Interview: Tunesmith Erik Dylan Wears His ‘Flatland’ Heart on His Sleeve on Debut Disc
Country music is full of artists who got their start as songwriters, from Willie Nelson and Kris Kristofferson to Brandy Clark, Chris Stapleton and so many others. Erik Dylan is hoping now's his time; on Oct. 21, the singer-songwriter released his debut disc as an artist, Heart of a Flatland Boy, after spending years penning songs for acts such as Kip Moore ("Comeback Kid," "My Kind") and Eric Paslay ("Angels in This Town"), among others.
"This record, for me, in a lot of ways, was something I had to do because, as a songwriter, people know the songs that you’ve written, and they hear your voice through the lyrics and the melody, but I don’t know if anyone truly knew me as an artist and a songwriter," Dylan tells The Boot. "I didn't want a lot of outside influence telling me what would work on radio or what needed to happen on the record ... I felt like I need to do one thing that I had 100-percent creative control in."
A native of Muscotah, Kan., Dylan was performing at songwriters' nights in Nashville when, in 2011, Moore heard him sing and introduced him to fellow tunesmith Brett James -- which led to a publishing deal with Warner Chappell. In the five years since, in addition to Moore and Paslay, Dylan has earned cuts by Justin Moore, the Eli Young Band, Thompson Square, Brent Cobb and even the rock band Hinder -- cuts that "allow me to do what I do independently as an artist," Dylan says (for the most part, at least; the artist and his wife "went out on a limb" and refinanced their house to help fund Heart of a Flatland Boy).
“[In Nashville,] you don’t have to necessarily wear a certain hat," Dylan notes of the divide (or lack thereof) between songwriter and artist. "I’ve always considered myself an artist even when I wasn’t releasing music ... We’re in the age of the singer-songwriter in Nashville, where it’s almost expected that an artist is a songwriter and cutting some of the songs that they’ve co-written or have written."
The 10 tracks on Heart of a Flatland Boy are anywhere from a year to four or five years old, according to Dylan. He admits that it took him "forever" to select the songs that made the final cut of the project, which he calls "pretty much a concept record" about growing up in rural America.
"I wanted to be truthful and honest ... I wanted to write kind of a middle America-type record that maybe my buddies that I went to high school [with] would relate to," Dylan explains. "I always tell people that I write vicariously through my friends that are out there working the jobs that they do back in Kansas, so this record is all about where I’m from, and myself as a person, not just geographically but the values that I hold, the people that influenced me to get there."
Dylan describes Heart of a Flatland Boy as "flatland country punk." He finds both beauty and nostalgia in thinking back on his younger years and the area in which he grew up; love gets brought up plenty in country music, he says, "but we don't really hear about what happens after that" -- the rest of what life has to offer.
"I just thought, maybe, my ultimate goal was to have people I grew up with listen to that record and be proud of it and know that I was telling our story," Dylan confesses.
From "Flatland Boy," its title track and opening tune, to "Map Dot Town," Heart of a Flatland Boy's final song, Dylan does a solid job of telling that story on his debut disc -- but in addition to the beauty and optimism, there's also, especially near the end, a thread of sadness. ("You always want to put your most depressing songs at the end of the record," Dylan jokes with a laugh.) "Map Dot Town," for example, is Dylan's true-to-life version of Kacey Musgraves' "Merry Go Round."
"I didn't want to be judgmental ... I just really wanted to take a snapshot of what a small town is to me," Dylan stresses, adding that Musgraves' frequent collaborator Brandy Clark is "one of my favorite songwriters in Nashville, so any way you can compare me to her, I’ll take it.”
Heart of a Flatland Boy's penultimate track, "Fishing Alone," too, is a sparse, "depressing, but optimistic" song that Dylan wrote after learning that his grandfather had been diagnosed with dementia ("The best songs sometimes start on the worst days," he says wryly). When putting the studio version of the track together, Dylan was inspired by the alternative sides of both country and rock, and elected to keep the cut simple.
"I always hear that song on acoustic guitar, even when I listen to the full mix; I always go back to the day that we wrote it," Dylan says, adding that his goal was to "not get in the way of the melody and the lyrics, and just try to complement it."
As he looks forward to the end of the 2016, Dylan is excited to play some shows back in Kansas around Christmas, most especially a New Year's Eve show in Wichita. In 2017, he'll be on the road a bunch, too; he's booking opening slots and filling in headlining dates in between. Not having a label behind him isn't particularly bothersome to Dylan; he emphatically says that he's "completely happy doing exactly what I'm doing."
"If a label approached me and it was organic and it made sense, I would definitely consider that, because there’s a lot that you can stand to gain … but I wouldn’t to change the music I’m making to try to fit a format," he muses. "That would be my biggest fear.”
It's okay to be on the fringes, though, Dylan points out. After all, that's where you'll find artists such as Jason Isbell and Steve Earle, whom Dylan admires -- and until about a year ago, that's where you'd have found Stapleton, too.
"[At the 2015 CMA Awards, Stapleton] showed America, for the first time ... that maybe they don’t know all the stuff that’s great out there, that maybe it’s not on the radio, and they might need to dig a little bit for it," Dylan remembers. "[Those kind of artists are] always around; you’re not gonna be spoon-fed that info; you’re just going to have to explore a little bit.
"You have to make a choice as an artist: if you’re looking to be a stadium act … or if you just want to follow your heart and maybe play theaters for the rest of your life … and sometimes that can cross, but I’ve never been too concerned about becoming some multi-millionaire off my music," he continues. "I just really enjoy writing and playing the songs that I like.”
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