"I don’t think I even now realize how minimal of a chance it is to get to where I’m at," Wallen says. Though he began singing at his local church at age three, asking for a violin for Christmas, he set out to be a professional baseball player in high school -- and he almost was, until an injury took his college offers off the table. That's when he turned back to music. "I would play around bonfires with my friends, and people were telling me that I was good," Wallen remembers.
Ahead of his debut album If I Know Me, out April 27, the country upstart relays his story.
What drew you to country music?
I didn't necessarily grow up with country being my first priority as a music listener. I grew up listening to classic rock and Christian music. I really got into Three Doors Down -- that’s the sound that was out when I was 12 or 13. I really loved Breaking Benjamin and bands like that. And then I discovered Eric Church. The first song I heard from him was "Love Your Love The Most.” It just hit me in a way that no other music ever had, and I started digging deeper into country music. And I grew up in the country, so it was kind of natural. My voice is obviously real southern -- I automatically lean country.
What pushed you to audition for The Voice in 2014?
My mom, actually. I had never even seen the show, never even heard of it, to be honest. That was probably around the same time that I was messing around with guitar, and I would play around bonfires with my friends, and people were telling me that I was good. I’m like, “yeah, whatever, you guys have to tell me that.” But [my mom] signed me up and drove me out there to tryouts.
Didn't you perform FGL's "Stay" on the show?
I did. That’s the song that got me kicked out! [Laughs.] On that show, they wanted me to sing pop music. For me, coming from a small town -- where I don’t really know anything about the music industry and don’t really know who I am as an artist yet -- [I] kind of [thought] “maybe I should." But I didn't necessarily get to pick the songs [I sang].
By the time that I got a chance to pick the song, “Stay” by FGL was the only one [from our choices] that was country, so I picked it. That probably wasn't one of the best songs that showcased me as a singer. But I just wanted to sing country music. That’s when I got booted. It ended up being a great thing for me, because I never wanted to be remembered for being on The Voice anyway. I’d much rather be remembered for music that I’ve gotten to create, and that is truly me.
How does it feel to now to now have a song with FGL?
[Laughs.] It’s a cool feeling, like a “ha -- I told you so." Not in a bitter way, but in a sweet kind of way. Like, y’all didn't want me, but a lot of other people do. And they’re great guys. They’ve been so good to me. Since we’ve met, we kind of just hit it off immediately. It's crazy how life can work. Five years ago, I was out on the lake with my buddies, and somebody says, “have you heard this new group [FGL]?” Fast-forward, here I am making music with them and playing with them.
So how did you guys actually meet?
I can’t remember exactly where we were the first time. We have a lot of the same people who we run around with, and who we do business with, so we just kind of met in Nashville. I believe we were in the studio, because we have the same producer [Joey Moi].
What made you click?
I know that Tyler [Hubbard], we both grew up playing baseball, so we automatically had that in common. We obviously love music, also. I feel like I’m just the kind of person where no matter who you are or what you bring to the table, I’m going to act like myself around you. I’m just me. I think that they are the same way, and we just connected on that.
How did “Up Down” come into your hands?
My manager was in Key West at a songwriter’s festival, and [songwriter] Michael Hardy was playing the song, just acoustically, at a writer’s room type of thing. [Hardy] sent him the demo, and he immediately sent it to me, and I was like, “dude, I don’t know why, but I have a really good feeling about this -- it’s something special. So don’t show it to anybody else.”
I originally was just going to record the song myself. I think [FGL] were in the studio one day, and I said, “I think this song’s dope. Do y’all want to hop on it?” I was just messing around. But they were like, “yeah, we do, actually!” That’s all it took.
Looking back, why do you think you connected with "Up Down" so immediately?
If a song can move you and make you smile, or cry, the very first time that you listen to it, it’s usually something special. And it did that to me. It's clever -- it’s a cool twist on the “up down” thing. I like to fish, I like to have a good time. Even now, when I sing it live, when I hear it, it just puts a smile on my face. Life is hard, so if music can do that, that’s really special.
What was it like filming the music video?
We were going to be playing down in Orange Beach, Ala., so I was like, “let’s go, have somebody follow us around with a camera, and we’ll have a good time all day." No one really knew me at the time. They’re all like, “who’s this guy? What’s he doing?” And then the performance shots -- that was the first time I had been on stage with [FGL], singing that song. However many thousands of people were there, getting to feel that energy and know that was going to be captured forever...
Speaking of fans, you’re very active on social media with your followers. What’s your favorite fan interaction that you’ve ever had?
Me and [Hubbard] wrote this song, and nothing ever happened with it. But I put up a video on my Facebook playing guitar and singing it for a second. Not that long ago, I had a VIP thing. This girl comes over, I take pictures with her, give her a poster, and she shows me a new tattoo she just got. And it’s that song -- it was [the lyrics to] one of the hooks [Hubbard] and I had wrote. I didn't think anyone had ever heard it. I was like, dang, people are really starting to care.
A version of this article originally appeared in the April 14 issue of Billboard.