‘Small Town Boy’ Dustin Lynch Makes Good—Again.
Photos by Daniel Vorlet
The word “Tullahoma” rolls off the tongue so smoothly that it seems like a no-brainer that it would make a great album title. The little town in Tennessee with the lyrical name has also given its famous native son plenty to sing about.
With a population of just under 18,000, Tullahoma (named for a Choctaw word meaning “red rock”) lies about 80 miles southeast of Nashville. This scenic region in the state’s lower midsection is known as Middle Tennessee, but it could just as well be called the Bourbon Belt—the historic George Dickel whiskey distillery is right there on the edge of town, and Jack Daniel’s cherished sour mash springs to life up the road in Lynchburg. By putting his hometown’s name in lights, so to speak, as the title of his new album, country artist Dustin Lynch has raised its profile considerably. It’s a way of saying thanks, he says, and acknowledging that Tullahoma, Tennessee, was a great place to grow up. And now that he’s a little bit older and wiser, he has been able to take a long look back and find a wealth of inspiration. “It’s what made me who I am,” says Lynch. “That town is the reason I am who I am today.”
As a recording artist and touring performer, the singer and songwriter has enjoyed a steady, constant climb to country-pop stardom since he released his debut album eight years ago. His string of achievements includes seven number-one singles, all four of his albums reaching the Top 5, and top-level tours with the likes of Luke Bryan, Florida Georgia Line, and Brad Paisley. His tunes have been streamed more than 1.7 billion times, and eight singles have been certified as gold or platinum. Lynch has gotten wide exposure with television audiences through his appearances on shows like the CMA Awards, America’s Country Countdown, Good Morning America, Jimmy Kimmel Live!, and CBS This Morning, and he’s a member of the Grand Ole Opry, having been inducted by none other than Reba McEntire on an unforgettable and emotional night a year and a half ago.
Little Town Livin’
Tullahoma carries on thematically where “Small Town Boy,” his smash hit from 2017, left off. He worked with hit producer Zach Crowell and a handful of ace songwriters (including Dallas Davidson, Brian Kelley of Florida Georgia Line, and Matt Ramsey of Old Dominion) to craft a cycle of 11 homespun songs with such titles as “Ridin’ Roads,” “Good Girl,” “Momma’s House,” “Little Town Livin’,” and “Red Dirt, Blue Eyes.” Some of the stories in the songs are real while others were imagined—but all hit close to home. “A lot of that points back to the people who raised me, and growing up with a lifestyle where I could go outside and have fun and explore and try new things in the great outdoors,” says Lynch. “It’s kind of about being that kid and learning all those things.”
Recalling that childhood, he says he played golf and rode horses avidly when he was younger, and three different reservoirs in the area offered unlimited fishing opportunities. Though he was still a kid when he got his first guitar, he didn’t embrace music in a serious way until his late teens. He went to Nashville first as a student, not as an aspiring star. But while he was studying biology at Lipscomb University, with an eye toward a career in medicine, he was lured to the weekly Open Mic nights at the Bluebird Cafe, a haven for singer-songwriters that was near the campus. By the age of 26, he had a contract with Broken Bow Records and his first smash hit.
That debut single, “Cowboys and Angels,” had a throwback sound and a timeless tale of true love that was inspired by Lynch’s own grandparents. With the song’s lilting pedal steel, flowing fiddle, and a barking baritone guitar lick, it was warmly embraced by lovers of traditional country music. Lynch, a longtime fan of touchstone artists such as Garth Brooks, Alan Jackson, and Randy Travis, says his music will always have classic country elements, but he enjoys stretching into new sounds and styles. “I think that having such a wide range in my palette is part of what distinguishes me as an artist,” he says. “I feel like there’s a lane I’ve found that’s kind of mine that I can hold on to—a small-town boy who’s doing his thing.”
The impact of his life-changing and platinum-selling breakout hit (which he co-wrote with established songwriters Tim Nichols and Josh Leo) made him realize the powerful emotional sway that lyrics can have over people. “That’s been a fun thing to discover—that you can write the truth and know that so many people can relate to it.” This encourages him to work harder on his craft, and it means he’s constantly on watch for potential song ideas. Sparks of inspiration can come from unexpected sources, he says, such as from snippets of real-life conversations or a catchy phrase from a text exchange.
A Place Of His Own
Away from the concert stages, recording sessions, and video shoots, Lynch savors his down time and enjoys making the most of it. His ultimate place to unwind and get away from the demands of the music business is a nearly 500-acre farm north of Nashville in the small town of Gallatin. He describes the property as a work in progress that has brought him many new responsibilities along with its rewards. The native timber had been harvested from the land over the years, so Lynch has consulted with forestry specialists to select the right species of hardwoods to replenish the acreage to a more natural and healthy state. And because he loves hunting so much, the restoration and improvements have included the planting of a variety of crops to attract turkeys and deer, including red and white clover, soybeans, radishes, and wheat. “I have 18 acres of food plots,” he says. “I’m trying to make this property a wildlife haven, if you will.”
Like his hometown, the new place has also inspired him creatively. “That’s where I got the idea for the song ‘Country Star,’” he reveals. “It’s kind of my make-believe, fictional night of taking my girl out there and doing what we do.”
When he has the urge to wet a hook, the die-hard fisherman takes advantage of the abundant waterways near his home and loves discovering new ones when he’s out on the road and manages to squeeze some recreation time into his schedule. He loves to shop for tackle at specialty centers like Bass Pro Shops and Cabela’s and jokes that he spends more time in the stores than he does on the water. “It’s a dangerous trip,” he says with a laugh. “It’s like letting a girl loose in a makeup store.”
His love for nature started early, and he says it will never leave him. “Being outdoors is a religious experience for me, but it’s also an escape from everyday life. My granddad and dad taught me growing up to appreciate getting up early to enjoy a sunrise. There’s something magical about it. It’s almost sacred, and there’s nothing better.”
The Career Path
Lynch wasn’t an overnight success. He shuffled around Nashville for almost a decade before getting his big break and cut grass for a living for some of those years. But he’s seen a whole lot of the world since he left Tullahoma, and he’s had a much bigger taste of celebrity and success than most musicians ever will. He is able to travel in comfort to perform for thousands of fans in big arenas around the country. Closer to home, he performs often at the Opry, and his parents, Chuck and Patti, usually make the hour-and-a-half drive from Tullahoma for a unique “Date Night” experience that many parents might envy.
Lynch, who turned 35 recently, says he’s comfortable with the pace of his career path. His list of hit songs lengthens as a broadening fan base embraces his evolving sounds. And he has enough notoriety and influence to give back generously to the community that has given him so much—his charitable arm called the Cowboys and Angels Foundation, with a focus on children’s causes, holds a benefit concert each December in Tullahoma.
“I think we’ve been on a nice slow build, but it’s been a great road, and a road of discovery for me,” says Lynch. “I’ve always said I don’t want to be a flash in the pan. There has been some momentum and excitement, and it feels right to us and our fans.”