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How State Fair headliner Cole Swindell went from selling T-shirts to hit country songs

Cole Swindell perform a medley at the CMT Music Awards on Wednesday, June 5, 2019, at the Bridgestone Arena in Nashville, Tenn. (AP Photo/Sanford Myers)

Cole Swindell has made writing chart-topping hits look easy, but he knows the real story is far from it.

Staying humble isn’t hard for Swindell, who spent three years selling T-shirts on tours with Luke Bryan and every bit of his free time honing his songwriting craft. The job, and the opportunity to learn from Bryan’s lead guitarist Michael Carter, was the product of a chance meeting between Swindell and Bryan in 2007 on the front porch of the Sigma Chi house at Georgia Southern University, where they both attended college.

“His first album had just come out and he needed a merch guy,” Swindell said. “He said ‘maybe we can find a spot for you,’ and my first thought was, I don’t care what I have to do. I was scared to death but I knew I wanted to be around the business.

“Music meant more to me than anything in my life and I knew I had to be around it.”

Separated from Bryan by seven years in age but only 15 minutes from where they grew up in Georgia, it wasn’t until he left the road and moved to Nashville that Swindell finally had the courage to share a song with the fraternity brother who gave him his first job in the music business.

“Country Boy Can” has never been officially released — a YouTube recording of it has less than 2,000 views — but Swindell credits the song for getting him signed with Sony/ATV Music Publishing in 2010 after he played it for Bryan.

“I know first impressions are everything and I would never let anyone hear my music,” he recalled. “I knew I was getting there but that was the first one I had the guts to call Luke and say, ‘hey, check this song out.’ He loved it.”

Swindell is taking a break from his current Sunset Repeat Tour with Bryan to make his first impression on Alaska as the Saturday headliner at the State Fair.

Cole Swindell performs on NBC's ’Today ’ show at Rockefeller Plaza on Friday, Aug. 17, 2018, in New York. (Photo by Charles Sykes/Invision/AP)

“I’m just really excited,” he said. “It’s the one state I haven’t been to, and I don’t know when I would have had a chance to get up there if I didn’t have a show because we’re always working.”

Swindell, now 36, doesn’t know where he’d be if he hadn’t gone on the road with Bryan -- at the time a rising star on his way to becoming one of the biggest names in the music industry.

“Had I not got that job, had I never met Luke, it’s scary to think about what would have happened,” he said. “That’s what surprised people when I got my record deal and ‘Chillin’ It’ was my first single. They were like, ‘T-shirt guy is singing?’

“Selling T-shirts is what started it and now I get to sell a few of my own.”

‘You can’t make that stuff up’

That first single hit the top of the charts and was followed by two more No. 1 hits from his platinum-selling, self-titled debut album released on Warner Bros. in 2014.

After winning the Academy of Country Music’s Best New Artist in 2015, Swindell followed up with the album “You Should Be Here,” which included another string of No. 1 hits. Swindell wrote the album’s title track with his late father in mind, who passed away at age 65 in 2013.

His run of seven No. 1s in his first seven singles was a first for the Country Aircheck/Mediabase charts capped by the romp “Flatliner” he recorded with Dierks Bentley on his sophomore album.

Swindell’s third album, “All of It,” also went straight to No. 1 after its 2018 release. His latest song is the party anthem “Drinkin’ Hours” off his “Down Home Sessions V” EP released earlier this year.

Prior to earning his success as a solo artist, Swindell made his name writing or co-writing songs. Before he dropped “Chillin’ It” to the air in 2013, his credits included “Roller Coaster” by Luke Bryan, “Get Me Some of That” by Thomas Rhett and “This is How We Roll” by Florida Georgia Line. All went to No. 1.

“Get Me Some of That” was particularly sweet for Swindell, who wrote the song with Bryan’s lead guitarist Carter and Rhett’s father Rhett Akins.

Akins’ “That Ain’t My Truck” is an all-time favorite of Swindell’s and he sang it at nearly every show he played in college.

“That’s enough of a story, writing with someone you grew up listening to,” Swindell said. “The very first song we wrote, his son recorded it and it was my first No. 1. You can’t make that stuff up.

“It’s crazy when you take a leap of faith and chase after something you believe in what can happen."

Cole Swindell arrives at the CMT Music Awards on Wednesday, June 5, 2019, at the Bridgestone Arena in Nashville, Tenn. (AP Photo/Sanford Myers)

Going back to that first song he shared with Bryan about a small town country boy trying to impress a girl, Swindell said many of his efforts leading up to it were “so bad they never saw the light of day.”

“There’s a quote that ‘It’s easy to write a song. It’s hard to write a good song,’” he said. “That’s the truth. I love that people love a lot of songs I’ve written, but I’m glad they didn’t hear all my process of getting to where I am today.”

Swindell said he knew he wanted to be a country artist the day his grandfather took him to his first concert with Randy Travis and The Judds.

He was also inspired by the long line of country stars from Georgia that includes Travis Tritt, Trisha Yearwood, Alan Jackson, Rhett and Thomas Akins, Brantley Gilbert, Billy Currington, Zac Brown and, of course, Luke Bryan.

“People say, ‘what’s in the water in Georgia?’” he laughed. “I honestly think it’s seeing people from down the road from where you grew up that makes it seem a little more possible.”

Among those he grew up on was Jackson, who has nearly three dozen No. 1s to his credit, and he said he was getting chills remembering meeting him and performing “Chattahoochee” the night before he won Best New Artist in 2015.

“I remember riding around with my mom in her Jeep Cherokee playing dashboard drummer, singing ‘Chattahoochee,’” he said. “I probably annoyed the heck out of her but it paid off when I got the chance to sing it with him.”

‘What I’m supposed to be doing’

His father wasn’t much into country, although he did become a big Eric Church fan after his son moved to Nashville.

His dad was also the first person he saw play a guitar, just “sitting around picking” on an old gut-string that Swindell still keeps in his room.

“He’s always influencing me,” he said. “I think about him all the time and trying to be half the guy he was.”

“You Should Be Here,” is the defining achievement for Swindell.

“I hated that I had to write it,” he said. “But there hasn’t been a show since that song hit country radio where someone in my meet-and-greet line, or somebody I meet, hasn’t brought that song up and said, ‘man, it reminds me of my grandma or my brother,’ or whatever it is.

“That’s why I moved to Nashville: to write songs like that.”

In May 2016 after the album was released, Swindell became the first person to perform on top of 4 World Trade Center between the Freedom Tower and the Statue of Liberty. He played “You Should Be Here” to a small audience of families of first responders who perished on 9/11.

“I don’t know if I’ll ever play a location that is any more special than that one,” he said. “I wrote that song thinking about my dad but I wanted everyone to be able to relate to it. I knew I wasn’t the only one who’d been through that.

“There’s so many songs about losing people and people you love, and this is a song about not just that but the moments in life that are so special, ‘God, they would love this.’ There’s always that one person that if they were there, it would be even better.

“If it makes people tell someone they love them, then I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing.”

Cole Swindell at the Alaska State Fair Borealis Theater on Aug. 31 at 7 p.m. $40 general admission ($50 with fair admission); $55 reserved area ($65 with fair admission). Tickets at alaskastatefair.org.


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