The Big E: Tears and beers both parts of Swindell's performances
"That was like the biggest event we had," the 34-year-old Bronwood, Ga. (population: 513, according to the 2000 U.S. Census), native told The Eagle during a recent telephone interview.
But when Swindell attends a fair now, he is generally the biggest show in town. Once Luke Bryan's merchandise man, Swindell has rapidly ascended the country music ranks since his first album, "Cole Swindell," was released in 2014. That record went platinum, and his 2016 follow-up, "You Should Be Here," is currently gold-certified. His success has led to an extensive touring schedule that includes a few local gatherings; this summer alone, he has already played at a county fair in Pennsylvania and state fairs in Ohio and Nebraska, and he'll add to that list when he headlines at Xfinity Arena on Saturday as a part of The Big E.
"It's usually an all-ages show," Swindell said of what he enjoys most about playing at fairs.
He especially appreciates the audience's youngest demographic. "You get to see little kids that might not get to go to concerts," he said.
Swindell's music isn't necessarily suitable for children — lots of talk about beer and whiskey and chasing women — but there's a good chance they've been listening anyway. His last seven singles have reached No. 1 or No. 2 on Billboard magazine's Country Airplay chart, which tallies weekly radio impressions. (He just released his eighth single, "Stay Downtown.") Swindell, an avid athlete during his youth, doesn't shun musical scoreboards, using them to both measure and motivate.
"It just lets me know that I've had a lot of support," he said.
One of his most popular songs, "You Should Be Here," is fare for any audience. It's an ode to Swindell's father, William, who died during Labor Day weekend in 2013, just after Swindell had been signed by Warner Bros. Records, but before he had established himself as a star.
"You should be here, standing with your arm around me here / cutting up, cracking a cold beer," the refrain begins in Swindell's song.
"That came out fairly easy," Swindell said of penning the number, "although I had chills the whole time writing it."
The tune contains a few specific references to Swindell's father, including his propensity to take "too many pictures" and for "freaking out," but its lyrics are general enough to function as a tribute for anybody who has lost a loved one. When Swindell plays the song live, he sees tears in many people's eyes, he said, and he's left "wondering who they're thinking about."
"It wasn't just for him anymore," Swindell recalled observing fairly quickly after releasing the song.
That realization is one of the reasons that the hit is "probably" his favorite to play live, though it may not be the most difficult. Swindell said people don't realize how challenging it is to play the up-tempo party anthems that he is expected to routinely deliver. Still, it's a burden he's happy to bear.
"I take a lot of pride in getting the energy going," he said.
Before "Stay Downtown," his previous single, "Flatliner," was in the raucous mold. The track features Dierks Bentley, with whom Swindell toured this summer on Bentley's "What the Hell" tour. Bentley was always a major influence on Swindell's music and songwriting, Swindell said, but the tour has brought them closer.
"Now, we're buddies," he said.
Playing with a musical mentor has been surreal for Swindell. He said road life is often boring with healthy doses of "hurry up and wait." To ward off the monotony, Swindell usually plays golf.
"That's my passion outside of music," he said, noting that his father had emphasized that, unlike football or other sports, golf could be played forever.
Swindell said lots of his contemporaries are highly skilled on the links, including Charles Kelley of Lady Antebellum and Darius Rucker. How about Swindell?
"I'm not the best. I'm not bad at all," he said.
This down-home modesty is part of Swindell's appeal to fans, but the singer-songwriter wants his performances to convey his serious affection for his craft.
"I hope [spectators] know when they leave that, man, that guy loves what he does," he said.
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