Country singer Cole Swindell’s path to success is paved with hard work and gratitude

Country star Cole Swindell got his start selling merchandise on the road with Luke Bryan, but these days it’s his own name on the T-shirts.

If you’re a country fan, there’s a good chance you knew Swindell’s music before you ever heard his voice. Prior to releasing his self-titled debut album in 2014, he wrote songs for several big players in the genre. It’s when writing for himself, however, that he’s gotten the most personal. “You Should Be Here,” the first single off his recent album of the same name, is about the loss of his father. The track has touched many listeners experiencing grief of their own.

Swindell’s move from backstage to center stage has left him with a deep appreciation for his fans, as he strives to use his platform to give back. He frequently posts videos on his YouTube channel in which he surprises people with phone calls, and he recently invited a fan with a traumatic brain injury to a concert on his Down Home Tour. “Things like this make us really realize why we do what we do,” he said at the time.

It’s clear that the star also has a deep respect for his country. His song “Ain’t Worth the Whiskey” references raising a glass to those serving overseas, and he partnered with the USO for his second album launch to raise money for military families. Earlier this year, he became the first artist ever to perform at the reconstructed 4 World Trade Center in Manhattan, where he sang “You Should Be Here” for the loved ones of 9/11 victims.

In October, Swindell, whose single “Middle of a Memory” recently hit №1 on the country charts, penned an op-ed for The Huffington Post in which he thanked the country music community for their support. “‘Country’ means a lot more to me than the sound coming out of your speakers,” he wrote. “To me it’s a big family.” He echoed that same passion for the genre when speaking to A Plus.

A PLUS: Much of songwriting is about storytelling. What do you think makes a great story?

COLE SWINDELL: What makes a great story is anything real. Anything people can relate to, good or bad. I think there’s a lot of people that have been through the same things, and it’s crazy that a song can bring everybody together.

How different is the process of writing for other artists vs. for yourself?

Well, now that I have my record deal I pretty much write everything for myself, or a song with me in mind, at least. But there’s also that chance that it may not be what I want to say at the moment, and if another artist or buddy of mine loves it enough to record it, then I would be totally cool with that. But back in the day when I was just writing and I had success getting songs recorded by Thomas Rhett, Florida Georgia Line, and Luke [Bryan], I was just trying to write the best song possible, and I think that’s still what I try to do, and it doesn’t matter who records it. You just write the best song, and the song usually finds a home and ends up where it’s supposed to.

You started out in the industry behind the scenes. How valuable was that early experience when you started performing?

My early years getting to sell merchandise for Luke was huge. I don’t know that I knew it then, but looking back, the experience of getting to meet the fans, hang out with radio, see what a new artist has to do has certainly helped me. Everything happened so fast, it seemed like for me, but I had been around the business and kind of was prepared for all this, if you can be. It was amazing.

Can you talk a bit about your experience performing at Ground Zero?

The performance at Ground Zero was something that I can’t even believe I was a part of. A song I wrote about losing my dad connected with those that lost friends and family on 9/11. To be up there playing a song that special to me knowing that it has helped people that have been through way more than I have. That was a special moment I’ll never forget it and it was just a huge honor.

Patriotism is a common theme in a lot of country music. What do you think drives that?

I think a lot of people that love country music are proud of where they come from, and not just their hometown. They’re proud to be from the United States of America. Anytime while performing “Ain’t Worth the Whiskey” that I can give a shout out to the people, our troops, our law enforcement, firefighters, first responders, anybody that takes time away from their family to make sure we’re safe and OK, that is absolutely amazing. I think that’s what country music is, part of what it’s about, is being proud of where you’re from.

How has your connection with fans affected your approach to music?

I think about my fans a lot. They are what drive me. I always want to write a great song, but there are songs that I write thinking, “Man, my fans are gonna be able to party and have fun to this song.” That’s my job up there, to make sure everybody’s having fun, so I’m always going to write. Even the sad songs, but you’ve always got your fans in mind, the people that are gonna be at my show. Because at the end of the day those are the people that I really want to perform for.

Do you think artists have a responsibility to give back in some way?

All I can speak for is me, but I would say absolutely. We wouldn’t be here with this platform, singing our songs like we do, without fans and without people that have helped us get here. I think giving back is something important. We all are lucky enough to do this, get to travel and do what we love. I wanna be great on stage, but just as much I want to be helping folks off the stage. I think that’s just as important, maybe even more important than the music.

What does country music represent to you?

Country music to me represents something real, honest; it’s something you can relate to. That is what I think connects us all to country music. Whether you’re from the North, the South, East, or West, it doesn’t matter, you know. There’s that one song that kind of speaks to us all, and I think that’s what country music represents, is everybody.

By A Plus’ JILL O’ROURKE

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