7 p.m. Wednesday, Sept. 24
Dekalb Fall Fair
Dekalb County Fairgrounds, Auburn
'Chillin' It' in the Bigs
Cole Swindell’s nomination for the CMA Best New Artist of the Year award is a big deal, but it’s just the latest in a series of milestones along the singer’s path from Music Row songwriter to one of country music’s hottest solo performers. It would be an impressive journey if it had taken a decade, but the fact that Swindell’s career as a solo recording artist got started a little over a year ago makes the whole thing seem, frankly, a little insane.
“It has been a crazy whirlwind year,” he says, “and I feel so fortunate that country music fans and country radio has embraced me in such a huge way. It’s what an artist dreams about.”
Earlier this year, Swindell was an opening act, taking the stage ahead of his friend and headliner Luke Bryan on Bryan’s big arena tour. Now, as summer is turning into fall, Swindell is still opening for Bryan, but he’s facing the prospect of being a bona fide headliner himself in the very near future.
Although much is made of his friendship with Bryan, it’s not as if Swindell has had anything handed to him because of the relationship. He and Bryan are Sigma Chi fraternity brothers, but they didn’t attend Georgia Southern University at the same time, and they weren’t frat house buddies. The pair met when Bryan returned to Georgia Southern to play a show, and they cemented their new friendship when Swindell moved to Nashville after he left school.
Swindell spent three years, between 2007 and 2010, on tour with Bryan, but the time on the road was a working apprenticeship, and his accomplishments weren’t earned on stage. Swindell sold merchandise at Bryan’s shows; he made $100 a night, and he learned the best way to manage inventory and fold shirts. But he kept his eye on his real priority – music – and took advantage of the tour atmosphere to hone his craft, writing songs on the bus in his spare time.
Swindell’s experience on the road and his developing songwriting skills eventually gained him entrance into the industry system back home in Nashville. He got a job as a writer on staff at Sony/ATV Music Publishing and very quickly became a guy that A-list writers and performers wanted to collaborate with.
“The publishing company told me, ‘People are calling back and wanting more dates,’” Swindell recalls. “I kept writing and paying my dues, working hard to get to the point where I deserved to be in the room with the major writers, people whose songs I was singing in college bars just a few years ago.”
Those people included American Idol winner Scotty McCreery, for whom Swindell co-wrote “Water Tower Town” and “Carolina Eyes,” Craig Campbell, whose single “Outta My Head” bears Swindell’s co-writing credit, and Chris Young, whose “Nothin’ But the Cooler Left” was also co-written by Swindell. Swindell also had a hand in Thomas Rhett’s “Get Me Some of That,” and he teamed up with Bryan, Tyler Hubbard and Brian Kelley to write Florida Georgia Line’s “This Is How We Roll.”
It was Swindell’s ongoing professional relationship with Bryan, however, that remained most productive. Swindell contributed his writing talents to close to a dozen of Bryan’s songs, including “Roller Coaster,” “Just a Sip” and “Love in a College Town.”
Between 2011 and 2014, Swindell’s songwriting career has taken off—he was named Music Row’s Breakthrough Songwriter of the Year for 2014—but he is more than just a writer. He is a performer, too, and he loves being on stage. As long as he’s been in Nashville, he’s played solo when he could, and he opened for established performers when he got the chance. Here, Bryan came through again, giving Swindell the opening slot during many of his shows, including a stint on the current “That’s My Kind of Party Tour.”
When it came time to truly establish himself as a solo performer, though, Swindell’s been doing it all on his own, without much help, at least initially, from the industry. In the spring of 2013, he released his first single, “Chillin’ It,” independently, counting on social-media word-of-mouth and airplay on independent country radio stations to spread the word. It’s a DIY approach made possible by 21st-century technology, and it worked perfectly. Sirius XM put the song into the rotation of one of its country channels, and from there sales exploded; as of the spring of 2014, the song had sold over a million copies.
After “Chillin’ It” hit the big time, record labels took notice, and Swindell was suddenly a hot commodity, not just as a songwriter, but as a performer as well. He signed a deal with Warner Music Nashville, and his self-titled debut album was released in February of this year; as of last month, it had sold nearly a quarter million copies.
Now he’s proven that he can play in the big leagues as both a writer and a recording artist, but Swindell is determined to be the kind of live performer that keeps his audiences excited about what they’re hearing and seeing.
“I don’t want to have a song where people feel comfortable going to get a beer,” he says. “Once we get started, I don’t want them to risk missing what’s next. I want them to leave saying, ‘That’s the best show I’ve ever seen.’”
Swindell will stay on the road through the fall on Bryan’s tour, and he’ll squeeze in solo shows like the one at the Dekalb County Fair when he can. Once the fall tour is over, he’ll do what any performer who loves performing would do: he’ll head back out on another tour, this time as the headliner. He’ll kick off his Down Home Tour in Florida on November 13, and he’ll hop around the South before heading for the Midwest in December. That month is going to see him back here in Indiana, where he’ll play shows in South Bend and Indianapolis before wrapping up the whole tour with a final show here in Fort Wayne.
It’s an ambitious schedule, particularly for a guy who admits that he gets a little nervous before he goes on stage. Audiences needn’t worry, though; once he starts singing, he’s going to give it everything’s he’s got, every night.
“It’s like football in high school,” he says. “On the kickoff, once you get that first hit in, you’re in your groove. From then on, it’s wide open. I’m having fun.”