Behind the Song: Dustin Lynch, “Cowboys and Angels”

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Written by: Dustin Lynch, Josh Leo, Tim Nichols
Recorded by: Dustin Lynch
Peak Chart Position:No. 8 Billboard Country

When and where did you write “Cowboys and Angels?” Anything in particular about the vibe or your frame of mind while writing it?

Two years ago in April, so about two and a half years ago. We were at This Music on 16th Avenue, and we were in the front room. It’s so funny, I can remember this day like it was yesterday. Back then I was just starting to write, I’d been writing for years, but it was my first co-write with Tim (Nichols) and Josh (Leo). I was a huge fan of both those guys, and I was freaked out. I just was; it was an honor to meet the guys, much less write a song with them. I had my ideas ready, I was prepared for this co-write. I had “Cowboys and Angels” in my songbook, and I thought it would would be a great song. It was kind of my ace-in-the-hole idea.

When I got there we got to know each other, and Josh was really interested in getting to know who I was as an artist, and then Tim came in and we started kicking around just what I was up to and whatnot. So finally Tim goes, “Man, you got any ideas you want to write?” and I was just so intimidated that I was like, “No man, I’m fresh out.” So he started throwing out some ideas that really weren’t sticking, and I wasn’t grooving with. Then he took a phone call, comes back in and opens up this songbook. About midway through he said, “here’s something I’ve had for a long time, it’s called ‘Cowboys and Angels.’”

And here I am with my piece of paper with “Cowboys and Angels” written down on it, and I lose it. I was like, “you’re never going to believe this.” Here we are, never met each other and have the same idea written down.

Kind of a weird feeling came across the room when that happened. We were all looking for a song idea and we come across one that both of us have written down. So we obviously knew which one to write. [laughs]

All we had was the title. There was no trail already paved yet. So we got to dive in immediately on what we wanted the song to be. We wanted to make it universal where everybody could relate to it. We started talking about what “Cowboys and Angels” meant, literally and also the deeper meaning.

How much did you edit it, during or afterward? Were there any phrases or words you can remember that were especially tough to make a final decision on?

Yeah, as soon as we got the idea, Tim had to take a phone call and jumped out of the room, and Josh and I dove in on a riff. With Josh being such a prolific guitar player, he came up with that riff — kind of a cowboys sitting around a fire riff. So we had that rocking, and I had a little melodic thing, where the pocket would sit for my vocal, then Tim came in and I had “She’s sweet, I’m wild,” just some bits and pieces here and there.

We had bits and pieces, little nuggets of lines. It was fun, it was a long day. I think we ended up wrapping at about six that night because we wanted to make sure we had it perfect.

When we put it down, I think there’s something about that room on 16th Avenue, and something about Josh’s guitar playing and my vocal just into a laptop on Garage Band, it fit my vocal really well. There’s something nostalgic and gritty about the first recording.

I can remember when we wrapped that day, I’d never written with Tim before, but he stood up and said, “This smells like a good’n.” [laughs]

I’d written a hundred songs and something about this song, I knew immediately this was a special song. Obviously I didn’t know it would change my life like it has, but I just knew it was a special song.

What do you enjoy most about writing songs?

What’s so neat, in the fact that we’re talking about “Cowboys and Angels,” which I wrote with Tim Nichols — the guy is Grammy Award-winning and he’s one of my best friends in Nashville — but he says this all the time: “It’s still amazing that you can walk into a room with you and a couple dudes, a guitar or whatever, and with something in the air on certain days, magic happens.” You walk in with nothing and walk out with a song that could possibly not only change your life, but mean something to somebody else, and change others lives, and be a part of the soundtrack of life. That’s just unbelievable. That’s why we do what we do. We’re definitely not in this for the money. It’s a greater plan.

What do you like most about writing with Nichols and Leo?

I love the fact that we’re probably not supposed to work — I don’t want to say we’re not supposed to work well together. What I mean by that is that it’s three different complete dudes. I’m a young guy who sings a little bit and plays a little bit, Josh has done it all as a producer and a guitar player, then you’ve got Tim who is a very prolific writer. That’s what’s so much fun about writing songs with guys. There’s something about me, Tim and Josh. We bring the best out in each other. It’s something natural that happens. We all have our plusses and it works well together.

There’s a lot of co-writes that don’t work: personalities don’t mesh, musically you don’t mesh. We get each other. Here we are two years down the road and we’ve had that much time to get to know each other. For me to kind of realize “What is Dustin Lynch? Who is he as an artist?” I mean, I don’t like to talk in the third person, but as an album we’ve got to dial in what I am. They get that, who I am.

Step outside of the song for a moment. How would you describe “Cowboys and Angels” as a music fan?

I think the only way I can describe it as an outsider would be that if you listen to all of radio right now, this day and age, there’s not another song on the radio like “Cowboys and Angels” as far as sound goes, that’s just hats off to my producers. It stands out. It makes people go, “Who’s that?” You’ve got to have a song that gets people’s attention.

Any stories about the song’s path to the record and its selection as a single?

Hundreds of songs have been written since “Cowboys and Angels,” and it’s had that something where we always knew it was going to be the foundation for album one. We obviously didn’t know it was going to be the first single, because a lot goes into making that choice. But for us, we knew it would be the center of the album. There’s that special thing about “Cowboys and Angels” that kind of describes me as an artist. When it was written, it was almost like a wake-up call. This is who I am. This is my fingerprint in Nashville.

“Cowboys and Angels” not only said “Alright, this is album 1,” but it also let me say “If this is the centerpiece, then this is where we can go with the rest of the songs, to make an album you can listen to from top to bottom.”

Walk us through a typical day in the life of Dustin Lynch.

On a typical day right now we’re on the road somewhere. We’re either on a bus or in an airport. I wake up and usually have a bite to eat and get to work. It’ll be interviews or a radio visit, and I try to squeeze in a workout, and then I’ll have some more interviews and a TV stop, and then a show. Then after the show of course there’s a meet-and-greet. I love to go out and shake as many hands as I can. It’s non-stop. Sleep is non-existent pretty much nowadays. It’s a good thing. It’s controlled chaos. Thank God I’ve got a good team around me.

Any words of wisdom or advice for aspiring or newly professional songwriters, regarding both the craft and business?

The advice I have is figure out who you are as a songwriter. What kind of music do you want to make? Not every songwriter wants to be a successful songwriter at radio. If someone’s looking to have success at radio, I think you have to be very mindful of what radio wants right now, and what the market’s wanting. Find what kind of song you love to write, and how that song can work on radio. If you’re looking to write songs for your own sake, the just write whatever you want. If you’re looking to do it for a living, you better realize that you’re going to get told no a whole lot. It’s taken me nine years to get my first song on the radio. Nine years of trying. It’s so rewarding when you finally get a little traction in town because right now a lot of publishers in town who told me no, I have the pleasure of saying, “you told me no, now what?”

It’s hard work, it’s fun work. Mainly, love what you’re doing. If you love writing songs, keep writing. You’re going to make a difference. The greatest reward is not awards, it’s not money, it’s making a difference.

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