Crossover-friendly personalities like Luke Bryan and Blake Shelton might get all the headlines, but standing just a few feet from the apex of modern country is one of the most unassuming stars in recent memory, a ball-capped everyman who looks like everyone's best friend from high school – Cole Swindell.
After just a few short years, the 32-year-old Georgia native has graduated from Bryan’s former merch guy to a hit-making powerhouse of his own, surpassing even his former boss's early success – and pretty much everybody else's, for that matter. On May 6th, he released his second album, You Should Be Here, and a day earlier Swindell hosted a launch party to share those new tunes, but not before reflecting on a charmed life that's still hard for him to comprehend.
"When somebody tells me, 'God, it looked like you were having fun out there,' I'm like, 'No shit,'" he told the crowd with a laugh and a sheepish grin. "No matter how the day's going, when I get out there on that stage it makes it all all right."
Held in a renovated church now called Ruby in Nashville's leafy Hillsboro Village neighborhood, the party made it clear that for a while now, Cole's days have been charmed. His first five songs have all gone to Number One. One has been certified Gold ("Let Me See Ya Girl"), and that was the disappointing one. Three others ("Chillin' It," "Hope You Get Lonely Tonight" and "Ain't Worth the Whiskey") have all reached platinum status, and his first single from the new record, "You Should Be Here," has already racked up over 32 million streams, 576,000 tracks sold and 16 million YouTube views. During the party, his self-titled debut album was certified platinum, and it was pointed out that a few years earlier (as in, before downloading), it would likely already be triple or quadruple platinum.
To say this is a great start is beyond an understatement – it's one of the best in contemporary country, and it couldn’t be happening to a more humble, hardworking guy.
"When we were thinking about him as an artist to sign, we knew he had a depth of songwriting that was profound,” said John Esposito, President of Warner Music Nashville. "This [new] record takes what was a platinum album with four consecutive Number One singles to a whole new level."
Indeed, You Should Be Here looks strong right out of the gate thanks to its deeply personal title track, all about the unexpected loss of Swindell’s father. And judging by the six songs performed by he and his songwriting pals at Ruby, the country star's hot streak will continue for quite some time.
Produced by Michael Carter (Bryan's lead guitarist), the project's 12 tracks (14 if you pick up the deluxe edition from Target or iTunes), include seven co-written by Swindell himself. During the bro-country kerfuffle, the singer usually made the list, and his new songs don't shy away from girls or beer or trucks. . . or girls drinking beer in trucks. But while many of his contemporaries have moved on to a world of cornfield EDM, Swindell only sprinkles in the beats and effects, sticking with an undeniably country backbone.
Dressed ballcap-to-boots in black, Swindell's acoustic performance at Ruby was taped to air on Sirius XM's The Highway later that night, and it proved he's committed to meaningful songs and a sound that’s built on the shoulders of Nineties country giants. In fact, the first song he shared was a heartbreaker called "Broke Down" that features a reference to old-school Tim McGraw in the first line. Sad and slow, it works with a hook that's relatable to pretty much all of rural America: "Baby I'm broke down / And it ain’t the truck this time."
"That's why I've always loved country music," he declares. "Whether it's sad, pumps you up or it's breakup songs, it's all real life things."
Heartbreak is woven through several more tracks, such as "Stay Downtown" which Swindell described as the natural conclusion to his hit, "Hope You Get Lonely Tonight." Where that one found a guy waiting patiently for a booty call, "Stay Downtown" is what ends up playing out when the excitement wears off and the relationship fails to progress.
Elsewhere, there's plenty more romance in the LP's different phases, like "Home Game" with its good-ole-days approach, "Making My Way to You" – "the love song on the album," according to Swindell – and the gentlemanly "Remember Boys."
New single "Middle of a Memory" features a wounded, drum-machined heartbeat as its foundation. It's a bleeding-heart midtempo, a tough-luck story about meeting the perfect girl, only to watch her friends steal her away before getting a phone number.
Swindell's youthful positioning basically requires a few no-apologies party tunes, and on You Should Be Here those are standouts. Dierks Bentley pumps up the fun factor on the rollicking "Flatliner" (check out the pair adlibbing at the end), and as funny as "No Can Left Behind" is ("We're on a cold case mission / I've got your back if you've got mine"), it's arguably one of the most memorable songs on the album.
Unless, of course, you count the emotionally stunning title track. Written in honor of Swindell's father, who died a few months before the release of his debut album, this song, the singer says, is his favorite.
On Tuesday (May 10th), he'll get an incredible chance to share his painful experience in a positive way, with people who know tragedy better than most. Swindell will be the first country artist to perform at Ground Zero – the site of the 9/11 terrorist attacks in New York City. He'll sing "You Should Be Here" alongside families of those who died.
"I don't even know what to expect," he said during the show at Ruby, almost choking up. "I can't believe I'm the one getting to sing right there. A lot of people touched by 9/11 probably still feel exactly the way I do about losing my dad, and I want everyone to know how much I respect that place and their loved ones. I hope they look at it and it makes them smile, thinking about the good moments."
That moment will no doubt be a life-changer for the down-to-earth country boy, another in a years-long series of events that has led him to the top of country's commercial ladder and a fully-supported second album. With the incredible start to his young career, he's already experienced success. But with his new music, he's clearly ready to move on to significance.
"Songs like this are why I fell in love with country music and I hope I get to write more of them under better circumstances, but that's just real life," he said. "It has helped me through everything, and I thought I knew the power of music — until I released this song."
You Should Be Here is out now. Swindell will join Florida Georgia Line's Dig Your Roots tour as the main supporting act, starting May 12th.