Past Heartbreak and Future Hope Collide In Dustin Lynch's Opry Induction
When Dustin Lynch sang the final minute of "Cowboys and Angels" on Sept. 18 at the Grand Ole Opry House, his voice grew shaky as he pointed out into the audience.
His grandparents, married for 63 years, were in the seats he had targeted, and "Cowboys" had been written about their relationship. Lynch had sung that same title when he made his first appearance on the Opry in March 2012, and now, six years later, he was taking a major step forward in what's likely to be a long-term business relationship. Opry member Reba McEntire noted that same night that she had first sung on the long-running WSM-AM Nashville radio show 41 years prior, and she took on a mentoring role that evening, officiating as Lynch was formally inducted as the newest Opry member.
McEntire, Jeannie Seely, Bobby Bare and Larry Gatlin & The Gatlin Brothers Band were all in the house that same night, symbolizing the value of Opry membership. All four of those acts have moved past their peak hit-making years, but having a mailbox at the Opry House practically guarantees that they have a place to play in the convenience of their hometown.
"It's always going to be there for us — wow, it's [odd] thinking about it," the 33-year-old Lynch says two days after the ceremony. "To know that that is there for us, is really cool."
The Opry nabbed Lynch at a peak commercial time. He racked up five straight No. 1 singles on the Country Airplay chart from 2014-2017, and just minutes before he hit the stage, BBR Music Group executive vp Jon Loba surprised Lynch with a plaque commemorating 1 billion streams of his music.
It was heady stuff for a singer who started making the media rounds with his self-titled debut album at a time when digital consumption was just beginning to go mainstream in the country format. He recalled not understanding what that meant for his future when the label took him to visit streaming partners on his first radio promotion tour.
"Why are you wasting two hours of my day?" he remembered thinking.
"It's amazing what those services have done for me as an artist as far as getting my music to new places in the world that don't have access to country radio," he says now in hindsight. Streaming services, he adds, have also shined a light on songs that never went to radio but "took off on their own and became hits at our live shows."
The induction was sweeter, perhaps, because of the personal turmoil that caused Lynch to write one of his most personal album cuts, the closing ballad on his debut set, "Your Plan." The simple guitar/vocal production was featured in a playlist of Lynch songs backstage before his induction, quietly tipping a western hat to a period when radio hits, Opry performances and 1 billion streams all seemed out of reach. Lynch was on the roster at the Big Machine Label Group's Valory label — the same imprint as McEntire — when Loba resigned from his post as Valory vp radio promotion and artist development in January 2011. Loba had been his biggest champion, and his departure left Lynch in limbo.
"I felt completely lost and a bit hopeless," says Lynch, recalling the genesis of "Your Plan." "In the middle of the night, I decided I would get up and go and try to write what I was feeling, the frustration, just kind of surrender and know that there's a greater plan going down."
Loba, of course, brought him to Broken Bow, and the Opry induction cements the notion that a greater plan was indeed in the works for Lynch and his personal story.
Now Lynch finds himself as the latest connector in the multigenerational story of the 93-year-old Opry. During her induction speech, McEntire recognized how she had followed in the footsteps of Minnie Pearl, Roy Acuff and Porter Wagoner in becoming a part of "one of the best families in the world." Lynch's own family echoed that historic sweep — his parents and grandparents were in the audience, and he brought his niece and nephew onstage, putting a future generation of his blood lineage in the Opry circle while he sang "Small Town Boy." In a way, that moment represents the mentoring he expects to provide as he matures in the Opry spotlight.
"One thing that really touched me at the reception afterward is when [Opry GM] Sally [Williams] started talking," he says. "She was telling me, 'Remember this night and how special it is, because there's going to be guys and girls behind you that are going to feel this way and that we get to celebrate with them on the night they become members.' I'm really looking forward to being there for the guys and girls that are coming behind."
Lynch's current single, "Good Girl," backs up the long-term view he has been asked to observe. It's a song that looks past the heat of the current moment to a romantic relationship that's still thriving 55 years down the line. Lynch persuaded Broken Bow to stop working his previous single, "I'd Be Jealous Too," to get "Good Girl" into the market right away, and its sense of commitment provides a nice, if unexpected, complement to the commitment he's making to the Opry.
"I couldn't believe that my team at the label agreed to do that," he says. " 'Good Girl' just felt like the song needed to be out this year. I don't know why. I just trusted my gut. I trusted what the song was saying, and it just felt like it needed to be out in 2018."
If his Opry career works out like that projected 55-year relationship in "Good Girl," Lynch will still be singing "Cowboys and Angels" or "Small Town Boy" or some yet-to-be-written song in the Opry circle when he's 88. And he'll be handing down a tradition to another crop of kids that he picked up from McEntire, Seely, the Gatlins and a slew of others.
"It's going to be so neat to continue year after year," says Lynch, "to come back and grow up with the Opry."