Laine Hardy won American Idol, did the whirlwind media tour and then disappeared. But it was all part of the plan.

The 19-year-old Season 18 (2019) winner of American Idol says he's spent the last 11 months working through the baby steps a new artist must work through in Nashville to earn the trust and respect of his peers. Two songs released on Friday (April 10) show how that hard work paid off. "Ground I Grew Up On" and "Let There Be Country" are both centered, professional, ready-for-radio country songs that still sound like the swampy Louisiana teenager we first met in 2018.

From his family home in northeast Louisiana, Hardy talked to Taste of Country about what's different and what's not since Ryan Seacrest read his name as the winner. Fame and money can change a guy, especially someone as young as Hardy. But he's remained fastidious with his lifestyle.

"I saved that money," he admits of the prize money an American Idol winner gets. "I’m using it for recording and necessary things. I used my own money from playing shows in 2017 and 18 to buy a brand new truck and a used boat.”

After a post-Idol media blitz, Hardy spent a little more time in L.A., but asked to move to Nashville to begin his country career. For three solid months he wrote Monday through Friday under the tutelage of Music Row A-listers. That can be a blessing and a curse. The ABC reality television series opens many doors, but an artist with fragile confidence or a dearth of talent can get chewed up. That's not quite how it happened for Hardy. While he remembers being terrified as co-writes with Clint Lagerberg ("Blue Ain't Your Color") and Cary Barlowe ("Raised on Country," "Where It's At") started, he also recalls feeling could high afterward, and he wears this confidence on his face as he talks about some of the output.

“I was thinking I’d be left behind and I’d just be sitting there not doing anything, and I got all into it and started coming up with melodies and they loved it," Hardy says, flashing the same toothy smile that charmed millions of American Idol voters last May.

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Producer Michael Knox (Jason Aldean) helped Hardy organize his thoughts and is as responsible for the singer's 2020 sound as anyone. Staying true to who he is was important — although he recognized that to a certain degree, he needed to focus his influences (swamp-rock, country, blues, rock etc ...) into something definable and unique. Of the two new songs, "Let There Be Country" does a better job of showing the music he was raised on, but it's hard to deny the personal lyrics of "Ground I Grew Up On," his first single.

"I grew up listening to like ‘50s, ’60s, ‘70s, even ‘80s stuff. That’s what I really listen to now," he shares, later admitting contemporaries like Morgan Wallen, Luke Combs and Cody Johnson cross his speakers as well.

One doesn't sense Hardy is in a hurry to take advantage of his newfound fame. He's more methodical and eager to lean into the great support system he has in Louisiana. He still lives at home much of the year, but is planning to move to Nashville. He embraces being an introvert and jokes that he's pretty good at this whole quarantine thing. The only thing that's tangibly changed is he gets recognized when he's around town, but he'll take every picture fans ask for.

“At no point in the show last year, (did I) think I was gonna win," he'll say with no crack in his smile to indicate he may be fooling. American Idol has opened many doors for the teen, but he knows better than to go running through them.

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