As his duet with wife Maren Morris soars up the charts, the singer-songwriter who's scored hits for other artists is happy to finally release a collection of his own music

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ryan hurd
Ryan Hurd
| Credit: Nicki Fletcher

Of course Ryan Hurd has released an ear-catching debut album. What else would you expect from the hit-making songwriter who's soaring up the charts with "Chasing After You," his duet with his wife, Maren Morris?

But let's put that on hold for a minute and solve the mystery of that eye-catching title. What's the deal with Pelago?

"It's a word that means 'open sea' or 'overwhelming passion,'" Hurd, 34, explains to PEOPLE. "It's Italian — or Latin, actually. But when I wrote it, I just needed a word that rhymed with 'Chicago,' and I thought I made it up. Then I looked it up, and it's a word in a different language."

So let's get this straight: It was a placeholder in his lyrics, but it ended up being an actual foreign word? And he not only kept it in the song, but he also named the entire album after it?

"That's exactly how it happened," Hurd says. "I wish I had a better story."

ryan hurd
Ryan Hurd's Pelago
| Credit: Courtesy Sony Music Nashville

Actually, it's the perfect story for a rising star who's making up his own singular career as he goes along — and the perfect album name for someone who's already making waves. (That's both figurative and literal: Luke Bryan's "Waves" is just the latest of several Hurd-written songs to top the charts.)

In fact, Hurd has been so successful at songwriting, one has to wonder, why is he working so hard at being an artist?

Hurd admits he often asks himself the same question.

"Trust me," he says. "There's been the discussion of what's my end game here? When it comes a lot more naturally to me to help someone else write their own hits, why am I not just doing that? But there's always been just enough success to keep me going."

There's also been just enough success to make him wonder how far it will take him. Unlike so many others in Nashville, he's not driven by a desperate desire for superstardom. What motivates him, he says, is his passion for the opportunity to sing his own songs, to perform, to tour.

Besides that, maybe one superstar in the family is enough. It's hard for Hurd to talk about his own career without mentioning his wife's, and you quickly realize it's because their two lives are so completely intertwined. But almost as quickly, you also come to understand that, while Morris' career is a source of great pride for Hurd, he also is just as proud that he's making his way in another direction.

"They're very different," he says of the two careers. "I have had so much success as a writer, and I'm continuing to have success as a writer. There's no way that you can actually compare what I do and what she does, if you're looking at it from a creative standpoint."

Another difference: He's far more at home in intimate venues, while his 31-year-old wife gravitates toward amphitheaters and arenas.

"We're really thankful that people buy tickets to Maren's show," he says, "and we're really thankful when they buy tickets to mine."

Hurd also points out that Morris was born to the stage, performing professionally by age 11. That happens to be the exact age Hurd first thought about a music career, but for him, it still fell under the category of childhood dream: "I thought it looked cool to live on a tour bus."

In 2005, he arrived in Nashville from his native Michigan to attend Belmont University, a school renowned for its music program. Hurd, though, did his music on the side, choosing instead to double-major in sociology and economics with an eye toward grad school and a career as an urban planner — "then I looked at what urban planners did," he says, "and it wasn't what I imagined it to be."

Instead, after his 2009 graduation, he stuck around Nashville just to see if he could make a go writing songs. Three years later, he signed a publishing deal and quickly became one of the city's most buzzed-about young talents.

He and Morris met in a songwriting session in 2013 and began dating in 2015; when her career took off the next year, it also proved to be a motivating force for Hurd.

"I just have watched Maren have so much fun with her operation and just loving touring, and her tour is so fun," he says. "I've always wanted that, too."

So some of the allure, he admits, is still — yes — about the tour bus. He signed a record deal with Sony, also Morris' label, in 2017, the year before they married. Ever since, Hurd's profile has been on a slow and steady rise as he's opened for, among others, Florida Georgia Line, Thomas Rhett and, of course, Morris. He gained some traction with 2017 single "Love in a Bar" — the real-life story of the couple's romance — but it didn't provide enough momentum to warrant the release of the full-length album he'd completed. Hurd admits it was a crushing disappointment at the time, but today he's grateful the project was shelved.

"Looking back on the music, it wasn't that good," he says. "You're trying to find your voice back then and trying to figure out how to do this. And I watched Maren be really, really great at every single part of being an artist, and I was not. So I had to really learn how to be an artist. I had to learn how to be a performer. I had to learn how to be in charge of an organization. And so it just took me a second to get my feet underneath me."

He also had one more essential task: finding his own sonic lane. That finally arrived within earshot with his 2019 EP, Platonic, which featured the Top 25 single "To a T."

"It really opened up a lot of doors for me," he says. "Nothing off that record really popped, as far as stats, but it definitely solidified me and my sound."

"Chasing After You" is abundant proof that he's brought it to fruition. Though Hurd didn't have a hand in writing it, he'd coveted the sexy song for years as it knocked around Nashville, looking for an album home and becoming famous on Music Row as an unreleased gem. He recalls Morris even brought it up during their 2017 Cayman Islands vacation, telling him, "I want to sing on that song with you."

Once it finally became available and the two recorded it, Hurd was at first hesitant to green-light it as a single.

"I'm really protective of Maren's career," he says, "and I didn't want to be the guy on a failed single that Maren's name is on. Luckily, it didn't matter."

Ever since its February release, the song — now No. 7 in radio — has worked its magic. In April, Hurd and Morris heated up Nashville's Ryman Auditorium stage with a torchy performance on the ACM Awards show. Next month, the couple will find out if it will earn them CMA honors. They've been nominated twice, for musical event and music video.

Now Hurd is just grateful that he and Morris are sharing this ride.

"It's really cool to have a musical moment with her," he says. "It really is way more fun, and I'm way more comfortable with it because she's a part of it."

He also doesn't underestimate the size of the part she's playing.

"I mean, the whole moment is really cool, but I don't ever look at my career and my opportunities in a vacuum," he says. "This is Maren's project, too. Without her, it wouldn't be coming out in the same way. And so I always am quick to make sure that everybody recognizes that I do have a little bit of self-awareness about my career."

Maren Morris and Ryan Hurd
Maren Morris and Ryan Hurd
| Credit: Jason Kempin/Getty

The song's success, Hurd also knows, is the reason he's getting to release the debut album — a moment, he says, that "I've been dreaming about ever since I signed my record deal."

And Pelago, he adds, is the album he's been dreaming of.

Hurd has co-written nine of the 11 tracks, and all reflect his affinity for radio-ready melodies and lyrics that brim with originality. As he showed with Bryan's "Waves" and "Sunrise Sunburn Sunset," he has a special gift for writing summery sounds, and here it's on display in songs like "Coast" (where you can find the lyric, "Make our own Pelago, Michigan, Chicago"); "June, July, August"; and "Palm Trees in Ohio." Even a heartbreak song, "Hell Is an Island," has a festive reggae beat.

But as he demonstrated in Lady A's "What If I Never Get Over You," Hurd is equally skillful with sadder emotional seasons. In "The Knife or the Hatchet," he delivers a wrenching description of a relationship on the brink: "I can't sleep / You can't either / But I'm pretty sure the answer that we're looking for / ain't written on the ceiling." His bittersweet "I Never Said I'm Sorry" comes with a bluesy vibe that highlights his distinctive tenor voice.

"I just love the way that the songs fit together and feel like every single song is something that I just had to have out," says Hurd.

Sprinkled throughout is Morris' unmistakable voice lending background support, a natural trade for the times that he's sung on her recordings.

"She had a blast," says Hurd. "It's sort of an open invitation as far as I'm concerned. It's very rare to hear my voice without hers."

Their appearances in each other's work (they've also co-starred in each other's videos) underscores the couple's core inseparableness. It's an intimacy, says Hurd, that wards off any sense of competition between the two. But then, he allows, "It would be pretty stupid to compete with her."

Ryan Hurd
Ryan Hurd
| Credit: Harper Smith

Instead, they lean in to serve as each other's muses. Hurd is deservedly proud that he's one half of the equation that inspired Morris to write her No. 1 hit, "The Bones," a hymn to the strength of their marriage.

"I always ask this question: Is it better to have the song written about you or to have written the song, and for the most part, it's cooler to have the song written about you," he says. "It's just such a special letter that will be there forever."

Hurd also is acutely aware of an even bigger picture: the family life that he and Morris now share with their 19-month-old son, Hayes Andrew.

"We definitely like being a part of each other's projects, but at the end of the day, it's not the most important thing anymore," he says. "The most important thing is what happens when you hit the garage-door button and send the nanny home and get to hang out with your kid for three hours. That's the fun part now."

These days, he says, he can't even imagine their life without Hayes: "You're like, what did we do before? Like, whatever we wanted! And that doesn't sound fun anymore."

Instead, Hurd says, he's savoring the joy of experiencing his son's life.

"He thinks he can talk, but he can't," Hurd says of Hayes. "He loves people, and he loves animals. I took him to a birthday party the other day, and they had a little petting zoo in the backyard, and he was the only kid petting the cows and goats. He knows animal sounds, so he'll walk up to a goat and pet it on the head and be like, 'Baaaah.'"

Hurd also reports that Hayes is a boy already taking after his dad.

"He's a really great bus baby," he says. "He's a good little traveler. He sleeps on the bus better than we do. I don't know how we got lucky, but he ended up being a really a good kid, so much so that we're probably not going to have another one, at least not for a while."

Besides, he notes, there are other priorities at the moment. Morris is nearing the release of her third album ("the happiest music she's ever made," Hurd hints), and both will be hitting the road next year.

Other than fatherhood, Hurd says, "my favorite thing right now is planning our two albums coming out. I think we're really coming into a fun time. It'll be a huge victory to get both of our buses rolling this next year. We'll feel normal. It'll be exhausting, but super-rewarding. We start in January, and that's what I'm looking forward to. And then after that, I don't know what's going to happen."

Hurd says he's never been the kind who looks too far ahead. But then it's hard to set goals when he's already fulfilled his heart's desires.

"Everything in my life is because of songs — my career, my wife, my family, my living," Hurd says. "As a writer, I've gotten to have No. 1 songs. As an artist, I've gotten to sell out shows I care about. I've sat in the front row of every award show with Maren. I've done everything in country music already."

This lack of a rabid, Nashville-level drive, he says, isn't a sign of "not caring."

"It's just not needing it as much because you recognize how special the ride has already been," Hurd says. "Getting to put out my own album and having a hit with my name and voice on it is like the last little piece."

So if he's ticking all the boxes, what then? To answer that, he has to multiply by two.

"Then we get to go figure it out," he says. "What does this look like for the two of us going forward?"

Yes, of course he wants to write more songs and make more albums, but he suspects he won't feel that way by the time he's 50. By then, he says, he thinks he'll have something better to do: "I want to hang out with my kid."