Cole Swindell went from selling merch for Luke Bryan to playing arenas with him. The upstart country singer-songwriter’s self-titled debut is No. 2 on Billboard’s Top Country Albums chart for the week ending Feb. 23, and bows on the Billboard 200 at No. 3 with sales of 63,000 copies, according to Nielsen SoundScan. The album was boosted by the slow-burn success of single “Chillin’ It,” which tops the Hot Country Songs list for a second week after a 38-week climb and is currently No. 28 on the Billboard Hot 100.
“I don’t question the way things happen,” Swindell, 30, says of the song’s drawn-out journey. “Every time I’ve wished things would happen now, it happened later on, 10 times better.”
In an genre known for its top-down business model, Swindell is country’s rare bottom-up success. By the time the singer — who had written for Luke Bryan, Florida Georgia Line and others — met with Warner Music Nashville about a label deal in 2013, “Chillin’ It,” which he released independently earlier that year, had already sold 100,000 copies on iTunes (it’s sold 874,000 to date). Despite the lack of label backing, SiriusXM and a handful of terrestrial radio stations were playing the loping, laid-back tune. “Cole was being chased by everyone in town,” recalls WMN president/CEO John Esposito.
The label’s urgency to build on the momentum of “Chillin’ It” won over Swindell. “Every artist wants to know when their single is going to be released. I said, ‘We can go next week.’ Swindell was so excited we almost had to call 911,” Esposito jokes.
“That was huge,” says Swindell. “Me and my manager [Kerri Edwards] had agreed that whichever label we went with would have to be willing to put it out now. Timing is everything.”
Swindell, a native of Bronwood, Ga. (population: 600), came to Nashville six years ago after graduating from Georgia Southern University. While honing his songwriting from 2007 to 2010, he sold merchandise on tour for Bryan, a fellow GSU alum. Swindell quit four years ago, when he signed a publishing deal with Sony/ATV and began landing songwriting credits for Bryan, Scotty McCreery’s “Water Tower Town” and Florida George Line’s “This Is How We Roll.”
In fact, “Chillin’ It” has the same sunny, pickup-truck swing of Florida Georgia Line’s smash hit “Cruise.” As Esposito says, the song was “somewhat reminiscent with things that have been working at radio.” And that was a double-edged sword for some programmers.
“I was concerned when it was released that it would be perceived as ‘FGL Lite,’ ” says Fletcher Keyes, PD at WWQM Madison, Wis. “That’s not a knock on Cole — it was just my first gut feeling.”
To ensure that “Chillin’ It” stood out on its own, WMN sent Swindell on a radio tour so that programmers could put a face with the song and hear the diversity of his other material. (Keyes, for one, says he “loves” several other songs on Swindell’s album.)
“I knew that there were comments that people made,” says Swindell. “It just kind of fired me up to go in there and play other songs.”
The plan worked, and not only for “Chillin’ It.” When Swindell performed the midtempo booty call “I Hope You Get Lonely Tonight,” radio station staffers began “elbowing each other, going, ‘This is the one,’ ” he says. The song is now slated to be his second single.
Swindell’s career is coming full circle: He’s opening for his former boss Bryan’s That’s My Kind of Night arena tour, which launched Jan. 16. “Being on the road with him when he was brand new, I saw it was a lot of traveling, a lot of radio visits,” says Swindell. “I wasn’t watching, saying, ‘I’m going to get used to this in five years.’ But I looked at how Luke treated people great and said, ‘If I ever get a deal, that’s how you’ve got to do it.’ “
Now, Swindell dreams of the day when he can help younger artists the same way Bryan helped him. “I can’t wait to get to that point,” he says. “I didn’t do this to be here for just one song. This is just the door opening.”