Could Jon Hardy Be 2015's Sturgill Simpson?
Jon Hardy's music sounds nothing like Sturgill Simpson's. The latter plays finger-pickin'-good bluegrass with some country funk ladled on, while the former employs synthesizers, harmonicas, and anthemic riffs that are reminiscent of Unforgettable Fire-era U2. But both men are 36, hail from the heartland (Hardy's from Missouri, Simpson's from Kentucky) and have overcome significant personal setbacks at key junctures in their careers.
Simpson now finds himself nominated for a Grammy for Americana Album of the Year, with his self-released LP Metamodern Sounds in Country Music at or near the top of virtually every year's-best list. 2014 saw Simpson surge from college-radio playlists to the pages of Rolling Stone, and took him from playing small mountain stages to opening amphitheaters for the Zac Brown Band. And while years of hard work and considerable talent can't be discounted, it wasn't until Simpson beat the bottle and started a family that fame found him.
As for Hardy, he's already pressed an album, Restless City, that he and his band, Jon Hardy & The Public, hope will be broadcast far and wide in 2015. Grounded in St. Louis, with an eerily prescient title track about a boy who's gunned down in the city's streets, the record is universally relatable and unapologetically straightforward. To this end, Hardy and his cohorts could break big and broad; Augustines is another independent act for which the same could be said.
Such a tout might feel like deja vu for Hardy. In 2011, his band was coming off a well-received EP and had just shared the LouFest stage with the likes of Deerhunter, Cat Power, TV on the Radio, Questlove, and The Hold Steady, when Hardy suffered a "Keith Richards-esque" fall from a tree which literally broke his back and sidelined him for half a year. But shortly thereafter, Hardy's personal life stabilized, as he got married in 2012 and soon had a daughter. From there, it was time to see if his next record could ascend to unprecedented heights as well. What resulted was Restless City.
"I think that this record is, in a lot of different ways, the next step," he says. "Content-wise, this record was a real step forward as far as successfully holding on to the particular and the general; there is a lot of St. Louis-specific stuff, but at the same time there’s a very clear thread—the stories that we were developing were beyond St. Louis, and were things that were happening and still are happening in other places are well. I’m hopeful that that reality is going to resonate with people in other places. It’s important to have some specificity in storytelling, but also to be general enough for people to say, ‘Oh yeah, that happened here.’”
Hardy's album comes as the nation continues to grapple with the aftermath of Michael Brown's killing--and the controversial exoneration of the cop who shot him--in Ferguson, a small suburb of St. Louis. But the considerable attention devoted to the area's socioeconomic struggles has yet to extend to its artistic output. "Anytime I’ve spoken with industry people in New York or L.A., they’ve always said that we needed to get out of St. Louis. Their point was that no one’s paying attention to anyone there--that if you don’t remove yourself from that situation, you’re just going to be overlooked.," explains Hardy, who remains committed to his hometown nonetheless. "St. Louis and probably other cities in similar situations tend to have an inferiority complex, and there seems to be a lot of energy expended on trying to elevate the city in comparison to other cities. The bar is always, ‘This is what this place is like.’ There’s something helpful about that, but overall it has a negative impact. Some of the best qualities of this city can be ignored, because those qualities aren’t present in the cities you’re comparing yourself to.”
Once he and his band hit the road in 2015, it is in these types of places where Hardy will focus on expanding his following. "We think it’s important for us to reach out to places that are close to us," he says. "We definitely want to make an effort to pursue playing in Nashville and Louisville and Kansas City and Chicago. The Internet is here, but the path lies through building an audience with the people who are close to you.”
As good as Restless City is, there's nothing particularly hip or innovative about it--and U2 comparisons, while meant as high praise, certainly won't help with the Pitchforks of the world. Hardy's well aware of this perception, and is resigned to living with it. "I would imagine that is something that does work against us in terms of getting music-media attention; we’ve talked about that," he concedes. "At the same time, I think that’s also a benefit for us. We’ve been around long enough now where we can come up with a huge list of names and artists that were extremely popular at one point on all those outlets, and now they’re completely gone. The reality of so much stuff that makes it into the limelight is that, for whatever reason, it doesn’t have staying power. We’ve made our peace with that, and decided that we’re going to make the music we were meant to make, and to do it as well as we possibly can. And one of the keys to that is to make music that has a timeless quality. That was definitely a goal going into this record. We want it to be something people can listen to 10 to 15 years from now.”
Jon Hardy & the Public play Off Broadway in St. Louis on New Year's Eve, along with Search Parties and DJ Toddy Holiday.