Makin Tracks: Hardy Tackles Eternal Questions In Give Heaven Some Hell

Tom Roland | January 26, 2021

Google the phrase "paintings of Heaven," and you'll encounter a range of elaborate images: golden roads, gauzy angels ascending staircases into the sky or lush, brightly colored meadows.

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You won't spot motorcycles or rednecks doing donuts in muddy fields.

Those kinds of pictures are reserved for HARDY's "Give Heaven Some Hell," a percussive track about a good ol' boy who has moved on to the hereafter. The dearly departed was not a particularly reverent person in this world, and the song envisions him remaining a rebel spirit even after his transition.

"When you get deep into what heaven is and all of that, there's all kinds of perspectives or opinions," says HARDY. "But I think that people hope that the people that they miss are up there doing what they love."

The image of a heavenly hellraiser is a byproduct of another song: "Truck," the opening track on HARDY's album A Rock. He co-wrote that piece with Hunter Phelps ("Talk You Out of It," "Drinkin' Beer. Talkin' God. Amen") and Track45 member Ben Johnson ("One of Them Girls"), and their work on the second verse yielded a phrase that stood out.

"The original line we threw out was like, 'I bet there's stories about his best friend that he can barely tell/Because he's givin' heaven some hell,' " says HARDY. "I can't remember who said the line, but we all were like, 'Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, give heaven some hell is a great line. We need to write that song.'"

They set that line aside, then pulled it back out when they did a two- or three-day mini-retreat a few weeks later at the home of Ashley Gorley ("Dirt on My Boots," "I Lived It"), beginning just before 10 p.m. on July 15, 2019. And the title pretty much dictated the rest of the exercise.

"Everybody just kind of knew where the song was going to go as soon as the title was out," recalls Phelps.

HARDY kicked into a "droney guitar thing," as Gorley calls it, creating a heaviness with a four-chord progression that includes two minor triads.

"It feels like it's a chord progression that would have been used a lot in post-Nirvana grunge stuff or like 2000s rock power-ballad kinds of things," notes Johnson.

And HARDY spilled what became the opening line: "Can't believe that you got me in a suit and tie," a subtle way to convey that the singer is a casual man, reluctantly talking to his late friend at the funeral. The opening verse focused primarily on the singer's sense of loss, but as "Give Heaven Some Hell" broke into the chorus, the lens returned to the deceased, picturing him sneaking beer into the Promised Land and cranking his music at unholy levels.

"People pass on, and they do it at random ages," suggests Gorley. The song "can be about your high school buddy or your cousin or your dad, or your brother or sister or anybody like that, that just has that wildfire spirit about them. It's hard to imagine those people singing on clouds with harps and wings."

The second verse highlights the dead guy building a crew in his new home, but the bridge makes him a vulnerable man of faith, recalling the moment of his conversion: "I was there when you raised your hand/Heads bowed singing 'Just As I Am.' "

"We had to prove that he's in heaven in the song, and that's just the perfect way to do it," notes HARDY. "There's that question while you're listening to the whole song of 'How do you know he's in heaven?' And then that bridge hits you."

Phelps, who practices a more progressive form of Christianity, was not familiar with the evangelical altar call, and his co-writers noticed that he held back during that section.

"Whenever they were talking about all that stuff," he says, "I was like, 'Man, I need to freaking get to church more.' "

Johnson produced a dynamic demo, building an intro around a pulsing guitar sound, enhanced with delays, that recalls Pete Townshend's extended organ passage in The Who's "Won't Get Fooled Again." Publishers started pitching "Give Heaven Some Hell" immediately, though not everyone agreed with that decision.

"Hunter and I talked afterward," recalls Johnson, "and we're like, 'Oh, my gosh, no one should sing this but HARDY because he's the only one who can pull this vocal off.' Thankfully, we got an email saying, 'Stop pitching this. If anyone does this but HARDY, we're going to be pissed.' That was great."

When HARDY cut it at Ocean Way with producers Joey Moi (Florida Georgia Line, Morgan Wallen) and Derek Wells (Scotty McCreery, Maddie & Tae), the initial takes were good, but HARDY and Moi encouraged the band to amp up the rock components suggested in the chord structure. Drummer Jerry Roe took control, delivering a part that Moi compares with a Dave Grohl workout.

"HARDY's musical brand has kind of a rock wrapping paper, which ultimately to me is always very drum-heavy," says Moi. "We kind of do that on all of his music."

They struggled with the ending, which originally faded after the third chorus. But during HARDY's final vocal session, they decided to tack on another version of the bridge.

"I love repeating that to say that he was, again, this good Christian kid, and [the singer] was there when he got saved in church," says Moi. "They were there together, and it just felt neat to go back to that at the very end."

HARDY asked to run that section through an electronic filter, and it gives the final stanza a ghostly, otherworldly effect.

Johnson subsequently played the departed friend in a video directed by Justin Clough that also features HARDY, Phelps and Jameson Rodgers.

"I wanted to have my friends be in the video," says HARDY. "And when we were carrying the casket — that scene — it was weird, man. Like, we didn't say a word, and I think in the back of our minds, we all were kind of thinking, 'This could be one of us one day.' "

Big Loud released "Give Heaven Some Hell" to country radio via PlayMPE on Dec. 10, and it officially goes for adds Jan. 25, taking a powerful swipe at a difficult topic.

"The Big Loud team, I love," says Gorley. "They're killing it right now, and they're not afraid to take chances. Even from the time we turned that in, there were emails from the label saying this could be a career song for him."

"Some people might not necessarily love that we're using a D-level swear word in reference to being in heaven," adds HARDY, "but we didn't want to have to tiptoe around it. If anything, I think it's real. And I think that there are way fewer people that would be offended than people who would really connect to that."

This article first appeared in the weekly Billboard Country Update newsletter. Click here to subscribe for free.

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About the author: Tom Roland Contributor