Scoff all you want at country radio today, but Dustin Lynch knows damn well what listeners want, and he gives it to them three and a half minutes at a time. Unlike some country artists who complacently churn out radio-ready singles, Dustin Lynch also has an approach and a perception of “new-age country,” as he refers to it, that gives him an edge on his peers. There’s a sense of foresight to the 29-year-old Tennessean’s writing, plucking from both pop music and early ’90s country, that’s evident in a cut like his most recent hit “Where It’s At.”
“That’s exciting to be able to introduce this element that no one’s heard yet on country radio. It’s crazy to think that “Where It’s At,” a lot of people don’t know [this] but the guitar line is a live ukelele solo. To my recollection, I don’t think that’s ever been done in country music. Country music is hungry for new and innovation sounds, song structures, and that’s exciting, it’s how we grow the genre, it’s what Taylor Swift brought to country music years ago.”
In the same vein, Lynch views artists like Thomas Rhett, Easton Corbin, and his good friend Sam Hunt as musicians whose modern take on what Lynch repeatedly refers to as “our genre” will shake up the tried-and-true formula of country radio. Such an approach hearkens back to the days of Shania Twain, blending down-the-line pop writing with storytelling and twang. Lynch credits part of the new-age adoption to fans who are fed up with the electronic nature of pop radio and are looking for something “a little more concrete.” However, he notes that even as recently as 2012, he had to “purposely dope down” songs on his last record that leaned too far into pop territory. The success of “Where It’s At” shows how far country has come in just three years.
Conversely, Lynch also keeps his thumb on the pulse of his fan base in a way that’s much more suited to country music in 2015, using social media as a barometer for the success of his live show. While he acknowledges that he’s a “music buyer, not a music streamer,” Lynch knows the importance of streaming programs and their relation to his work, as well as the Generation Now crowd they appeal to, but quickly notes the bloodied side of streaming programs’ double-edged blade.
“I feel like labels are constantly treading water and trying not to drown with how quickly we’re moving into the streaming world,” he says. “We have to get that fixed. Artists, labels and songwriters, songwriters mostly, are a dying breed right now. Legislation is not making these streaming services own up to what they’re really using. If we lose the songwriters, and that’s what makes the country music community go ’round, if we’re not compensating those guys and girls, I don’t know how we’re going to survive.”
Lynch knows about that bare-boned survival of the songwriting Nashville newcomer. He was once in that position, adopting the city as his own in 2003, a time when publishing companies “weren’t scared to sign a new writer at the time.” Lynch had just graduated at the top of his class from Lipscomb University, completing a pre-med degree, and was subsequently accepted into The University of Memphis’ medical program. He said he made his parents “sick to their stomachs” by telling them his plan to put medical school on the back burner in order to pursue country music, but the outcome of Lynch’s high-stakes gamble is history.
While the industry climate has changed dramatically since that time, Lynch hasn’t lost sight of his artistic intentions or his desire to push boundaries. Contrarily, his approach has been honed to a point as he’s grown more aware of the country music community and its needs and wants, in lieu of just riding out his success. He’s adamant about making country music better for all.
“I think it’s all going to work out, I really do, but I think we got to keep our nose on it, and the community,” he says. “[We have] to make these new companies come to the table and realize ‘Hey, we’re giving y’all an art, and art’s not free.'”