To those who haven’t been following his career, Cole Swindell may seem like the new kid on the country music block–another Georgia boy who can wear a pair of blue jeans and make the ladies swoon with lyrics about red dirt and whiskey. He can, in fact, do that, but in reality Cole has been biding his time for years, making the rounds at down-home venues and learning from some true country greats. And chances are, if you suited up your cowboy boots for a Luke Bryan concert between 2007 and 2010, you might have seen him. He was there slingin’ T-shirts as Luke’s merch guy, a friendship that stems from their days as fraternity brothers at Georgia Southern University (notice his ever-present baseball cap).
A Nashville publishing deal in 2010 opened the door for national exposure as he penned hit after hit for Luke Bryan, Scott McCreery, and Florida Georgia Line. But it was his first single on his self-titled debut album (released February 2014; $9.99/amazon.com) that catapulted Cole’s career. “Chillin’ It,” streaming above, is a smooth groove of laid-back love; the classic country story of a girl, a guy, and their penchant for a dusty dirt road. He followed the No. 1 summertime anthem with “Hope You Get Lonely Tonight,” a come-hither declaration of what can happen when the sun goes down.
Now, he’s back on the tour bus as the opening act for Luke Bryan on his That’s My Kind of Night tour. And if the legions of fans that are descending upon the stadiums is any indicator, this small-town Southern boy is cruising down the road to full-blown country glory.
We sat with the rising star to chat about those “I made it” moments, the best advice he got from his mama, and, of course, whiskey and women. Here’s what we found out.
He hasn’t forgotten his roots.
“Bronwood, Georgia, is where I call home. The cool thing about growing up where I did was you kind of had to find your own fun, and usually that was outside somewhere or on a ballfield for me. It was a lot of just running around barefoot like crazy.”
Tim McGraw is a fan.
“Tim McGraw has always been a favorite of mine. I was out in Vegas last year for the Academy of Country Music awards and I was talking all big like, ‘If I walk by McGraw tonight I’m saying hey. I talk about him in my interviews, we play one of his songs on my set, we have to meet.’ So there he is, him and Faith, and I chickened out. I wasn’t going to say anything but then he looks at me and sticks out his hand and says, ‘Hey Cole, I’m a big fan of your music.’ That’s the only time I’ve ever been starstruck; I could hardly speak. I just remember being a child growing up and loving Tim McGraw. For him to say that he was a fan of my music before I could even say hello to him—that was my moment.”
He loves nineties country.
“If I had four quarters and a jukebox I’d play some Tim McGraw, probably ‘Something Like That,’ and George Strait, ‘Check Yes Or No.’ That’s just a big song for me; I’ll never forget running around trying to find that CD when it first came out. Maybe ‘Forever and Ever Amen’ by Randy Travis. That was my first concert I ever went to with my grandparents, so that’d be a good one. And maybe a little Luke Bryan, just because of our history. I’d play ‘We Rode In Trucks,’ one of my favorite songs.”
He’s not as outgoing as he seems.
“On stage I may not act like it, but I’m kind of a shy person. I get onstage and it’s so weird because I am comfortable. I don’t know how someone is comfortable in front of thousands of people, but not three. It’s funny how it works.”
He still knows the value of a dollar.
“Before shows [my band and I] might have a little shot of liquid courage, just me and the guys, and a little pep talk. I let them know there’s people out there who paid their hard-earned money and we’ve got to go give them their money’s worth.”
He’s a mama’s boy.
“My mama always taught me to be thankful for everything we have. She always says to stay humble and realize that this is it; this is out of my hands and this is pretty special. It’s all so crazy for us, being from a small town. I know people in my hometown can’t fathom what’s going on, because even I can’t. It’s pretty crazy.”
He’s an open book.
“There’s really nothing on my album that I don’t feel or haven’t felt before. You know, other than me being single and having a deep love song on there called ‘I Just Want You.’ ‘Ain’t Worth the Whiskey’ is about an ex-girlfriend. I put ‘The Back Roads’ on as the last song because it sums up everything about me—where I grew up and how I was raised. There are also some party songs. Someone pointed out that there’s lots of beer in my songs, so that’s pretty real.”
Don’t call him a heartthrob.
“I don’t know if I would agree with being described as a heartthrob. I don’t even know how to talk about that stuff. That’s crazy. It’s cool to see all the young girls freaking out up there, just’cause I’ve watched them freak out over Luke Bryan and everybody else over the years. But hey, I’m out there to put on a show and make sure they have fun, so that’s very flattering that they would say that. There’s a lot of competition in the country world so I’m just complimented. I’ll take it.”