Dustin Lynch Cowboys Up to Continued Country Success

It’s rare that country artists can achieve consistent levels of elite success for over a decade, but Dustin Lynch has managed that while growing his audience with each new release since his 2012 debut. Blue in the Sky (2022) featured “Thinking ‘Bout You,” a track with MacKenzie Porter, which topped Billboard’s Country Airplay chart for six weeks.

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It doesn’t seem like the momentum will slow anytime soon once fans hear his new album, Killed The Cowboy. With longtime collaborator Zach Crowell producing, Lynch has turned out 10 more songs that combine irresistible hooks and multi-faceted music with lyrics that tell relatable stories of triumph and heartbreak. American Songwriter spoke to Lynch about making the new album, basing a song on his musical hero, George Strait, and maintaining a dedicated approach to songwriting. 

American Songwriter: When you set out to make an album like this one, do you have a game plan beforehand of how you want it to sound or themes you want to tackle, or is it a case of just finding the best 10 songs and trusting that they’ll fall together?

Dustin Lynch: It was a little bit of both with this one. There wasn’t a big, “Hey, this is the concept. Let’s go find more songs that fit the mold.” I think the song ideas I have are probably a lot of what I’m going through. And I’m constantly looking for the best songs that I can get my hands on from my songwriter friends. My titles and what makes my ears perk up are what I’m experiencing in life and where I’m at in this journey. And then the outside songs that came in, sometimes you just can’t deny them. That’s what’s so exciting about Nashville and how we make music.

AS: One of the things that is noticeable about your music, and it’s evident on this record, is that even though it’s labeled country, it turns out to be so much more than that when you delve into it. There are all these other genres like rock, soul, and hip-hop that make their way into the songs. Is that about always pushing that sound forward and never staying stagnant?

DL: Absolutely. Through the years, we’ve realized that I’ve been blessed to have success not just with a more traditional type of song, but also with really left-of-center, outside-the-box productions and melodic structures. It allows us to paint with broad strokes. We start small. We cut with a traditional, country-type small-core band. How Zach and I like to make records is we get our base down and then work on how to make it intriguing to the listeners. Zach and I have also realized that if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Let’s do what people have reacted to positively with us. We keep that in mind with all of these recordings, while still making it identifiable to me.

Dustin Lynch (Photo by Alysse Gafkjen)

AS: You have an uptown problem with this record, in that, I hear a lot of potential singles, like 10 of them to be exact. Is that something you strive for, to make every song an event in itself, even if it does end up being just an album track?

DL: It’s funny, you used the word that we use all the time in the studio: What’s the event? There are traditional, radio hit songs, but then it’s like, what’s the moment? What’s the time stamp on my career? We’re constantly looking for those. What is going to be eye-opening and ear-opening enough to stand out and say, “Hey, this was that era?” At the same time, I’ve always struggled with: Do we go with a more critically creative and acclaimed structure of an album? Or do I put on 10 potential songs that somebody’s going to play on a boat in the summertime? For lack of a better word, bangers. 

I want songs that people are going to play to have fun in their lives. Whether they’re on the road trying to get away from the traffic coming home from work, or it’s out on the water, or if it’s headed to town to party or at a party. I want to be a part of those soundtracks. I constantly lean toward that type of song. And those songs also benefit and hold up the type of show that we’re bringing to town. It’s a very interactive, feel-good type of tour and show. I’m not really coming down too much when I’m on stage. 

AS: Talking about some of the individual songs, starting with “George Strait Jr.” How did that idea come about, and did you talk to George and let him know what’s coming with this song?

DL: I haven’t gotten to talk to George. I wish I had that type of relationship with him. Maybe this is the song that bridges the cell phone gap and gets him in my contacts (laughs.) George is my biggest hero, my biggest influence, and one of those artists I listen to year after year. And I’ll go out on a limb right here: If there was anybody I wanted to be like later in life, it would be George Strait. 

That was a song title I had and, believe it or not, it took us a couple of years to finally hone in on it. I asked the guys before we started writing it, if we don’t knock it out of the park, are you all cool with me rewriting it? We can take another swing at it. Everybody agreed. We took a step back and tried to wrap our heads around how to approach the song title. It took us another year before we locked in on how to come at it. 

AS: Where did the idea come about to use “Drift Away” as the basis for “Chevrolet” (which features an appearance from Jelly Roll), and how did it progress from there?

DL: That was just a blessing of a songwriter friend believing in me as an artist and saying, “Hey we have a cool interpolation of a song.” (The original “Drift Away” was written by Mentor Williams, while Chase McGill, Jessi Alexander, and Hunter Phelps are credited on “Chevrolet.”) “Chevrolet” is a cool interpolation of “Drift Away,” an iconic melody that’s been a hit twice already. We all assume that everybody has heard “Drift Away.” I think I proved as I played the song for friends and younger cousins that not everybody knows it (laughs). It becomes to them a new, incredible melody that has stood the test of time.

AS: One of the things that stands out about your stuff is that it’s very lived-in, very relatable. I’m thinking about a song like “Breaking Up Down,” which, even if you’re someone who hasn’t been in that relationship, you know somebody who has. Is that something you’re always aiming for in your writing and song choices?

DL: It definitely is. That song speaks to me personally. I think all of these songs do at some point. I’ve been on a journey of trying to find the one. We all are at some point in life optimistic, pessimistic, in search of, or happy with. “Breaking Up Down” is something that I’ve experienced, seeing friends and even band members go through the high and low. Some people get addicted to breaking up and passionately getting back together. That’s a song and lyric that maybe I haven’t experienced time and time again, but I have people close to me who are living it currently.

AS: What’s your anticipation like for your fans to hear this record and for you to take these songs out and play them live?

DL: Exciting is the right word. I’m a little bit anxious, but I’m not scared. I’m excited for my fan base to get their ears upon it, and, selfishly, it’s always great to have new music. We get to add to the show and figure out what songs are going to kick what songs out, which, we’re at a cool spot now, we’re kicking out hits to get new songs in. That’s a fun time. 

I plan on touring heavily in 2024. And I’m most excited about what word of mouth is going to be. I hope that people want to talk about this album and particular songs and have some organic wildfire pop up. When that happens, it takes the excitement and the hype of us coming through town to another level. We’re watching our ticket sales grow year after year, which is such a fun ride to be on. I think with this new album, it’s going to be a shot in the arm for that.

AS: I understand you have a songwriting session scheduled right after this interview. No rest for the weary. How special is the songwriting process to you, this idea of getting in a room together with others and creating something special out of nothing?

DL: For the young songwriter or artist that’s going to read this, I would say this album taught me once again that you must be present to win. “Honky Tonk Heartbreaker” is a song where all of us were saying out loud, “Why are we writing today?” It was a perfect day to be out in the woods. It was the peak week of deer season for Tennessee. I’m saying, “Boys, what are we doing? We should be outside. Why are we in the studio?” And we come out with a song that I think has the potential to be one that’s part of the lower Broadway [in Nashville] dive bar and honky-tonk soundtrack for a long time to come. 

We just turned the album in a couple of weeks ago, and I’m already listening to pitches. I’m going in to write right now, and I assume that I’m writing for my next album. There’s a good portion of my writing that is just about discovery. Like, what am I excited about? We’re trying to write a song. But at the same time, I’m saying, “Where do I need to go next?” This write is going to be me saying, “Should we try something new we haven’t done yet?” As you go through life, the subject matter has to evolve with where you are. I think a lot of my writing is discovering what I’m going to be comfortable singing in two years on stage. 

I love the process. Nashville is so much fun. But I’ve learned through the years that you don’t win unless you go and do it. And a lot of my heroes who are still presently doing it are still writing a few songs a week. That’s about my schedule. I’ve got a lot more going on than just writing songs. But it’s very settling for me to do it before we hit the road. The buses will roll out tonight. It’s nice to have the responsibility of creating before I hit the road for a couple of nights. ‘Cause I can write a song, and the way we do it these days, I can potentially have a produced demo before I eat dinner tonight. And it’s something I can play on the road, maybe come off stage from a big-reaction crowd, play it with a little buzz on the bus, and see how it lands. It’s centering for me and keeps me responsible. It keeps me from staying out too late (laughs). And it keeps my eye on the prize. That’s why I love it so much. I’m headed in to chase that dream again.

Photo by Alysse Gafkjen / Courtesy Sweet Talk PR

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