Cole Swindell started off in country music as a songwriter, penning hits for Luke Bryan, Florida Georgia Line, Thomas Rhett, and Chris Young. among others. When he kicked off his own artist career with his feel-good 2013 debut single, “Chillin’ It,” the song reached the top spot on the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart—the first of ten No. 1 singles he’s had so far. His experiences inspired him to name his fourth studio album Stereotype (out April 8 via Warner Music Nashville): “At the beginning of my career, I was the fun guy: I had the party song—but I also don’t want people to think that’s all I can do,” he says during a call to American Songwriter from his Nashville home.
Because of COVID pandemic disruptions, it’s been three and a half years since All of It, Swindell’s last studio album—but he believes this delay was probably a blessing in disguise. “I think it gave me a chance to really look at this [new] album and make sure we had the songs we needed. We recorded songs at the last minute that might not have been on the album if we put it out any earlier.”
On Stereotype, “We tried to put in something for everybody—that’s what I always do,” Swindell says. “This album is definitely my favorite one I’ve ever made, and I can’t wait to hear what people think about it. I think this album is hopefully going to be a game-changer. I just have that feeling.”
While Swindell says he’s proud of the whole album, he does have a special fondness for the track “She Had Me at Heads Carolina,” which is based on a 1996 hit song, “Heads Carolina, Tails California,” from the debut album by country singer Jo Dee Messina. While on tour opening for Thomas Rhett last year, Swindell thought of a way to rework the song, but he knew he had to approach it carefully.
“This was a song that I think everybody loved,” Swindell says, “and so we called the original songwriters, Tim Nichols and Mark Sanders, and told them our idea. We wanted to make sure they were cool with the idea. They loved it. So I ended up getting to write that song with two heroes, two legendary songwriters.
“It’s going to sound familiar to people because it sounds a lot like the original song, but the lyrics are changed and it’s a whole different viewpoint,” he continues. “It’s about a girl getting up and singing this song on karaoke, and it’s just stealing the show: ‘Wow, who is this?’ She’s got you falling from the first line of the chorus. I really do think it’s going to be the one that stands out to people the most.”
For Swindell, the ability to take a song in an unexpected direction is one of the hallmarks of good songwriting. “The beauty of it, to me, is that we’re all just trying to find a different way to say what’s been said for years,” he says. “Anytime you can come up with an idea that’s a little different than maybe has been said before is rare, but that’s always the goal.”
With ten No. 1 singles of his own—and eleven more No. 1 songs that he’s written for other artists—Swindell certainly seems to understand how to write a successful song. As he recalls, he always knew what he needed to do to make his mark in the music business: “When my career started out, I was the fun guy. The song “Chillin’ It” started my whole career, and I just knew, ‘This song might not change the world, but it’s going to get somebody’s attention, and I want to build my fan base and be able to say stuff that matters . Without the fun stuff, I’d have never been able to have a platform to say stuff like the song ‘You Should Be Here.’”
“You Should Be Here,” which Swindell wrote (with Ashley Gorley) after his father passed away, became a double platinum-selling single after its 2015 release, and served as the title track for his second album when it came out the following year .
“Obviously, that song is very personal, but I also knew that I wanted a song to help other people—and knowing that I’m not alone in feeling the way I do. I think that’s the special thing about music: being able to connect with people that you’ve never met, but knowing that you have been through the same thing. It’s a special connection between songwriters, artists, and fans. I write what I’m feeling, but also, I know that I feel like a lot of other people out there,” Swindell says.
He admits that it isn’t always easy making himself this vulnerable through his songwriting. “It is scary sometimes, not knowing what people are going to think,” he says, “but if I can share a little bit of my grief, a little bit of my pain, and it helps somebody, then why would I not do that? No matter if we’re talking music or life, we’re all here to help each other out. If my gift is to do that through songwriting and I don’t do that, then what am I doing? Being able to share feelings, even though it might be painful, that’s real life. Life ain’t always fun.”
As for the songwriting process itself, Swindell says it’s centered around “showing up every day. You never know when a song’s going to come out. It may be a day where you don’t feel like writing or think you don’t have a good idea. Whatever, you’ve just got to show up. That’s something I learned a long time ago.”
Swindell says it’s easy to stay dedicated to the craft simply because he finds it so rewarding. “There’s nothing that beats being in a room with songwriters and feeling the energy of coming up with a good line and being like, ‘Man, I cannot wait for people to hear that!” he says. “People ask me, ‘Do you like being onstage more, or writing songs more?’ I always say I’m glad I get to do both, but in the writing room, the energy and getting excited about a song is almost the same feeling you get being on stage and hearing that crowd sing the songs back to you.”
Swindell’s love for country music goes back to his childhood in South Georgia, when “I legitimately could not wait for albums to come out, and going to the store buying them,” he says. During his years studying at Georgia Southern University, he began performing cover songs at local bars. At first, he did it just for fun, “But the more I did it, I think I fell in love with entertaining,” he says. “You’re up onstage seeing everybody else have a blast. And I’m like, ‘Man, I could get used to this.’”
When Eric Church and Dierks Bentley released their debut albums, Swindell became a huge fan of both of them—and noted that they were writing their own material. That realization led him to reconsider performing cover songs. “I realized, ‘These songs I’m singing every night aren’t mine. This is cool and all to be up onstage and watch everybody have a good time, but man, if these were my songs, how much cooler would that be?” But he knew he had to leave South Georgia if he was going to make it as a songwriter.
“My family was scared to death,” Swindell says of his move to Nashville in 2007. “They’re like, ‘I cannot believe you’re moving to chase this crazy dream.’ My only backup plan was knowing that I had to at least live in this city. I might not ever be able to write a song good enough, I may never get a record deal, but I had to be around music. I mean, there’s nothing to this day that’s ever really made me feel like music can. I think when you have that feeling, you don’t want to look back and say, ‘Man, I wish I would have tried that. What if?’”
While at Georgia Southern University, Swindell had befriended country artist Luke Bryan, who’d previously attended that school and had also moved to Nashville to pursue a country music career. Bryan was enjoying his first major successes, and he hired Swindell to sell merchandise on his tours. Bryan also ended up recording several of Swindell’s songs, including the hit “Roller Coaster” (which Swindell co-wrote with Bryan’s guitarist and musical director, Michael Carter).
That connection to Luke Bryan didn’t guarantee Swindell immediate access to Nashville’s inner circles, however. “I didn’t get to just jump in the room with the best of the best,” Swindell says, though he adds, “I’m glad it wasn’t given to me like that. I had to show that I really wanted to be here. I really think that me getting better and waiting my turn to where I actually deserved to be in a room with some of these writers, I’m glad that it happened the way it did.”
Though he had to pay his dues, Swindell’s songwriting skills soon earned him an impressive reputation in Nashville. Besides Luke Bryan, other top country artists also recorded his songs, including Florida Georgia Line, Thomas Rhett, Chris Young, Craig Campbell, and Scotty McCreery. “It’s life-changing, honestly—I don’t know that I would be where I am without them giving those songs a chance,” he says. “Ultimately, I think getting my name out there as a songwriter led to my record deal.”
Now renowned as a performing artist in his own right, Swindell admits he does feel under pressure to live up to high expectations, “but it’s not a bad thing—to have to follow up success is never bad. If the worst thing I’ve got to worry about is trying to top my last album, then hey, that means I had a good last album. It keeps you working hard. It keeps you humble.”
That’s not to say Swindell isn’t ambitious, though. “I’m still not where I want to be. I want to be filling out arenas,” he says. As an opening act for many top artists (including Jason Aldean, Dierks Bentley, Luke Bryan, Kenny Chesney, Florida Georgia Line, and Thomas Rhett), he’s been inspired to aim high: “I’ve been able to see firsthand what that would be like if I can get there. I really do think this [new] album is the next step in getting us where we want to go.” In a few days, he’ll head back out on the road – this time as a headliner.
As he considers his career so far, Swindell says he’s content—but he also hasn’t forgotten how he got his start. “The way my career path has gone, I wouldn’t have it any other way. I think it gave me a whole new outlook and respect for the [songwriting] community and the people that work so hard. I think they’re honestly underappreciated. Sometimes as artists, we get all the credit, but man, without the songs, we wouldn’t be anything. I just want people to know that songwriters, they make the music world go-’round and I’m just glad to be one. I love being on stage and singing, but if all I got to do was write songs, then I think I’d be all right. But,” he adds with a laugh, “I’m going to keep singing them while they let me!”
Photo by Robby Klein