It’s a grievous slight from which I may never fully recover, but Cole Swindell failed to invite me to his 36th birthday celebration on Sunday (June 30). My sense of self lies shredded.
Now I don’t mean to imply that Swindell and I are drinking buddies. The fact is I’ve never even shaken his sceptered hand. But I’ve covered so many of his No. 1 parties — including one that nearly led to my being drowned — that I feel a certain level of intimacy with the lad.
He and I first consumed free liquor in proximity on Tuesday, May 27, 2014, at a party on BMI’s capacious sixth-floor balcony overlooking downtown Nashville. The afternoon was sultry, and I was a bit sulky, owing to my longstanding aversion to direct sunlight. But Swindell was rockin’, absorbing a barrage of praise for “Chillin’ It,” his first No. 1, both as a writer and as a recording artist.
Cheering him on was his mentor and musical brother, Luke Bryan, who initially took him on tour to sell merchandise, but who had, by this time, tapped him as an opening act. He’d also recorded several of Swindell’s song. Bryan joked that in those early days together, Swindell would run up an $80 bar tab while selling “maybe $120 worth of merch.”
Also in the crowd was Brian Kelley of Florida Georgia Line, who’d recorded Swindell’s co-write, “This Is How We Roll.”
Circling so high overhead that it looked like a mosquito, a drone shot video of the festivities for Bryan to show at his concerts. For Swindell, it was a classic career launch.
Once he gained momentum, there was no stopping him. Swindell was so productively busy that his next three No. 1 singles came and went with no time for individual celebrations. That’s why, on Monday, Sept. 12, 2016, BMI and ASCAP, the performance rights organizations, arranged a “pub crawl” to honor Swindell and his six co-writers of “Hope You Get Lonely Tonight,” “Ain’t Worth the Whiskey” and “Let Me See Ya Girl.”
For the uninitiated, a pub crawl is a vicious institution that involves you walking into the first of a series of bars and crawling into the last one, all in the name of having a good time. It’s also known as a “Music Row Death March.”
Fortunately, Swindell’s crawl involved only three bars, all within the same block. We began toasting the honoree, his co-writers and anything else that moved at a saloon simply called “South.” There Swindell was congratulated for — among other glories — having been a celebrity judge in the Miss America pageant.
An obviously happy Swindell told the crowd that he grew up being a fan of songwriters, such as those who were then sharing the spotlight with him. “The power of music is real,” he proclaimed. “When I say I’m living the dream, I honestly don’t know how it can get any better.”
It did get better — or at least more adjective-strewn — as the party rocked on to the Dawg House saloon. There, Swindell’s label head called him “a songwriter of consequence” who had a lot more “shades of artistry” to discover.
Swindell was properly humbled by all the praise. “I get plenty of credit out on the road,” he said, But today’s about my co-writers. … I love going out and making you proud. It wouldn’t be worth doing if I didn’t have people to share it with.”
As we stumbled into the Tin Roof — our last arena of excess — enthusiasm was still high, but I discovered the notes I was taking now appeared to be written in Burmese. Swindell stayed on to the liquid end. He thanked the hardy survivors of the crawl for hanging on. “I know there are a lot of other places you could be,” he commiserated. Oh, yeah — like the emergency room.
A month later, on Thursday, Oct. 13, 2016, the mood was somber when a crowd overflowed the Swingin’ Doors bar in downtown Nashville to honor Swindell for “You Should Be Here.” It was a tribute he co-wrote to his supportive father, who died shortly after Swindell signed his record deal in 2013.
“In a moment of darkness,” Swindell’s publisher said to him, “you allowed yourself to be vulnerable enough to give us so much light, so much peace.”
Swindell, in turn, thanked those who’d come to celebrate such a personal statement. “I just can’t believe I’m here talking about the most special song in my life,” he said. “You’ll never hear another song that means more to me than this one.”
Swindell didn’t write “Middle of a Memory,” his subsequent chart-topper, but he was on hand at his record label’s headquarters in Nashville on Tuesday, Feb. 28, 2017 when its writers, Ashley Gorley and Zach Crowell, were lionized.
It was a small and cozy occasion with only a few dozen in attendance. The fest was chronicled by two photographers who roam around the room, taking Polaroid pictures of the guests — some of whom posed with Swindell and the songwriters, some with each other. The pictures were presented as gifts in souvenir “CS” (Cole Swindell) folders.
This would have been my chance to document my closeness to Swindell via a side-by-side shot. But when a lady of considerable charm moved in, I selected her for the photo instead. Well, what would you have done?
A torrential downpour sloshed Nashville the evening of Wednesday, Feb. 6, 2019 when a Lyft driver delivered me to The Cowan entertainment complex. Besides celebrating Swindell’s latest hit, “Break Up in the End,” the event involved a fan promotion, as well as Swindell’s new affiliation with Sugarlands Distilling’s Pre-Show Punch.
It was dark when I arrived at the side door of the venue. Dozens of people were huddled and shivering under a pitifully small awning, waiting to get in for a promised Swindell mini-concert. Recognizing me as a journalist from my alcohol-deficient glare, the security guard waved me in while the huddled masses beamed venomous stares at the back of my head.
Always generous in sharing the spotlight, Swindell stood to the side as the three writers of “Break Up in the End” were honored. Once the ceremonies were over, the fans were let in while I headed for the exit, shielding my notebook like an infant against the storm.
Without getting too maudlin or dramatic about it, on my drive home that night, as the downpour intensified, I drove into a pool of water on the road that turned out to be somewhat deeper than Lake Baikal. The water was up around my knees by the time my rescuers arrived to haul me out. I never saw my car again or the notebook on the back seat.
But if my memory serves me as well as the bartender did that night, that Pre-Show Punch is dynamite and the ideal lubricant for a birthday bash.
Guess we’ll never know, will we? 😉