Dan Layus moved to Tennessee during the summer of 2013. He'd been a California kid all his life, growing up in suburban San Diego and launching his rock band Augustana from the confines of his dad's SoCal apartment. The Golden State was in his blood and his music. Layus needed a change, though, and his children needed a place where they could spend more time outside. The Bible Belt was the answer.
It didn't hurt, of course, that Tennessee offered a different kind of musical community. As the frontman of Augustana, Layus had logged a decade on the poppy fringes of American rock & roll, updating the sound of FM radio stars like Tom Petty for the iPhone generation. He was good at it – the band's first single "Boston" was a platinum-selling hit – but that didn't stop Layus from developing a love for country music and its roots.
"Since my early 20s, I've been a big fan of alternative country, which led me to more traditional country music," he says from his new home in Franklin, a half hour's drive from Nashville. "I lived off of Willie's Roadhouse on Sirius XM for three years straight. Those songs just don't miss! They always do something for you. There's definitely a direct connection between my move to this area – and the town's proximity to great American music – and the record that I made."
He's talking about Dangerous Things, which kicks off Layus' solo career with its October 21st release. Replacing Augustana's anthemic punch with acoustic guitars, one-take vocal performances and nearly a half-dozen appearances by harmony duo the Secret Sisters, Dangerous Things throws a slight curveball at longtime fans. For those who've already caught Layus' opening sets during the Dixie Chicks' MMXVI Tour, though, the album serves as a crucial puzzle piece, bringing together the full picture of an artist who's making the transformation from millennial pop-rocker to grown-up folk singer.
Like its title suggests, Dangerous Things also shines a light on some darker subjects. "Driveway," which makes its premiere today on Rolling Stone Country, was inspired by a neighbor's divorce.
"That song was certainly gut wrenching, both to write and to witness in real time," he says. "I'm a child of multiple divorces, so I have a lot of experience with this. Half of all kids in America have experience with it, too. My friend was going through a tumultuous split with his wife, and I was driving by their house one day and saw him sitting in his truck. Everybody else was inside, and he was just sitting out there in the driveway. It just crushed me."
Layus wrote the song during a 30-minute burst of inspiration later that evening. His wife, Nina, helped finish the lyrics. Although she refused to accept a co-writer's credit, she did agree to appear in the song's music video, which mixes artfully-shot home footage of the Layus family – kids and all – with clips of Layus touring his way across the U.K. and performing the song in a Tennessee studio. For a songwriter who's traditionally kept a tight lid on his private life, "Driveway" offers a deeper look into Layus' home, even as it reaches beyond his loved ones for inspiration.
"I generally – selfishly – write about myself," admits the songwriter, who will celebrate Dangerous Things' release with an October 21st appearance at the Grand Ole Opry. "The only other song where I didn't do that was 'Boston,' which I wrote years ago. I was a teenager, just making up this story that wound up becoming Augustana's big hit. When I came to Tennessee, I started thinking about my favorite songs – these traditional country songs – and I thought, 'These tunes are heartbreaking, but I know these guys didn't write all these songs about themselves'. Even if they were written by someone else, those performers could still sing them with feeling. So lately, I've been challenging myself to find stories about other folks, and still try to feel whatever it is they were feeling and put that through the song and the microphone."