When Dustin Lynch first signed a record deal in the early 2010s and started releasing music, he did his best to play nice and not ruffle any feathers. Like many fresh-faced entertainment-industry aspirants, he was supposed to feel grateful to be in such an enviable position, and also be willing to do whatever was asked of him. But he couldn’t help feeling like he didn’t have agency over his music. As a result, he ended up recording some songs, like “She Cranks My Tractor,” that didn’t feel representative of who he was.
“It pisses me off that a grown-ass man is telling me what I can and can’t do on my album,” says Lynch, seated at a gleaming table in a conference room at the offices of his label, Broken Bow Records (now under the ownership of BMG, which it wasn’t at the time of his signing). “You know, I think I’ve gained trust from my label and I’ve proven myself that my gut is usually right.”
The radio and streaming numbers back him up. Beginning with his second album, Where It’s At, and continuing with 2017’s Current Mood, Lynch has steadily clicked off a series of chart-topping hits at country radio, including “Where It’s At,” “Hell of a Night,” “Seein’ Red,” and “Small Town Boy,” which is also a streaming juggernaut with more than 190 million Spotify streams. These songs have been largely centered on small-town life (particularly romance), subject matter that Lynch knows well.
All this success paved the way for Lynch to think bigger. Press materials referred to his fourth full-length release, Tullahoma — named for his Tennessee hometown, located about 75 miles southeast of Nashville — as a “concept album” where life is seen through the eyes of a character he describes as “the small-town boy.”
“The concept was, ‘Let’s write songs, let’s record songs that the fictional small-town boy would write, sing, or play in his truck and to impress his girl,” says Lynch. “It was kind of filtered through [his] ears in his truck and the eyes and what he was doing and what he was playing and seeing.”
OK, so Pink Floyd’s The Wall it ain’t, but if you stare at it the way you’d stare at one of those Magic Eye pictures, things begin to pop out. For starters, 2012-model Dustin Lynch wouldn’t have recorded the opening song, “Momma’s House,” which is a benignly misleading title if there ever was one. Instead of nostalgia (there’s plenty of that later on), it’s pure scorch-the-earth bitterness. “I’d burn this whole town down/Pick a spot, put them ashes in the ground/Baby, I’d burn this whole town down if it wasn’t for my momma’s house,” he sings in a syncopated rhythm, drums and guitars set on pummel.
“That was a real thing because my grandparents were high school sweethearts,” says Lynch. “My mom and dad are high school sweethearts. My sister and her husband are high school sweethearts. And whenever my high school love didn’t work out, it was so foreign to me. If that happens in a small town, man, it can feel like there’s no hope because there’s no other options. There’s nobody else. Your friends are dating everybody else.”
There’s also a loose narrative arc that runs through Tullahoma, which though more incidental than anything, follows a cycle of heartbreak in “Momma’s House,” through possible reconciliation and the intrigue of new romance, all the way to a happier place in the prerelease single “Good Girl,” which closes out the album. But you wouldn’t necessarily be able to glean that from the song titles, which have a touch of the generically unspecific to them.
“We’ve got ‘Old Country Song.’ We’ve got ‘Ridin’ Roads.’ We’ve got ‘Dirt Road.’ We’ve got ‘Country Star,’ ” he says.
Lynch’s latest single (and country-radio Number One), “Ridin’ Roads,” employs a lot of familiar tropes: moonlit backroads, two people in the dark anticipating what happens next, and beer. But Lynch and his co-writers, Ashley Gorley and Zach Crowell, play around with language here, using slang phrases like “that ’87,” “30 early,” and “a bullet in the console” that only make sense in context to mean a car, his arrival time, and an ice-cold can of Coors Light, respectively.
“There’s so many songs about riding a back road, which was the challenge of writing ‘Ridin’ Roads,’ ” says Lynch. “We were trying to find different ways to say things we had said a million times already. It’s like a code language. You know, you’re looking for cool little slang ways to say things, because that’s what people grab onto.”
There’s very little on the album that resembles any of the uptempo country party music that dominated the last decade of country music. Tullahoma leans more toward a mellow, downtempo delivery: “Little Town Livin’ ” has a laid-back rap in the vein of “Dirt Road Anthem”; “Thinking ‘Bout You” offers a more conversational dynamic with guest Lauren Alaina; “The World Ain’t Yours and Mine” features co-writer Matthew Ramsey of Old Dominion and shimmers with that band’s pop polish. And in “Red Dirt, Blue Eyes,” there’s the unmistakably retro-futuristic presence of synth bass, thanks to the science-lab environment at co-producer Zach Crowell’s studio.
“He’s got literally walls of synths and different sounds, and I’m running around picking up this and doing that,” says Lynch. “Some days we’ll go, ‘Eh, that all sucked. Let’s try again.’ Some days we’ll find a part that works great and that sticks around and has a little different feel to it. That synth part’s one that just kind of felt different and interesting for us. I know it’s not the traditional country-band way of recording things, but I just have fun knowing that we can make up whatever we want. If we’re told ‘That sucks’ and ‘That’s no good,’ we’ll listen. But you never know until you try something.”
And more than anything, that’s a good indicator of what looking back home with Tullahoma signaled for Lynch: a commitment to remember why he got in this, and his confidence about where he’ll be going next. He hopes fans can play it and take the same things from it.
“I want them to think about their hometown,” he says. “I want them to think about why they are where they’re at in their lives and what’s made them that way. And hopefully there’s a little introspection there on where they want to head, because that’s really what I’ve discovered.”