Exclusive Interview—Dustin Lynch’s debut single, “Cowboys and Angels,” is one of the best first releases to come out of Nashville in a long time and has been racing toward the top of the country charts with a momentum that has seen it blow by more established artists. And it’s definitely no fluke. The rest of the tunes on the 27-year-old’s self-titled premier album, which hit the streets today, are equally impressive. The public apparently agrees, having placed the CD at No. 1 on iTunes Country Albums Chart since its release in the early a.m. hours. A few days before the release of the album, Dustin took some time to chat with Nashville.com about his music, his personal life, his faith and the impact “Cowboys and Angels” is having on fans everywhere. Here’s some of what he had to say. And, oh yes, buy this record. You’ll love the music, and Dustin deserves to be rewarded for an effort this good.
Nash: I love the record, especially the single, “Cowboys and Angels.” Just gorgeous. Congrats.
Nash: Let’s talk about the process in picking the songs for the record. I know you’re a prolific writer, but also had a lot of outside songs to listen to. Was it a daunting process to decide what would make the album?
Dustin: I love listening to outside songs. And writing so many songs, and having a good bunch of songs that I’m proud of that didn’t make the record, it was a fun process to line everything up as a team and, and the same songs always bubbled to the top, out of the hundreds we’ve got. We got it down to about 30, and I’ve always told myself, “I’m gonna cut the best songs I can find.” And, obviously, I’m not getting the songs pitched to me first—those are going to Aldean and Luke Bryan—I’m kind of at the bottom of the lake waiting for things to trickle down to me.
Nash: The great thing about Nashville as a writer’s town is that you’ve got all the writers who are already hit writers—but, just as you have the ability to be a big, big star . . . and you’re just not quite there yet, there are a lot of soon-to-be hit songwriters looking for that first big one. You could be an unknown writer’s first big hit. You don’t necessarily have to have someone who’s had 30 already.
Dustin: Right. And that’s the great thing about songwriting. Each day you walk into a room with nothing but air and some days there’s a little magic in there with the air, and you come out with something that’ll change some lives.
Nash: I notice you wrote with a bunch of guys who’ve had a lot of success, some really big names . . . and a lot of them came from having absolutely nothing when they started. Is that inspiring to you, to know that you’re working with guys who, with talent, some serious perseverance and some breaks along the way, have risen to the very top?
Dustin: As an artist, you can have a little help getting where you need to get. But, as a songwriter, you’ve gotta write the songs. Nobody can give you a song. What I’ve learned about guys who are successful in Nashville, guys like Casey Beathard, who’s a writer on this record, they’re all super hard workers. I was actually writing with Casey and Phil O’Donnell, and they’re two really hardworking guys. And Casey gets a phone call, and it’s Chesney. And Chesney is calling him in March about some songwriting panel they were doing at CMA Music Fest in June. That was very eye opening for me. Casey told me, Kenney’s the hardest-working guy he’s met in town. And he’s fillin’ up stadiums every night he wants to. I learned in college, with all the late nights and cramming, that if you want to be the best, you’ve got to work harder than everybody else.
Nash: Let’s talk about some specific songs. I love “Cowboys and Angels.” The first time I heard it, it wasn’t while watching the video and I found myself thinking, “Who is that?” I liked your voice a lot, but couldn’t put a finger on who was singing. But it reminded me of something of the maturity and quality of some of my favorite George Strait songs. Is there a two-edged sword in having something that great be your first single? Because soon it’ll be, “Okay, now I need a second single, and a third.” How do you follow that?
Dustin: (laughs) I know what you’re talking about. “Cowboys and Angels” is a song I wrote 2 ½ years ago. And it was such a special song, we always knew it was going to be the foundation of this first album. And when it came time to pick singles, you’ve got one shot, one chance to make a first impression. And like you said, “Cowboys and Angels” was a song that popped out and made you say, “who’s that?” And we knew it would do that. Whether it would be a good thing or a bad thing, we didn’t know. (laughs) So, yeah, you’ve got to follow it up. But I think we’ve made an album that’ll let us follow it up more than once.
Nash: You have. And the material covers a pretty broad spectrum, from the powerfully moving first single, to some serious kickin’ tunes.
Dustin: All people know is “Cowboys and Angels,” and when people pop this album in, they’re gonna go, “What?” And that’s a good thing. This album is diverse and will keep people guessing and keep them on their toes. I think they’re going to like it.
Nash: I know you’ve talked about thinking about your parents and grandparents as you wrote the single. Are they all still with us?
Dustin: Yeah, they are, fortunately.
Nash: So, they’re not angels in reality.
Dustin: No, not yet. I still have all of them in my life. And music has brought us closer together. My granddad’s a preacher in Florida now. He used to preach up here. And grandma plays piano in the service in Florida. So, getting them to honky tonks in Nashville never happened. But they finally got to see me play live music for the first time ever when I debuted at the Opry. So it’s been neat. The song really has brought us closer together as a family, too.
Nash: I was going to ask you later, but this seems like a good time to bring up “Your Plan,” which is maybe my favorite song on the album, along with “Cowboys and Angels.” How important is faith in your life? The belief in someone bigger than you as part of this whole equation? Is prayer a big part of your life?
Dustin: Absolutely it is. I’m such a blessed guy to be in these boots I’m in. I’m a firm believer, and I’m just holdin’ the pen when I write songs. Everything else is something from above. Just like “Cowboys and Angels.” For two guys not to know each other to walk in with the same idea and come out with a song and 2 ½ years later , here we sit talkin’ about it, is definitely divine intervention in my opinion.
And “Your Plan” was a song that . . . I had to say it. It was a prayer that happened at 3 in the morning. I walked down to the basement and I was beat. I didn’t know if this was my calling or not. I was getting stomped on pretty hard. And I went down there and it’s a prayer that fell out in about 10 minutes. I’m so proud we got to put in on the album. The song was as turning point in my mindset as far as this business goes. Yeah, it is, prayer’s a big part of my life. Giving thanks is a big part of my life as well.
Nash: Is it always easy for you to tell the difference between and obstacle you’re meant to overcome and one that’s trying to tell you, “You’re going in the wrong direction. Take another path?”
Dustin: That’s a great question. I think you take each thing as it comes. For me, I’m in this business because it’s always a challenge. Ronnie Dunn and Alan Jackson are still putting out singles because it’s a challenge. They’re still looking for the thumbs up from everybody. It’s fun.
I got a C in vocal music in high school and didn’t get a tryout for show choir. I was firmly told “no thanks.” And here I sit today. So I like to be told no sometimes. It kind of lights a fire under me.
Nash: On the other end of the spiritual spectrum is “Crank My Tractor.”
Dustin: (big laugh)
Nash: Tell me some things that crank your tractor. Not necessarily romantically, but in life generally. What gets your juices going or in some way flips your switch?
Dustin: Just real quick, “Crank My Tractor” is about my dream girl, which is a country girl who’s wilder than I am.
Nash: How hard is it to be wilder than you are?
Dustin: I’m a really laid back guy. Being on the road and playing shows across the country, there are a lot of girls wilder than me. So it’s not tough to find ‘em.
Other things that crank my tractor. The moment before going onstage when you first hear that first roar from the crowd when they announce my name . . . that cranks my tractor pretty good. I love to hunt and fish. I love to bow hunt. Being in a deer stand and having deer under you really cranks my tractor. Other than girls and hunting and fishing, what else is there in life? (chuckles)
Nash: You said you studied biology in college . . . so you’ve covered a lot of biology there, with the male/female thing and the hunting. It’s all biology.
Dustin: It’s all huntin’, too!
Nash: You mentioned going onstage and feeling adrenaline. Is it always excitement now? When was the last time there was an element of terror, going on before a huge crowd or having some other hugely stressful situation? Like, “there are 10,000 people out there . . . oh, wow.”
Dustin: It’s a good question. It’s usually something I haven’t experienced yet. Something new. So what hit me when you asked that was The Ryman. On my debut at the Ryman I got to do a country classics show, and did “Baby’s Got Her Blue Jeans On” by Mel McDaniel and “Folsom Prison Blues.” Larry Gatlin was hosting and he said, “You’re not done yet. I was supposed to sing a song. But I’m a big fan of your song ‘Cowboys and Angels.’ I’d like for you to sing it.” So here I am, Ryman debut, just me and my guitar and I’m standing there on the Ryman stage playing “Cowboys and Angels.” And I almost couldn’t swallow, man. Because that’s a building and a stage I’ve dreamed about getting on for nine years. I’ve played the bars of lower Broadway, and what’s so cool about the Ryman is it kind of shadows down on all of those places. And you’re looking up at it thinking, “one day.” And that was the day for me. It was nerve wracking. I pulled it off and did fine. But it was one of those times when you’re trying to soak it in and execute at the same time.
I’ve told myself a million times I need to start journaling to help me remember all of these things that are happening. Maybe I’ll start journaling the day my album drops. But life’s so crazy right now, I don’t know if I can put it into words or not.
Nash: Is it a huge advantage for a country singer to have grown up in a small southern town like Tullahoma? You sing about going out in a field with the truck lights on . . .
Dustin: Oh definitely so. That’s real life, “Last Lap” and “Dancin’ in the Headlights.” That’s life in Tullahoma. That’s what I still love to do. If I get a day off with my buds, we’re still doing that. We’ll get on Dale Hollow Lake and circle the boats up or circle the trucks or the four-wheelers up. It’s a way of life. That’s why we all love country music; it speaks of real life. I put myself in 18-year-old shoes a lot in Tullahoma.
Nash: How old are you?
Nash: There’s a song called “Waiting” on the record. Are you waiting for a particular someone? Is there anyone in the picture for you now?
Dustin: When I write, I’m drawing from personal experience. I’m waiting for someone, but right now, my girlfriend is music and my guitar. That’s where my total focus is.
Nash: Let’s go back to “Cowboys and Angels” for a minute. Can you tell me a story you’ve heard from fans about what the song means to them?
Dustin: I hear ‘em all the time. Just last week, we were playing a benefit for the Muscular Dystrophy Association in Champaign Illinois. I got an email from a girl whose father had passed away. He was a big Harley rider and had taught his wife, the girl’s mom, how to ride. And his nickname in the bike club was “Cowboy.” And she was in a women’s bike club, and she was “Angel.” And she said, “My dad just died and we picked three songs for the funeral. And she picked “Cowboys and Angels” as her song.” She said, “It would mean the world to us if you could dedicate it to Dad tonight during the concert.” It was very emotional for me, and I’m kind of choking up talking about it now. But that’s why we do what we do; it’s why we make music. And that’s just one story of the hundred we’ve got. Stuff like that is very humbling and very touching.
Nash: One more thing, then I’ll get out of your hair. Church going family . . . you’ve got plenty of rowdy stuff on this record. Any feedback from them about having to change churches or anything because of any suggestive tunes on the record?
Dustin: They love me, but I think they pray a lot nowadays! (laughs) But I’ve got “Your Plan” on there, so I think I’m covered with them.