Cole Swindell, the 32-year-old Georgia singer who cut his teeth writing hits for Luke Bryan and Florida Georgia Line, is about to embark on the mission his whole trajectory of hits has been leading to: a stint judging Miss America 2017, which airs live this Sunday at 9 p.m. ET/PT on ABC. OK, so it’s kind of an unlikely spot for the country star — but, as he tells Billboard, he’s more than up for the challenge (especially with pal Brett Eldredge giving him pointers).
As “Middle of a Memory,” the second single off his recent album You Should Be Here, dominates country radio (it’s currently at No. 11 on Hot Country Songs), Swindell also took the time to talk about a song he hopes will be a future single: the evocative power ballad “Broke Down,” in which Swindell somehow finds untilled ground in a vast field of truck metaphors. His, as you might glean from the title, isn’t a mobile refuge or conduit to some carefree locale — instead, it’s an island on a dark highway, where his only company is a radio DJ playing the song that reminds him of the girl who broke his heart. Read on for the story behind the track, as well as how he’s preparing for his moment in the spotlight on Sunday.
How did you get involved in the Miss America competition?
My management and label came to me with it — I knew it was a big deal, obviously I’ve seen it before, so I said “Yeah, absolutely I’ll be a judge! Though I’m not quite sure how I’m qualified for that.” But once it was announced, it was more like, wow — this is huge. I think I got more texts about it from my buddies than I did after any of my number one songs [laughs]. That’s all anybody’s asking me about right now.
How are you getting ready? Seems like it might be tricky to prepare for…
You know, exactly! The way you’d feel if you were a judge, that’s probably how I feel right now. What do you do? These girls, they work so hard. It’s live…I just hope if I’m asking a question, it’s a reasonable one — not something hard. I would feel so bad, you know? Putting somebody on the spot like that! I wouldn’t want to answer any of them! And there they are, on live TV, and their answer impacts whether they win or place.
My labelmate Brett Eldredge did it last year, so he can coach me through it. I’ve already talked to him — his advice was to work on my poker face, because you can’t let them know what you’re thinking. You’ve got all these beautiful girls walking towards you, and you can’t look at them like, “Wow!” You have to kind of play it cool.
It’s something new, and it’s something I’ll get to say that I’ve done. I can’t believe I’ll be sitting at a table with people way bigger than me — I mean, Mark Cuban and Ciara? For a country artist to be on something like that is a big deal. I’m honored — there’s gonna be a lot of people watching like, “Who the heck is this guy?” [laughs] In my situation, that’s a good thing!
Do you think being a country singer will give you a unique perspective on the contest?
I just think….the way I was raised, I’m just going to look for a good, genuine girl. But they’ve all gonna be awesome to be at this point. I don’t know, it’s going to be tough!
Switching back to music, “Broke Down,” off your latest album You Should Be Here, is such a great song. Could you tell me the story of how it came together?
That was what I wanted for my second single! It’s coming at some point — probably not next, because we’ve gotta come with some tempo — but it’s coming. It’s one of my favorite songs I’ve ever written, so I’m excited about it.
As far as the story, I was sitting at home, and I had a writing appointment the next morning. There was a guitar of my dad’s — not the one from the “You Should Be Here’ video — just another guitar, and I’d never really played it. So I was just messing around, and I had this idea. Originally, in my mind, I was thinking “Broke Down” would be about losing my dad. I’d already written “You Should Be Here” [Swindell’s song about the loss of his father], so I was like, “Well, I think the girl route would be better, since I’m never going to top that.” I haven’t told many people that story.
So I turned it into a girl-themed idea, and took it in the next morning — what I had — and played it for Michael Carter and Ashley Gorley. You don’t get that feeling very often: it’s like, your heart’s pounding, there’s a lump in your throat, you don’t know what they’re going to say (either, “That sucks,” or “That’s good!”), you know? That’s the great thing about co-writing — you hear an opinion right there.
They loved it, and we just wrote the song. It’s one of my favorites on the album. Like, “old-school McGraw coming out of my doors” — I’m a huge ’90s country fan, so just thinking about an old Tim McGraw song coming on and having to pull the damn truck over, like [groans]. The second verse — Ashley Gorley is of my favorite writers, he co-wrote “You Should Be Here.” He’s such a genius. The “hand out the window, waving them on” — that’s such a picture. That’s what I love about songwriting, people like that — you learn from them. Lines like that put you right there, you know? He’s wonderful, and so’s Michael Carter, my producer.
It seems like a good counterexample for people who believe modern country is too cliché.
I get it, I mean everybody’s got their own opinion. I like the songs that are fun, that aren’t gonna change the world — I’ve some of those — but even something like, “You Should Be Here,” that was my chance to say, “Look, this is me too. I’m just a normal person.” I’m glad to get the release. You get to tell your story through your music, if you choose to.
“Middle of a Memory” [the album’s second single], I love the lyrics of that song. The video, by the way, is not what I meant by writing that song [laughs], but that’s another cool thing. It was just meant to be lighthearted, about what could have been, when you meet somebody you’re into and then you get separated. I wonder how many singles I’m going to get off this album, because I’ve got so many songs that I want to put out there.
You also include some songs from other writers around Nashville, which I think a lot of people not familiar with country might not realize is kind of an honor.
Yeah, it’s cool for me as a songwriter to get to record five songs that I didn’t write. People letting me do that, that’s huge. My first album, I had to write everything. Nobody was going to send me stuff, just because I had a little success. I always said, if I got a record deal, I’d want to record the best songs I could, whether I wrote them or not. Hopefully writing some, but if not, I’d be ok with that too.