From hitmaker to historian: Why Ernest is reviving the sound of classic country music

The country artist known simply as Ernest is a couple of cocktails deep on a recent afternoon in the rooftop garden of West Hollywood’s Soho House, a diamond pendant the size of a AA battery nestled within the open neck of his blue western shirt.

The pendant, which reads DANGEROUS, is one of three matching pieces he commissioned from a jeweler in Orange County — one for Ernest, one for Hardy, one for Morgan Wallen — as a memento of the trio’s time writing songs together for Wallen’s six-times-platinum “Dangerous: The Double Album.” The western shirt, meanwhile, reflects Ernest’s love of Ralph Lauren. The designer’s career in fashion, as depicted in the 2019 documentary “Very Ralph,” “changed my life,” Ernest says. “Seriously. I watched it three or four years ago and shortly after cleaned out my closet and started shopping Double RL.” Ernest’s mood board for the cover of his new album, “Nashville, Tennessee,” contained a picture of Lauren leaning against a barn with an American flag in the background.

“We shot the cover in my barn,” he says of himself and his wife, Delaney Royer, who handles Ernest’s visual content. “But we made the mood board before we even bought our farm.”

The rare Nashville native in country music, Ernest, 32, has always been interested in clothes, even if he lacked the wherewithal to indulge his passion. “High school was Sperrys, khakis and a school polo,” he says. Now, though — thanks to No. 1 country hits he’s penned for Sam Hunt (“Breaking Up Was Easy in the 90s”), Kane Brown (“One Mississippi”) and especially Wallen, with whom he wrote nearly two dozen songs across “Dangerous” and Wallen’s 2023 blockbuster, “One Thing at a Time” — he’s got plenty of dough to splurge on more imaginative threads.

“I’m here for like 48 hours and I brought five outfits,” he says with a laugh at Soho House, where he’s spending part of a quick trip to L.A. before heading to Dodger Stadium to watch his childhood friend Mookie Betts battle the Giants. (Thus, perhaps, his choice of blue.)

As a songwriter, Ernest specializes in creating melodies and vocal lines that adapt a rapper’s flow patterns to the cadences of country music; his tunes embody the casual hybridity of a generation that grew up in the overlapping shadows of Garth Brooks and Snoop Dogg. His latest hit, “I Had Some Help” by the duo of Post Malone and Wallen, dropped Friday and rocketed over the weekend to the top of Spotify’s Global Top 50 chart with more than 13 million streams.

“Ernest is one of the most magical songwriters in Nashville,” says Jelly Roll, the Southern rapper turned country singer who wrote his chart-topping “Son of a Sinner” with Ernest. “When we look back at the 2020s, he’ll be one of the names remembered for bringing an entire sound to this decade.”

Yet as an artist Ernest is trying something slightly different on “Nashville, Tennessee,” his second LP under his own name after 2022’s “Flower Shops (The Album).” It’s a sprawling 26-track collection that reaches back to an old-fashioned country-music sensibility, with rip-roaring honky-tonk jams up against finely detailed string-band excursions and handsome tear-in-your-beer ballads. Among Ernest’s goals for the project is introducing these traditional styles to the younger listeners tuned into his more modern work.

“If you like how this feels,” he says, “go check out Vern Gosdin or Roger Miller or go listen to Ray Charles’ ‘Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music.’”

At the same time, he’s eager to broaden the minds of older folks potentially predisposed to write off the likes of Wallen or Hardy. “Some of the songs I’ve written for other artists definitely fall into the that-ain’t-country category,” he says. “It’s easy for somebody to say that because they’ve got 808s or trap beats or whatnot. But that’s coming from the same hands that wrote a song on my album like ‘Ain’t as Easy,’” he adds, referring to a sumptuous weeper draped in pedal steel.

The result has a kind of musicological sweep that not only honors the cultural breadth of Ernest’s hometown — a city he loves enough that his and Royer’s 3-year-old son is named Ryman after Nashville’s storied Ryman Auditorium — but also evokes ideas of lineage and inheritance.

“Ernest is a real student of country music, and I think he’s on track to becoming a master of his craft,” says Lukas Nelson, who joins Ernest for a duet in the jumping western swing number “Why Dallas.” “He’s already had commercial success, but I think he and I would agree that mastery has nothing to do with that. Mastery is more about the depth of your artistry.”

Indeed, you can look at Ernest’s ambitions with “Nashville, Tennessee” as his way of spending some of the music-biz capital he accrued over the last few years. “That’s what I did with ‘A Star Is Born,’” says Nelson, who views the songs he wrote for the 2018 Bradley Cooper/Lady Gaga blockbuster as “a vehicle to further fuel my creativity.”

“I want this album to live beyond just being a hot, sizzling record right now,” Ernest says. “That’s secondary to the importance of it being one of those albums we’re talking about down the road.”

He might end up getting it both ways: Last month, Ernest had a plum main-stage performance spot at Indio’s Stagecoach festival, where he also put in cameos with Wallen and with Nelson and Nelson’s 90-year-old legend of a dad, Willie. And he’s up for two prizes at this week’s Academy of Country Music Awards, new male artist of the year and artist-songwriter of the year.

Before he turned seriously to music, Ernest (whose last name is Smith) grew up playing baseball. He’s known Betts, a fellow Nashville native, since he was 8 and competed both alongside and against him until the two graduated high school. “Mookie struck out one time his senior year, and it was off me,” he says today with a grin.

As a kid, his “holy trinity” of musicians were Eminem, John Mayer and George Strait; after dropping out of college, he made a short-lived go at being a rapper but eventually refocused on country songwriting. Hunt’s 2014 debut “Montevallo” — on which the former college football player struck an elegant blend of country, hip-hop and R&B — was a crucial inspiration. “It had everybody scrambling,” Ernest says. His first big moment as an artist came in 2021 with his song “Flower Shops,” a duet with Wallen that cracked the top 20 of Billboard’s country chart and led to a profile-boosting gig as Wallen’s opening act on the road.

For the new album, which opens with a funny (and true) two-hander with Jelly Roll called “I Went to College / I Went to Jail,” Ernest and his producer, Joey Moi, instituted what they called “the Opry filter.” That meant that every arrangement had to be playable by the live band at Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry — no samples or programmed beats allowed.

“We did everything as authentically as possible,” says Moi, who also produces Wallen’s and Hardy’s records. “All the Nashville players — these guys who’ve been around for two, three, four decades — they’re all obsessed with Ernest. They’re like, ‘Oh, my God — finally.’”

Yet Ernest hardly maintains a gatekeeper’s mindset regarding country music. “I think the genre is wide open right now in the best way ever,” he says as he orders another drink — a Bee’s Knees, to be exact — from a server.

Asked what he thinks about the handful of pop stars — among them Malone, Beyoncé and Lana Del Rey — making country moves lately, he says, “It just means there’s more eyes on country music. I think Beyoncé is gonna do for the genre what Taylor Swift did for the NFL. I’m honored to get to have an album drop and be living in the same world as the queen.”

Does he have a favorite track from Beyoncé’s “Cowboy Carter”? “Spaghettii,” he replies. “I love that she’s talking her s—. You can tell she did her homework, and I appreciate that.” Ernest says he’s heard Del Rey’s “Lasso,” the title track from an album she’s said is coming later this year, and that it’s good; he also says he’s written “a bunch of songs” with Malone beyond “I Had Some Help.”

He’s just as enthused about Zach Bryan, the raw, rootsy singer-songwriter from Oklahoma who’s irritated some in the Nashville record industry by building an enormous audience without relying on the help of country radio. “I f— with how much he doesn’t give a f—,” Ernest says. “Things can be so pretty and so careful. What he does is refreshing. People say his records sound like he recorded in a bedroom or a basement. But guess what? Most people are listening to it in a bedroom or a basement.”

As Ernest prepares to spend the summer on tour with Brooks & Dunn, does he ever think back to his early days as a rapper? “Oh yeah — that all pulses through my DNA as a creator,” he says. His favorite part of rapping was freestyling, he adds; he’s got videos on his phone of him and Jelly Roll going back and forth on a tour bus for an hour at a time.

“Now when I pick up a guitar, it feels like the world’s moving slow,” he says. “The thoughts are coming way faster than I have the time to say them.”

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