When Dustin Lynch started playing guitar in his youth, he wanted to be just like many artists he heard on country radio.
He recently realized that five albums into his career, he's now further along in the process than they were when he idolized them as a child.
"My heroes are George Strait, Garth Brooks and Alan Jackson," Lynch told CMT. "But when I started playing guitar, I was really into Kenny Chesney and Tim McGraw. Then when high school hit and Dierks Bentley and Eric Church were doing their thing and getting going. It's crazy that I can remember how excited I was for those albums to come and … to be a few albums in front of that is wild."
Lynch's fifth studio album – "Blue in the Sky" – will be out Friday (Feb. 11) and is home to his six-week No. 1 song "Thinking 'Bout You," a collaboration with MacKenzie Porter. The Tullahoma, Tennessee, native co-wrote five of the 12 songs on the album, including duets with Chris Lane and Riley Green.
Lynch released his debut, breakthrough hit "Cowboys and Angels" about nine years ago, and he said still as passionate about trying to write and record better songs as he was when he launched his career in 2012.
"I still feel like we're all getting better," he said. "I think it's a lot more fun now because I'm a lot more comfortable than I was. I'm not as scared, and I think we're a lot better at traveling and touring and appreciating what all that brings. I think those first several years, you're staying up too late and eating Taco Bell too much."
These days, Lynch has traded late-night fast food runs for upscale writers' retreats. He and his songwriter friends load up and head to a relaxing locale to focus on writing songs – and having fun. Because there's no pressure to finish writing a song so his collaborators can resume family activities, they crank out multiple high-quality songs that often get recorded for his albums. "Thinking 'Bout You," which Lynch co-wrote with Andy Albert, Hunter Phelps and Will Weatherly, came out of his first "next level" writers' retreat. Lynch said they wrote two songs that weekend they were proud of and were more excited about the other one. After adjusting the melody on "Thinking 'Bout You" and adding a female voice, the song was undeniable. Lauren Alaina's voice was on the song's original version, but when they couldn't get permission to release the version with her voice to country radio, Lynch had to reevaluate. The singer and his team held blind auditions searching for a vocalist to replace Alaina, and Lynch wasn't sure he would find someone who could replicate Alaina's range. If they didn't, he was ready to let it go. But Porter came in and wowed them.
"She just has such a cool tone in the verse, but then also was able to do a lot of the big notes and those big octaves over me in the chorus," Lynch said. "She's a super talent, and I wish her the best from here. I think she's got some good stuff right around the corner. I'm so glad I followed my heart and fought so hard for that song."
Lynch said his other favorite songs on the album include "Somethin' That Makes You Smile," which he didn't write, and "Tennessee Trouble," which came from another of his writing retreats. Lynch co-wrote the song with Matt Dragstrem, Hunter Phelps and Jordan Minton and said a beer run inspired it.
The singer and his friends were in Park City, Utah. He wasn't drinking at the time, and they planned to smoke cigars and sit in the hot tub. However, when the group ran out of beer, Lynch took them to the grocery store to buy alcohol and snacks. Somewhere along the way, one of them said the phrase "Tennessee trouble," and Lynch said a lightbulb went off.
"We were like, 'Oh, what is Tennessee trouble?" he recalls. "That sounds really cool. Just because I'm from a whiskey town and growing up in Tennessee, my brain goes, 'Well, she's Tennessee trouble, and she's gonna hurt you like whiskey and leave you the hangover type of thing. We got in the hot tub, lit up our cigars, and just started trying to bang it out."
However, Lynch said he'll always have a "best song wins" policy when choosing material to record – regardless of who wrote it.
"I want to write as much and as best as I can, but I'm never gonna beat the Hall of Famer songwriters in Nashville," he said. "We're at a point in our career where they're specifically writing for us. It's a fun spot to be in right now, knowing the town is really gearing up to get behind us."
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