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Country’s Average Joe: Cole Swindell’s Winding Road to Stardom

Cole Swindell
Warner Music Nashville

There’s something unmistakably normal about Cole Swindell. Maybe it’s the ball cap — a dark blue, well-worn lid promoting his alma mater, Georgia Southern University. Or maybe it’s his story?

Friend and fraternity brother to Luke Bryan, then a merchandise guy for the star, is making the most of an opportunity brought forth by the success of his hit song ‘Chillin’ It.’ That sort of feels like how any average Joe would crack Nashville, right?

Of course, there’s his smile. Sincere, complete through the eyes, but not so big you think he’s mugging for the camera. It’s the sort of grin your best drinking buddy would flash after you told him a joke. This anything-but-flashy country music antihero even sounds normal. Ask a question and you get an honest, unprepared answer. He’s not pushing bullet points.

"You know, it’s not me that makes the prices,” he says, half laughing. “It’s not the merch guy that chooses a shirt and the sizes they have."

Swindell’s normal-ness actually had him thinking he wasn’t cut out to be an artist. Not long after moving to Nashville he resigned himself to being a songwriter only. “I was worried I didn’t have a cool story ’cause I didn’t start off singing when I was a kid,” he tells Taste of Country leading up to the Feb. 18 release of his self-titled debut album.

There’s no great tragedy pockmarking his childhood. Swindell wasn’t singing in small town Oprys before his voice dropped. His mother and father weren’t country music bigshots. Normal? Absolutely. You’ll hear it on every song from ‘Cole Swindell.’ Not one — even the crank-it-up-loud party song ‘Brought to You by Beer’ — feels forced.

Ordinary? Absolutely not. Since moving to Nashville, the newcomer has found his share of twists and turns, hurdles, doubt, missed opportunity, a few cute girls and … yes, tragedy.

“My story is pretty dang crazy,” the singer confesses now, having time to look back at it. It took six-and-a-half years for him to get to this point. His debut album dropped this week, signifying the end of one journey and the beginning of another.

Cole Swindell
John Weast, Getty Images

Here’s the crib notes version: Swindell started in a van with Luke Bryan, but before long landed his own publishing deal. People started asking him why he didn’t pursue being an artist after hearing him on demos, but he brushed them off … until he began wondering the same thing himself.

“So I started booking shows and my first time back on stage … I knew I had to do that,” he remembers. “We chased it hard after that, and I knew the minute I got offstage that’s what I wanted to do.”

“It may be coming out of nowhere, but man I’ve been here for six-and-a-half years and certainly didn’t plan it out this way, but I wouldn’t change a thing,” Swindell adds. “I got to learn a lot. I don’t think I would have been ready a day before I signed my deal.”

It’s difficult to quantify what he learned during three years on the road with Bryan. As the merch guy, Swindell was in charge of the one thing that brought profit. “When I was out there with Luke, that was what kept gas in the van,” he says. “For a new artist … the shows and all that, you’re losing money half the time. So to know how important merchandise is, man, it’s important!”

From time to time he’d comp a T-shirt for a good looking girl — something he admits his merch guy is probably going to do as well. But that made up for the angry fans. “You know, it’s not me that makes the prices,” he says, half laughing. “It’s not the merch guy that chooses a shirt and the sizes they have.”

SiriusXM Radio was really the first to bring attention to Cole Swindell and his song ‘Chillin’ It.’ In early 2013, the Highway added his song to its Highway Find category and monitored single sales. Program Director John Marks told trade publication Country Aircheck the song went from 800 to over 13,000 downloads per week after fans started catching on. Much like ‘Cruise’ by Florida Georgia Line (another Highway Find), it was a hit before it was a hit.

Songs on ‘Cole Swindell’ will remind fans that the singer is tight with Bryan and Florida Georgia Line, but there’s a surprising amount of depth and variety on the project as well. ‘Dozen Roses & a Six-Pack’ is one traditionalists can lean on. The hook holds this great country line: “I got a dozen roses if she comes back home / And a six-pack if she don’t.” 

Swindell calls this song one of his favorites that he’s ever written. Along with ‘The Back Roads & the Back Rows,’ he says it tells his story, which is exactly what he set out to do on his debut project.

"They don’t think it’s a real song if it’s not something that makes you sad or hits you hard, but you watch 20,000 people get up and go crazy — to me that’s feeling something."

“I grew up on ‘90s country, back where it was a time where it was more about the lyrics and not the cool sound of things,” he says. “I remember when my parents got divorced. That Clay Walker song, ‘This Woman and This Man.’ Stuff like that, that as a kid made me feel something. To me, songs like ‘Dozen Roses & a Six-Pack’ and ‘The Back Roads & the Back Row’ are songs about where I come from.”

Still, he appreciates a feel-good song like ‘Chillin’ It’ and FGL’s ‘This Is How I Roll’ (co-written by Swindell, Tyler Hubbard and Brian Kelley of FGL and Bryan). There’s no chip on his shoulder when he responds to critics of that style of country music.

“They don’t think it’s a real song if it’s not something that makes you sad or hits you hard, but you watch 20,000 people get up and go crazy — to me that’s feeling something,” he insists.

The death of Swindell’s father last September didn’t inspire a song that made this debut album, but it did inspire a song. There’s a number reasons William Keith Swindell didn’t make the album, the first being that the singer isn’t ready to relive those emotions every night. However, he agreed that a sad tribute to dad might not fit on this album. Most songs are feel-good love stories or cathartic get-over-her ballads.

“I did get a title out of that,” Swindell admits. He, Ben Hayslip and Rhett Akins have actually begun writing it, as well. “There’s a cool picture of me and (my father), when I was a kid of him playing the guitar, that’s on the album. He was the first one I ever heard play and sing so it’s going to be cool to have on my first album.”

For now, that will have to be enough.

There’s one other thing that lets fans know Swindell is remarkably normal: his dance moves. Watch the video for ‘Chillin’ It.’ “That’s just me being me,” he says, laughing.

“I saw some article the other day that started off, it said, ‘Complete with awkward white boy dance moves’ or something. And I was like, ‘That is so awesome!’ I am not a dancer. I’m just out there feeling it, excited, just moving around,” Swindell admits. “Heck, I think ‘dance moves’ is a compliment.”

‘Chillin’ It’ has sold over 800K singles — enough to make it the highest-selling debut single released by a solo country male in 2013. Look for Swindell on Bryan’s That’s My Kind of Night Tour this spring, summer and fall. This time, he’ll be on stage, not hooking up cuties with free gear.

Next: Cole Swindell Remembers His Most Romantic Gesture

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