her new album [GIRL, out March 8] and sang all the backgrounds on those tunes. She could have made a more pop record, one that people expected her to do, but she made an absolutely Maren record. It's really special to be a part of it. I could talk about her s— all day.

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With all you’ve accomplished, what goals do you still have?

To just keep doing what I'm doing and remember how fun it is. It's hard to believe I do the only job I've ever wanted since I was 11.

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