One of the most diverse labels in Nashville’s history was Hickory Records. Initially started as an imprint of publishing power Acuff/Rose, the label was home to acts such as Don Gibson, Mickey Newbury, Donovan, Buffy Sainte-Marie, and the “King of Country Music,” Roy Acuff. The label was discontinued in the 1970s, and was re-launched in in 2007 by Sony/ATV – who now own both the publishing company and the label.American Idol acts such as Ruben Studdard and Elliott Yamin would record for the label, but it remained dormant in the country field… until now.
The label just announced it signed its first new country act in almost four decades – husband and wife duo Haley & Michaels, who will release their debut single for the label, “All Out,” on Friday (Jan. 19). Listen to it ahead of its release below.
The couple, who were born and raised in California just a few miles from one another (though they didn’t meet until they moved to Music City), have been honing their craft for years – and they are excited to be the label’s flagship artist for its re-launch into the country marketplace.
“It’s a dream come true for us,” says a beaming Haley. “We feel like we have really found our people. We’re so excited to have this infrastructure behind us.” Michaels echoes those thoughts, taking them a step further. “It’s so great to have the opportunity to work with somebody like Danny Strick at Sony/ATV and the people at RED Music. They truly understand who we are as both people and artists, and what we’re about. It’s an incredible opportunity.”
Michaels says that the Sony/ATV exec is exactly what they need. “We could feel that he connected to it, and he understood who we were and what we were going for. So, when he had expressed that he wanted to work together, it just felt right.” The duo has been releasing music since 2013, and has had plenty of offers from industry insiders to help them take their career to the next level. But Michaels insists there was something different about the opportunity with Hickory. “It felt right off the bat, and made us thankful,” he tells Billboard. “Like in Garth Brooks’ ‘Unanswered Prayers,’ that’s exactly how it was. The fact that we were available and looking for a partner, it was just the perfect thing and it felt right. We just knew it was the right fit.”
Michaels also stresses that perhaps those prior opportunities never materialized because they themselves weren’t ready to take that next step. “Our path was both Shannon Haley and Ryan Michaels learning to write and sing together, with us just beginning to produce music, and that was what you used to call ‘Artist Development’ -- something that you don’t really have anymore. I think that’s something that we have been fortunate and blessed to have been able to go through. We’ve recorded. We’ve toured. We’ve found who Haley & Michaels are as songwriters, as well as being a pure duo and how we deliver our vocals, and the sound of our music and not being afraid to take chances.” Haley concurs, allowing that the musical lessons they learned together allowed them to take some artistic chances as never before. “I feel like we have given ourselves a lot more freedom with this album to allow all of that into the musical picture.”
The duo has been in the news lately thanks to the acclaim surrounding their composition “Me Too,” which was co-written with Tom Douglas and Jeff Trott. Haley says the song was inspired by the current social climate and their reaction to it. “We were so inspired when we started seeing women – and men – bravely speaking up about something that was normally not talked about, and something that can feel very isolating. People were instead coming together. It was uniting people. We were so inspired that when we were writing with Tom Douglas – on the first day we were writing with him, we started writing about that. It turns out that we all had the idea to write a song called ‘Me Too.’ To be a part of that message through music is very important to us. Music has always been about healing. I think that our goal is to bring about some degree of healing to other people the way that music has always done for us.”
Michaels doesn't take the opportunity to contribute to the discourse lightly. “Growing up, I remember hearing songs where people notice things that are going on in the world and aren’t afraid to speak about it. That is what inspired us to do what we’re doing. With the Me Too movement specifically, we were talking to Tom about how we had all been affected by it – maybe as a father or as a husband, or directly. This is something that hits close to home with all of us, but this isn’t what the song is about. That provides fuel to want to write and release music like that. We are really excited to have that as a piece of our new album.”
How does one approach a songwriting session with such a legendary composer as Douglas? Haley says it’s a moment the duo has waited for, for a long time. “It’s the type of experience that makes you just want to write to your younger self and tell yourself that this is really happening – you’re in the room with Tom Douglas. You get to make this music with this man who has written all of these songs that made you want to write in the first place.” Yet, just making it to the same writers’ room as the man who wrote hits such as “Little Rock” and “The House That Built Me” is only half the battle – you still need to bring your A-game to the table.
“Being in the room with someone like Tom, you can’t believe you’re there,” expressed Michaels. “You want to learn, to watch how he does it and learn. But, at the same time, I remember writing with Roger Murrah when I moved to town, and he talked to me about how I didn’t speak up in the writing session. That’s something that has always stuck with me, and Shannon and I had talked a lot about. So, you always want to watch respectfully and learn, but also remember that we’re there as artists, so it’s important that this song is something that we want to sing. Tom was the biggest advocate of that in the co-write, making sure we spoke up and were a part of the writing process.”
Of “All Out,” premiering above, Haley confesses that “the original idea of the song was ‘Let’s Go All The Way.’ People say we’re never going to make it, so let’s go all the way. That was the spirit behind it. The song is written in terms of a relationship, but it’s also about our journey in the music industry. It’s about going ‘All In’ to something, and now it’s time to go ‘All Out.’ It’s a power anthem.” The pair wrote the song with friend and collaborator Matt McVaney, who co-produced the track with Zach Abend. As it turned out, each of the tracks on their forthcoming Hickory debut was co-produced by one of the songwriters – a novel approach, admits Haley. “That was something that was different for us. Every song was produced by our co-writers. A lot of the music was created in the room with the song, so that was a change for us.” The track, which was mixed by Chris Lord-Alge, will be released tomorrow through Spotify, as exec John Marks has been a longtime supporter.
“He started coming to our shows early on,” says Michaels. “He has been an early advocate for us, and Spotify provides us an amazing opportunity.”
With the single out, Haley & Michaels (whose music has also been featured on Today) can look to the release of their first album later this year, as well as some potential tour dates in 2018. But one step at a time. “We’re just trying to enjoy the moment,” Haley says with a smile. “But we’re living the dream. This is happening.”