David Nail sits in the balcony of the El Rey Theatre on Los Angeles’ Miracle Mile, a blue Dodger cap perched on his sunburned noggin. It’s day three of a whirlwind three-day swing through the City of Angels.
“The first day we were here, we went to two baseball games,” the singer-songwriter and avid sports fan tells Rolling Stone Country. “I’m a big hat guy, so I just had to pull the trigger.”
The 37-year-old Kennett, Missouri native is in Southern California to support his fourth studio album, Fighter (released July 15th) – an apt title for a man who’s battled depression, persevered with his wife through infertility issues (their twins Lawson and Lillian were born in December), and struggled to carve out a lasting niche on the country music charts since he moved to Nashville 16 years ago (last year’s “Nights on Fire” was a Top 15 hit).
“When we were at Dodger Stadium the other day, people asked, ‘Are you from Nashville?’ I said, ‘No, I’m from southeast Missouri. I’ve just lived in Nashville almost half my life.’”
Part of Nail’s reluctance to call himself a full-fledged Nashvillian stems from whether he feels he’s earned his keep in Music City.
“I always have this analogy that I felt like we got invited to the parties, but I never knew exactly why we were there – if we had really done enough, or achieved enough, to be there,” he confides.
The other part of his reticence to claim Tennessee as his resident state is because his roots run deep in Missouri – something he and duet partner Lori McKenna explore to gauzy, nostalgic effect in “Home,” which they co-wrote with Barry Dean.
“That’s the first time I wrote with him,” McKenna tells Rolling Stone Country. “He was so giving, and his voice is stunning. The worst thing is when you’re trying to write with an artist who isn’t willing to share, but David was so open.”
Unsaid emotions overflow in “Old Man’s Symphony,” which Nail wrote as an ode to his father, a talented multi-instrumentalist who took the noble path and became a high school band director, instead of leaving Missouri to roll the dice on fame and fortune as a recording artist. “Symphony” is the last cut on the album, and will probably never be released as a single, but for Nail, it’s one of the most meaningful tunes he’s ever penned. Harmonies from Bo and Bear Rinehart from Needtobreathe add a restrained wistfulness to the ballad about musical dreams that might have been, which concludes “I could be famous, but I’ll never wish to be/ I just wanna be in the Old Man’s Symphony.”
“I don’t know that he necessarily ever thought about pursuing music on a professional level, but he was just so ridiculously talented,” Nail says emphatically. “I think there was always a perception of, ‘Okay, if somebody is this talented, if they’re not on the radio or known in this town of 10,000 people, then what does it take to do something on a grander scale?’ It blows my mind to think that I had the nerve to do this based on singing in a handful of talent shows in my hometown.”
“Old Man’s Symphony” came to Nail several years ago at a difficult point in his life.
“It proved that I could still write songs by myself, and it validated my mother and father’s belief in me. There were so many times where I could call them up in Nashville, and I would kind of give this speech of, ‘Well, hey, I tried, and I’m just not good enough.’ And my mom and dad would just never hear it. They always just said, ‘That’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard. You’re staying. This is what you were put on this earth to do.’”
His dad didn’t hear the song until Fighter was released.
“He texted me the day it came out, and he said, ‘Hey, I’m going to need a couple of days to kind of digest this.”
Weeks later, Nail still hasn’t heard from his dad about “Old Man’s Symphony,” but if history is any indication, it’ll come when he least expects it.
“To a majority of people, accolades and awards mean success,” he says. “For me, it’s playing the Opry and waking up to a four paragraph email from my dad about how proud he was, or how good a job I did. And so I know eventually, I’m going to get one of those emails. But I imagine it’s going to be a difficult one to write, just as the song was difficult to write.”
Fighter is an emotional smorgasbord, and although much has been made about its themes of love, lust, childbirth and perseverance, it’s the pair of tunes about Nail’s upbringing far away from the spotlight that ground the album, much like how they ground the artist himself.
“We had an Uber driver in L.A. yesterday who in 45 minutes, told us the entire history of South Korea,” he says with a laugh. “If I had five dollars for every time he told us how beautiful the South Korean women were! It was awesome. I’d never met anybody who was so passionate about where they were from. It just reminded me so much about how I feel about where I grew up.”