Cole Swindell started writing songs when he was a student at Georgia Southern University. After meeting former student and fellow Sigma Chi Luke Bryan — who was playing a show on campus at the time — the two stayed in touch. When Swindell moved to Nashville, he hit the road with Bryan, selling merchandise while he honed his songwriting skills.
A few years later, Swindell landed a publishing deal with Sony/ATV, where he wrote or co-wrote hit after hit for the likes of Bryan, Thomas Rhett, Florida Georgia Line, Chris Young and Scotty McCreery. Despite his success as a songwriter, Swindell knew he wanted to pursue a record deal. He also knew how he wanted to introduce himself to the world: with his first No. 1 song as an artist, “Chillin’ It.” It’s safe to say that the world responded positively; in 2015, he was named the Academy of Country Music (ACM) New Artist of the Year.
Swindell now has seven consecutive No. 1 hits to his name, most recently with “Flatliner,” featuring Dierks Bentley, has released two platinum-selling albums and is now working on his third. We caught up with the talented BMI songwriter as he prepped to hit the stage on his current tour (which has sold out multiple dates) and chatted about the best advice Luke Bryan ever gave him, what it’s like to write a song with somebody else, and why his fans are so important to him.
You’re the first solo artist to have your first seven singles hit No. 1 on country radio. How does it feel to break your own record?
When you dream of coming to Nashville, writing songs and getting a record deal — and especially when you’re around the business for six years before it ever really happens for you — I think you know that this is not something you really dream about [laughs]. You just dream about getting a song on the radio or writing a song on an album for somebody. It just kind of all came together for me. And for my seventh one in a row to do that! You want to keep going, but you wonder how long that’s going to last. But it does motivate me; I just want to give folks the best songs I can. And I’ve been fortunate to have a lot of support. This wouldn’t have happened without a lot of people believing in me. So, seven — if that’s where it ends, I’m cool with that … kinda.
You have to keep reaching for something, right?
Exactly — it keeps you going!
You established yourself as a writer before you released your self-titled debut. Did that enable you to have a little more creative control when it came to the songs you cut, or the way songs were recorded in the studio?
I had three years of nothing but writing songs every single day, ever since I was affiliated with BMI. I remember my first meeting; BMI set me up with some co-writes, and that’s all I did for three years, just praying that people like Luke Bryan and Jason Aldean and Blake Shelton would record my songs.
And then I thought, ‘OK, if I’m going to get a record deal, I’ve got to keep some of these for myself.’ The day I wrote “Chillin’ It” with Shane Minor, I knew this was my song. I knew it right when I wrote it.
So yeah, I had a head start in the writing world, so I think it definitely helped me get things started. I think I had a little more control. But I think over the years — I’m now on my third album — I think I’ve grown in the studio.
When did you first realize that you could write a song? Did you always want to be a songwriter?
You know, probably my college years. I remember writing stuff in high school, like short stories, but it wasn’t until college when I realized that I was buying albums and really focusing on who wrote the songs. At that point, I kind of knew. I was singing cover songs in bars and having people sing them back — and it was the best feeling in the world being on stage — but I wanted to be writing my own songs.
So I started writing some in college, but I’ve always been hard on myself; I think that’s part of what’s gotten me here. I’d listened to too much good music in my life to know that the songs I was writing at the time were not how I wanted to introduce myself. So I didn’t really play people my stuff until I’d moved to Nashville and had some songs that I really believed in. I knew I had a lot of getting better to do, but it was at least something that I was proud enough to play for somebody.
And that’s really what gave me the confidence to keep going, having those champions — friends, people at BMI, people at my publishing company — having people who believe in you and keep pushing you. That was a big part of me wanting to be a songwriter; once I fell in love with songwriting, it was the same feeling as being on stage. And now I get to kind of combine both of those; I couldn’t have it any better.
Speaking of champions, you met Luke Bryan at your fraternity when you were in college, and when you first moved to Nashville, you worked for him on the road while you were working on your own songwriting. Did he give you any advice as you were getting started in the industry?
I remember a really short piece of advice that I’ll never forget. I sent him a message by email in college after we’d met, just letting him know that I wanted to be a songwriter, and if he had any advice — the same messages I get nowadays from people. It’s pretty crazy. I remember him writing back; he just told me to live. I thought he was being sarcastic, but the more I thought about the answer, that has a lot to do with songwriting — just living and writing about what you know.
He’s always been there for me, but he’s also let me figure it out myself. I always watched how he treats his folks — his band, his crew, everybody. It doesn’t matter if you’re a T-shirt guy or the biggest thing in country music: There’s no reason you should treat anybody any different. He never really told me that, he’s just done that, and I think that speaks louder than words. I couldn’t have come up around a better guy than Luke Bryan.
Have you had any other mentors?
Man, I’m trying to think of everybody! Troy Tomlinson over at Sony, Clay Bradley at BMI, everybody I toured with! I toured with Luke [Bryan], Jason Aldean, Kenny Chesney, Florida Georgia Line, Dierks [Bentley]. Getting to talk to Kenny Chesney about the business, and Aldean … they don’t have any special advice, it’s just, you’ve got to keep going, you’ve got to take the good with the bad, and we’re lucky that we get to do what we do. I think they all feel that way and I think that’s why they all treat people the way that they do. I don’t think you’re around in the business without being like those guys. They’ve all helped and encouraged me to get to this point.
You mentioned earlier that when you wrote “Chillin’ It” you just knew that was something that you had to do. When you write a song, how do you know if it’s better for you or for another artist?
You know, I wish I knew that! Back then, songs like “Roller Coaster,” and “This Is How We Roll,” “Give Me Some of That” … I didn’t have a record deal at that point. I was making a living. I knew I wanted a record deal, but I wasn’t in a position to be holding a song back from Luke Bryan or Thomas Rhett! So it was kind of a no-brainer; I knew it would help get my name out, and I wanted people to know that I am a songwriter, that’s a big part of me.
With “Chillin’ It,” I just knew I couldn’t give it to anybody. And that’s hard to do when you still don’t have a record deal! But you’ve got to have that song to get you going. That was how I wanted to introduce myself — you know, nothing too serious — I wanted them to know more about me after this song, and that’s the way we went about it.
Tell us a little bit about the co-writing process — what do you like about it, and what do you think leads to a successful session?
You know, I’ve been fortunate to do a lot of co-writing. It’s one of my favorite things. I don’t know if you can describe it … I love golf, but I don’t like playing golf by myself. Maybe some people like writing by themselves, but I just feel like two or three brains is going to be better than one. When you’re first starting out, it can be uncomfortable. You’re throwing out stuff, you’re writing with people who have written some of your favorite songs, and it’s tough to open up and start saying whatever you think. But as you do it more and more, you realize, ‘OK, we’re both going to say some things that probably aren’t the best lines in the world, but it’s a lot of learning and growing.’
But there’s no better feeling in the world than getting in a room with somebody you’re best friends with and love writing with, or somebody you’ve looked up to your whole life. And I’ve gotten to see where a song can change your life; they get recorded and they’re on the radio! It’s just a crazy world we live in, and to share this experience of writing a song is something I’m always down for. I’ve been out of it for a little while, touring and getting ready for this album, but I forgot how much I love doing it. So I’m glad to be back writing.
I imagine it’s therapeutic, too — you probably work a lot out in those writing sessions.
It is! Songs like “You Should Be Here” [co-written with Ashley Gorley, the song addresses the passing of Swindell’s father]— I’ve never written a song like that, but that is the kind of song I moved to Nashville to write. I think that’s why we all love country music. There’s fun songs, I know — I’ve had plenty of them — but they can’t always be fun. Life ain’t always fun, and being able to write something like that … I can’t explain how much it helped me deal with the loss of my father.
I’m getting ready for a show tonight, and I know I’ll hear multiple “You Should Be Here” stories tonight in my meet and greet. I wish every song could be like that, and I’m just fortunate to have those co-writes where you’re comfortable enough to write like that. You might shed a tear, you might have chill bumps the whole time, but it’s all part of writing a song, and that’s how much music means to me.
What do you think your father would say today if he could see your success?
He’d probably shake his head in disbelief, but he’d be so proud, smiling, ‘I can’t believe this, buddy,’ … that’s what he’d say. He got to see me get a record deal, so I know he was proud. I might not have gotten to really tell him bye, but to know that he was proud — a lot of people don’t even know that, they lose their father way before that point in their lives.
Shooting that video was the first time I was back at his grave, and I was kind of embarrassed about it. It had been over a year, and I hadn’t made it down there. I blamed it on being busy or whatever, but I think a lot of it was being scared. So for me, putting a story like that out there, people were like, ‘Oh my gosh, I still haven’t been back to my mom’s grave,’ and it just makes you feel like you’re a little less weird, you know? Like, these people can relate to what I’m saying, and sometimes you’re just scared to say stuff like that.
But then you get the support of the fans, and it feels like one big family. I love getting to share my life with them. Those are the people who spend money for my music and support what I do, and I want them to know a little bit about me, and to know that I’m like them. I might be in the spotlight every now and then, but I’ve been through stuff too, whether it be losing someone, a breakup, a good time, or whatever, but I’m just glad I get to write about it.
You won the New Artist of the Year Award from the Academy of Country Music (ACM) in 2015. That was a huge moment! What other standout moments can you recall from your career so far?
That was probably the biggest one, honestly. Winning an ACM award after watching award shows your whole life … that was a big moment. Like we talked about earlier, having my seventh No. 1, that was a big moment. Finding out that both of my albums went platinum, that’s something that doesn’t happen as much these days.
I have a lot of things to be thankful for, and that includes my team. I know I’m not the only one out here and I’m not the only one that makes this happen. It’s fun to share this with other people. I’ve given up a lot of real-life stuff to focus on music and chase this dream, but I get to do what I love. I want everybody to somehow be able to do something that they love, because I know how that feels. It’s the best feeling in the world.
How did you start working with BMI, and how have they fostered your career throughout the years?
I was writing songs, and a lot of my favorite people in Nashville were [with] BMI — Luke Bryan, Dallas Davidson, Rhett Akins — a lot of guys I looked up to. I felt comfortable at BMI; they believed in some songs I wrote and started helping me with co-writes. And now I get to go to the BMI Awards every year — that was a huge moment, too, winning my first BMI award. Now I’ve had several, but I used to see pictures on the internet — I’d see my buddies out after the awards, I didn’t even get to go to them, and they’d have these medals on, and I’d just dream of having one of those. And now, to be in the middle of the dream you’ve been dreaming, that’s how I feel right now. It’s hard not to be extremely thankful.