For many folks, Southwest Georgia conjures up images of longleaf pines, wiregrass and winding creeks with names like Kinchafoonee and Muckalee. These days, however, the region also lays claim to a roster of homegrown artists making huge marks in country music. Luke Bryan, the reigning ACM Entertainer of the Year, hails from Leesburg and his friend Dallas Davidson, a singer/songwriter with more than 20 #1 hits under his belt, is from just down the road in Albany. Cole Swindell, who scored his first hit, the platinum-selling single, “Chillin’ It,” in 2013, grew up in tiny Bronwood, population 380. The group expanded again in June when Florida Georgia Line took “Sippin’ on Fire,” a song co-written by Cuthbert native Cole Taylor, to the top spot on Billboard’s Country Airplay chart.
Taylor also co-wrote “Home Alone Tonight, a track on Luke Bryan’s new Kill the Lights album, and his own single, “Drop Top,” a song inspired by his dad’s stories of his ’69 Camaro, has spent the last few weeks in Sirius XM’s The Highway Hot 45 Weekend Countdown. In a conversation peppered with a lot of South Georgia “yes ma’ams,” the 24-year-old talked with me recently about his upbringing, his experiences in Nashville and his home state.
You’re from Cuthbert, Georgia, which was also the hometown of jazz legend Fletcher Henderson. Tell me a little bit about the town where you grew up.
My mom’s side of the family has always been from there. It’s your typical small town: one red light, a town square and a whole bunch of pine trees. My daddy is a deer processor and taxidermist down there, so I grew up riding dirt roads and deer hunting. It’s beautiful down there, definitely a slice of heaven and a breath of fresh air when I get to go back.
You were 14 when you wrote your first song – did you take music lessons when you were young?
I never really took any lessons. I started singing at church, Faith Baptist Church in Cuthbert, worship songs and old hymns, and then I started singing karaoke tracks at little small-town festivals. It became a thing where people would say, “Man, you kinda sound good,” and I’m a perfectionist, so I started trying to get better and better if I was going to be in front of people. Then I saw people around me writing songs and the girls were kind of digging that, so I thought, “Oh, if girls like the songs, I can just write ‘em and start playing guitar.”
After graduating from Randolph Southern High School in Shellman, you attended Valdosta State. What did you study?
I studied accounting. I went in undecided and started getting into the business side of school. I had my first few accounting classes and I was like, “this isn’t bad, I can do this,” and then I got to the hard part! I got 13 hours away (from earning a degree) and decided I wanted to move to Nashville.
When you were in Valdosta, were you playing clubs there?
Yes, I played at least once a week down there and that’s how I got through college, got to eat. Momma and Daddy would give me some allowance here and there and help me with the rent, but other than that, I was on my own.I still go back and play those same bars that started me up and gave me my first break down, Heath Cox at Bluewater in Valdosta and The Gin in Tifton.
You made your first CD, That Will Always Be Home to Me, when you were just 16, and two years later while you were in Valdosta, you recorded the CD, Cab of My Chevy, right?
Yes, I recorded it in Moultrie, there’s a little studio right there on 133 called Studio D. A guy named Gary DiBenedetto, he was from Nashville, and his dad was a preacher at this church (in Moultrie) and getting older, so he moved back to do the music stuff there so he could be with his dad. I was one of the first guys that he recorded and he helped me so much to learn about the studio. Singing live and singing in a studio are two different things, so he really taught me about that and helped me before I moved to Nashville.
As a green South Georgia kid, what did you do when you got to Nashville to insert yourself in the scene?
The people here are so nice and being from Georgia helps too. I knew Cole Swindell and I knew Brent Cobb and I knew Dallas (Davidson) just from us all being from the same part of Georgia. I saw Dallas down at turkey hunts in South Georgia and Cole and I had kept in touch. So when I got up here and I’d run into those guys, they’d all say, “Hey, you need to meet this guy, or you don’t need to meet this guy, or you need to do this.” I had a manager, his name is Gregg Hill and he’s a Georgia boy, too, and he’d say, “Hey, you need to write this many songs and go out Mondays and Tuesdays, and just let your face be seen and be known in town.” And he gave me a year’s worth of work to do and three months later, I said, “I’m done with all this.” Well, I was used to working for my Daddy and working with deer and taxidermy, and I had told Dad before I left, if I’m going to be there, I’m going to work just as hard as I am now, with something I love doing and hopefully it’ll work out.”
Sounds like your South Georgia work ethic came in handy.
For me it was either work really hard with my dad or work really hard on my music.
Clearly, it paid off because you landed a deal with Universal Music Publishing nine months after arriving in Nashville in 2013. What is life like as a “signed writer?”
Well, then you have people booking your writes for you, so the pressure of going out every night and meeting new writers and booking your own appointments isn’t there as much. You still do that, of course, because that’s just part of the game. But now you have to bring your quality stuff. I had to bring the ideas or try my best to find great ideas for bigger writers so they’d respect me as the new guy. It’s a lot like high school, you know, when you move here, there’s a freshman mentality, and now that I’ve been here for two years, I feel more like a sophomore. And you have a lot of people you look up to, the seniors. Somebody told me that analogy a long time ago, that it’s like high school, so you can’t really expect anything too much when you move here at first.
You may be a sophomore but you already have a #1 hit. Tell me how “Sippin’ on Fire” came about.
It’s crazy. There was a new guy at Big Loud Shirt Publishing Company, his name is Matt Dragstrem and he was on my books, and it turns out he signed his deal at the same time as I did, and this was our first time writing together. We wrote the song and knew it was something special, but we knew it needed a little something extra, so Rodney Clawson came in and provided his thing to it that he does and turned it into what it is today. We ran with no hook, really, we just had an idea and knew what we wanted to write about, and then I think Matt may have said, “sippin’ on fire.” We tried to put it everywhere else in the song and it didn’t sound right except as the hook. It’s one of those testimonies to just let the song do what it’s supposed to do that day and really not force it. We went in with just open minds, no hook, just writing about a story. My favorite part about country music is the storytelling behind it.
You’ve often mentioned Garth Brooks and his story songs as a huge influence on you, but you know many of those songs were written by Georgians Tony Arata and Pat Alger. What does it mean to you to be from Georgia, a state with such an incredible musical legacy of artist and songwriters?
It’s incredible. I never really got into the songwriter, or finding out who my favorite writers were, until I moved to Nashville and really started to look at at the songs I grew up on. And it seemed like every song that was my favorite Garth song was (written by) somebody from Georgia. And then just having a path, seeing Luke do his thing from Leesburg, and then Cole and Dallas, and all those guys right there from my back yard, and it made me think maybe I could do this…maybe there’s room for one more of us there. But Georgia’s had such an impact on every genre of music, it’s crazy if you just sit down and look at everybody from the state…Ray Charles, Otis Redding, Usher, Ludacris.
You’re right and I think that diversity and being exposed to so much different music is an essential part of the Georgia experience.
People always ask me about my phrasing which has more of a hip-hop foundation. It’s because when I was 16 and you could burn whatever songs you wanted to on one CD, I would have Garth Brooks on track #1 and Usher on track #2 and Christian music on track #3. When you’re from Georgia, you’re raised listening to every kind of music there is.
You’re also part of Four Wheel Drive, a collective including Georgia singer/songwriters Jordan Rager, Travis Denning and Jon Langston. Tell me about that.
Eddie’s Attic (in Decatur) is so special to all of us and we always wanted to play there. Bradley Jordan with Peachtree Entertainment one day said, “Guys, what if we just put the four of you together, I think we could sell out Eddie’s Attic,” and we were all like, “You’re crazy.” But when it sold out pretty quick, we all kind of looked at each other like we might have a thing here. We do it two weekends a year and it’s just kind of something special to get back to our roots and give back to the people who have been there all along with us. We’re having fun, we’re not scripted, we don’t have a set list, we’re just there having a few drinks. It’s like a bonfire setting.
You have a hometown fundraiser coming up on Aug. 29, 2015 in Shellman that I understand your brother, B.J. Taylor, a volunteer fire fighter, puts together?
They needed new equipment and he came to me last year and said, “Hey man, what do you think about doing a concert on the old football field? We can raise money and get new equipment so we can go in these fires and we can be safe.” So I said “Absolutely,” and last year it was such a success that we’re going to do it every year. I want to raise money and support my hometown.
The Shellman Fire Department presents Cole Taylor in concert, with Faren Rachels opening, on Aug. 29, 2015 at Randolph Southern Football Field. Tickets for the 8:30 p.m. show are $10 in advance and $15 day of show. Kids 12 and under are free and coolers are welcome with a $5 charge.