Interview: Russell Dickerson Keeps Family, Friends Close on ‘Southern Symphony’
Russell Dickerson appears in our video chat room in full-on At-Home Dad mode. He's in what appears to be a home studio — or, at least, a makeshift one with some soundproofing foam panels stuck to the ceiling and the wall behind him — with his infant son, Remington Edward, napping in a baby carrier strapped to the singer's chest.
"He's out," Dickerson says, unfazed by the thought that our conversation might wake his sleeping baby boy. The family of three — which also includes Kailey, Dickerson's wife of seven and a half years — were eating breakfast prior to our call, so Remington is with Dad while Mom cleans up (though she soon pops in to relieve Dickerson of his baby-wearing duties).
"This is real life — we're just hanging out," Dickerson says. "We're shooting a music video today, so we got a lot going on, but you just strap him to your chest and go."
Despite the COVID-19 pandemic, which has kept the "Yours" singer and his fellow country artists largely at home throughout 2020, life remains hectic — but a different sort of hectic — in the Dickerson house. In addition to getting adjusted to life as a father, Dickerson has been preparing for the release of a musical baby: his sophomore album, Southern Symphony.
Dickerson spent the early months of quarantine completing his new record's 10 tracks. Via video chats and socially distanced sessions, he's able to promote the project mostly in the same way he would in non-pandemic times, but without tour dates and in-person events on his schedule, he's been getting more involved with some of the promotional aspects of releasing an album that he'd usually leave to others.
"We were just going so hard, so fast. My brain was on survival [mode] — like, legitimately, it was, 'Put on the best show possible, make the best record possible, sleep as much as possible, and eat as healthy as possible and don't get sick' ... It's like caveman mentality," the artist reflects of his schedule and mindset prior to March, before the novel coronavirus officially arrived in the United States. "But now it's ... You know, I was able to put some finishing touches, creatively, on our album, and I'm so thankful for that."
Southern Symphony already includes at least one No. 1 song: The project's lead single, "Love You Like I Used To," hit the top spot on the Billboard Country Airplay chart in mid-November. It's Dickerson's fourth chart-topper in a row, a streak that stretches back to his 2017 single "Yours."
"I'm competitive with myself — I want to beat my last single; I want [my career] to always keep growing and always get bigger and better and just just keep going. But I'm not really [feeling] a ton of pressure, honestly, from the outside," Dickerson confesses. He's admittedly a bit flabbergasted that he can claim four No. 1 singles in the first place, but he also knows he's worked dang hard to get here.
"I think a lot of it has to do with the perseverance that it took to even get on the radio. Like, every [Nashville] record label turned me down five times over ... and nothing but love for them; they've got to do what they've got to do," he muses. "It feels good to have put in all that time. All those 'no's really made me work harder."
Dickerson co-produced Southern Symphony with veteran songwriter, guitarist and producer Dann Huff and his longtime buddy and collaborator Casey Brown. Huff, Dickerson says, gave the album "that little extra nudge," helping Brown and Dickerson bring its "more mature" sound and "deeper level of songwriter" fully to life.
"I wasn't gonna just leave Casey behind ... It was me and Casey no matter what," Dickerson says, but Huff's expertise allowed them "to really, really get down into the layers, sonically, of this music."
Indeed, Dickerson knows the value of a solid friendship and working relationship — and to not mess with a good thing. All four of his No. 1 singles, he co-wrote with Brown and Parker Welling, friends from his time at Nashville's Belmont University who became his musical collaborators and have turned into family.
"I had written with the top dogs, man ... and the songs just never — I mean, they were good songs, don't get me wrong, but the magic never hit until I wrote with Casey and Parker," Dickerson reflects. "We were friends — basically family; we still are — before we were co-writers ... You can't just replace that ..."
"Even in the writing room, you feel more comfortable, because it's like we're just hanging out, as opposed to [it feeling like], 'Oh, I'm in the room with this famous songwriter, I'm nervous they're gonna think this idea is stupid and never want to write with me again,'" he adds. "Loyalty is a huge part of it."
Still, Dickerson enlisted some big-time names for Southern Symphony, too: Lady A member Charles Kelley helped write "Home Sweet," Dickerson's pick for his next single (though it's not official yet), and Florida Georgia Line are featured on the party playlist-ready "It's About Time."
Like Dickerson, Brown and Welling, Dickerson and FGL members Tyler Hubbard and Brian Kelley trace their friendship back to Belmont in the late 2000s, when Dickerson was still a student and Hubbard and Kelley were alumni. Still — or rather, because of that lengthy relationship — Dickerson was nervous about asking them to collaborate.
"I was so nervous. And I wanted to give [them] every out ... You don't want [them] to say yes just because they're your friend," he explains. "I left it at that: I sent [Hubbard] the song and was like, 'If you don't respond, no worries, we're still boys.' But he was like, 'Dude, holy crap' ..."
"It's perfect for their vein, perfect for my vein," the singer continues, "and I'm so glad that they dug it."
Although baby Remington wasn't born until months after Dickerson completed Southern Symphony, there's a familial thread to the album. Its title track, the singer says, is "who I am" and "where I came from." Dickerson didn't original conceptualize the song as a musical letter to his son about his own upbringing, but it certainly works that way.
"I was more focused on just telling my story of my little hometown ...," he says, "but now that you say that, I'm like, 100 percent it could go that direction and take little Remington back to my hometown."
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