Dustin Lynch Has Cowboys, Angels and Aldean on His Side
Dustin Lynch is a self-described “nine-year overnight success.” The 27-year-old, who moved to Nashville from Tullahoma, Tenn., an hour south of Music City, was 18 and inspired to follow in the footsteps of his musical heroes, chief among them Garth Brooks, Alan Jackson and Clint Black. “The whole class of ’89,” he notes, since the three first came to country stardom in 1989. Now with his first single, “Cowboys and Angels” inching its way toward the upper reaches of the country charts, he’s experiencing his first life-changing taste of stardom. Last week, his self-titled debut album on Broken Bow Records was released and in an exclusive interview with The Boot, Dustin talks about the inspiration and encouragement he’s received from that label’s current superstar, Jason Aldean. He also sings the praises of a certain pop-music teen heartthrob and explains why there may one day be an Incubus cover in his future.
Do you come from a musical family?
I’m the first one ever in my family to do anything with music. I moved to town at 18 and didn’t know a person here. The only place I knew to go was the Bluebird Café because I wanted to be a country songwriter, to try and get a George Strait or Garth Brooks cut, like most people. Mom and sister played piano growing up, my grandma still plays piano in church. They always beat me over the head trying to get me to play piano but I was more interested in riding dirt bikes and playing in the mud. I picked Dad’s guitar up when I was 8. It hurt to play, so I put it down and picked it back up when I was 15 and dug in. The guitar helped me come out of my shell and kind of gave me an identity at school. I was 140 pounds soaking wet, so I couldn’t play football like a lot of dudes. Well, I could, I was just too smart. I didn’t want to get crushed. So that has been my girlfriend for the past umpteen years … writing songs.
But it must have helped you get girls?
Oh, sure. [laughs] That was the motive behind my first band in high school. All of us guys in the band we were just too small to play ball and you got to do something to get people’s attention. So after the football games at these parties, we were the attention. We’d sit on the back porch and play songs and that grew into being on stage. We played every park and tailgating event in Tullahoma, Tenn. and the surrounding area. It’s so funny because the guys that played music in the band hated country music because it wasn’t rebel enough.
So you weren’t a country band?
We were an Incubus cover band. They would give me one country song a show as kind of my “thank you for blowing your voice out.” Besides, there was a group of bluegrass pickers in town that I would hang out with. They’d sit around a fire and drink and pick classic bluegrass songs.
Are there any Incubus songs that could be covered as a country song?
Oh, lord! Maybe “Wish You Were Here.” That’s one thing that the band and I have joked about. We’re going to start soundchecking with an Incubus song. Right now, we’ve got 20 to 40 minutes to say “this is who I am. I hope you like it,” so we’re not going to play an Incubus song. But as we get established and get to start pushing the boundaries, I’d love to cover an Incubus song. I don’t think anybody in a cowboy hat on a country stage has ever done that, and I’d love to be the first.
“Cowboys and Angels” is now a hit. Did you always have the feeling it would be?
“Cowboys and Angels” has always been the foundation block we were going to build the album around. I’ve written hundreds of songs since then but it’s always been there; it’s always been the foundation. I had the idea for a long time but I was just waiting on the right guys to co-write the song with. It was my first co-write ever with Tim Nichols and Josh Leo, two guys that I idolized for obvious reasons — they’re both hugely successful songwriters and Josh Leo is a guitar-playing and producing god. So just to meet the guys, I was pumped about, much less to get a chance to write a song with them.
How do crowds react now when you play the song?
When we start it, you can hear a pin drop. We’ve seen a huge change in reaction in a three-week period. The amazing reward is people coming up and sharing their stories about how the song has helped them get through a death, or their husband or son being overseas. And also a lot of first dances at weddings or walking down the aisle, too. A true cowboy is a guy that’s pushing cows and riding bulls and broncs, but, for me, the guys overseas protecting this country are cowboys, too. Their angel is their wife or their family that’s over here.
You share a record label with one of the biggest stars on the planet right now. What kind of influence has Jason Aldean been on you?
He’s like a big brother. For me, he’s opened a lot of doors. He’s the guy in country music right now. For such a small label, we have a really strong bunch of folks around us. But Jason has planted the flag for us. This is Broken Bow Records and this is what we can accomplish. For him, too, being in the position that he’s in, he cuts a lot of outside songs. Every songwriter in town wants a Jason Aldean cut. He’s getting pitched a lot of songs but obviously he can’t fit them all on his albums, so I’m getting to hear a lot of songs that Jason has been pitched. I’ll get some kickback from hearing some of the songs that, as a new guy, I wouldn’t have heard for this first album. What’s so neat about Jason is that he’s the same dude he was 15 years ago before he had anything, when he was struggling. He’s taught me a lot about making records. He’s always cut the best songs he can find. His albums are ones I look forward to because I can always listen to them from top to bottom, you can go top to bottom and never find a filler song, in my opinion. So that’s what I’ve tried to do with this first album.
One of the songs on the album, “Last Lap,” co-written with Kelly Archer and Justin Weaver, which is about cruising around a small town, has just a hint of hip-hop on it. Was that intentional?
Honestly, everything about that song is Tullahoma, Tenn. It’s the way life is. The phrasing is something we strive to get when we write a song and it took us four meetings to get the song written. It wasn’t until the last one that I came up with the hooky [sings] “oh oh” part. We always had the blueprint of what the song would be about because Kelly is from Canada, Justin is from Georgia and I’m from Tullahoma, and we all knew about the song. We just had to find the “x” factor, if you will, to make it a song worth recording. But you’re right, the phrasing of it does have a little bit of hip-hop to it, which is fresh. It’s one of those moments on the record where if people know me from “Cowboys and Angels,” they’re going to go, “Whoa, he can go there, too.” For me, that’s where record has to go if you’re going to listen to a guy from top to bottom. You’ve got to take somebody somewhere else.
Do you have any favorite hip-hop artists?
I love all types of music. I love top 40 dance pop, hip-hop, I don’t even know what they call it now. I’m a huge fan of all that. They are the king of hooks. It’s the same hook over and over and over and there’s something to be said for that when it comes to radio hits. It’s been really interesting to see Justin Bieber go where he’s going with this new album. I’ve got a few of the songs from his album … B.o.B., I cover Bruno Mars in the live show sometimes. I think what he’s doing right now is super fresh. If you’ve got a hit melody and you don’t offend anybody with the lyric, it’s usually going to be OK.
Your deep voice is one thing a lot of people first notice about you. Do you know the lowest note you can sing?
I always try to push myself. I think right now I’m at a low C pretty easily. I learned how to sing in smoky bars in Nashville. Here’s what I love about my story: I was in freshman vocal music in high school and I got a C. For a guy that grew up wanting to sing and write songs, to get a C in vocal music was devastating. I think it was because I talked all the time in class. [laughs] That’s been kind of an ongoing thing in town. I’ve been told no a lot. No, to me, always lights a fire under my butt. I love to prove people wrong. I take care of my voice, I warm up properly most of the time. It’s very important to me to take pride in being the best I can be on stage every night. If you can hold the crowd’s attention for four hours down on lower Broadway, and there’s 15 other bands down there trying to do the same thing, that’s where you learn how to entertain.