Dear Cole Swindell…

Image from CMT

It’s been a while, Mr. Swindell. Have are you holding up during these crazy times?

Let’s be honest: Things may be slow right now, but they’ve been pretty slow for you for quite some time now. Your last album  All Of It lived up to its name as a scattershot album that would allow you to pivot in darn near any direction the genre decided to go, but none of it caught on with the public: “Break Up In The End” spent eight months on the charts just to wind up as a Mediabase-only #1, and “Love You Too Late” took nearly a year to top the Billboard charts. For a guy that was positioned to be one of the breakout stars of the Bro-Country era, the genre seems to have left you behind, and that’s got to be a tough pill to swallow.

So what happened? For one thing, all that flexibility All Of It gave you didn’t help when the genre decide to zig as you zagged. “Break Up In The End” was a slower, classically-arranged track that looked to ride the growing traditionalist revival within country music. However, such a movement never really came to pass, and the rock-tinged “Love You Too Late” wound up being out of step with radio when it shifted to the slick, softcore trend that is Boyfriend country. Apparently you and Warner Bros. were caught flatfooted and aren’t sure what to go from here, because we haven’t heard a peep from you since November.

We both know that “release new music” is the obvious next step here. All Of It is closing in on its second birthday, and honestly, I don’t see any clear single releases left on the album. “Dad’s Old Number” is the clear class of the field (heck, I just labeled the best song of the 2010s) and it might not be a terrible choice in the wake of a global pandemic that’s made us all confront our mortality, but it seems more out-of-step with the current radio climate than “Break Up In The End”: It leans even farther into the “serious story song” category, and the genre has defied my prediction of getting serious and continues to churn out party anthems. “All Of It” seems like the safest choice, but it’s one of those bland, sounds-like-everything-else songs that probably gets a 5/10 from me on a good day. “I’ll Be Your Small Town” is hokey and formulaic, “Reason To Drink” doesn’t have enough of a party vibe, “Sounded Good Last Night” has too hard of an edge…you can poke holes in pretty much every track on the disc if you look hard enough. Your latest Down Home Sessions EP doesn’t offer any solutions either, as much of the material feels left over from the Metro-Bro era. Music-wise, it’s long past time for a fresh start.

Before you grab your pen and your studio pass, however, you need to channel your inner Dirty Harry and ask yourself one question: What sort of artist do I want to be? (“Do I feel lucky?” is question #2; whether or not the radio approves of your first answer can be a coin flip…)

I’ve often credited you over the years for being one of the most versatile artists in the genre, a man who can take darn near any sort of song and make it their own. Over the years, however, that versatility has translated into a lack of musical identity, culminating in the mishmash that was All Of It. Listeners just don’t know what they’re going to get from a Cole Swindell album, which means no one can make a convincing argument about why you should buy and/or listen to one. Your style lacks the identifiable branding of a Sam Hunt or a Jon Pardi, and it leaves each single release at the mercy of the fickle whims of the public.

Instead of using your talents to skate by on whatever track come your way, you need to put your foot down and decide what kind of artist you want to be. There’s no real wrong answer to this question: Some answers might be might popular at a given moment, but the genre landscape could be completely different in six or twelve months, and you’ve got the skills to go in nearly any direction you’d like. The key is that you need to be able to walk up to people and proclaim “I’m Cole Swindell, and I’m ______.” That way, if people listen to your material and decide “Hey, I really dig ______,” then they’re more likely to become repeat customers and become part of your core audience.

Once you’ve decided on ______, you can use it as your guiding principle for whatever your next album turns out to be. Do you want real or synthetic percussion? Do you want ballads or party anthems? Louder or softer? Nostalgic or forward-looking? Or do you want to take elements of all of the above and mix them into something that’s completely unique? The key is to be consistent, and to have a common thread that runs through it all that makes people say, “Hey, that’s a Cole Swindell track if I’ve ever heard one.”

I’m not going to tell you what approach fits you bestthat’s a decision only you can make. I’m only going to say that a strategy of “throw everything at the wall and see what sticks” like you did with All Of It isn’t a viable long-term strategy. As Nicholas Cage memorably put it in Ghost Rider, “If you don’t make a choice, the choice makes you,” and right now the indecisiveness of you and your label has made you an afterthought within country music. It’s time to make that choice Mr. Swindell. Time to decide who you are and move forward into the next chapter of your career. I look forward to hearing your decision.


One thought on “Dear Cole Swindell…

  1. Fantastic article! I had the exact same thoughts as you regarding Cole Swindell. He clearly fit into that bro-country sound at the beginning of his career. But now he has become a Joe Nichols or a Billy Currington middle of the road artist. The next single has to be a lead single for sure

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