It’s been five years, hundreds of shows and countless accolades since Dan +Shay arrived on the country music scene back in 2013. But don’t go telling the two musicians in this chart-topping duo that life as a struggling musician should feel like a distant memory at this point. “No way. I can remember thousands of days traveling around in a car sitting on drums or rolling up to a venue and the promoter forgot there was a show that night because no one had bought tickets to it,” Dan Smyers recalls of coming up in the music industry. “Just times really grinding it out and struggling in the clubs and bars.” He pauses and reflects on where he and his bandmate, Shay Mooney, have been and the heights they’ve now reached. Smyers says, “It definitely makes us appreciate the good times that we’re having now.”
Good times, indeed: the past year has been nothing short of a momentous and life-changing one for Dan + Shay. Building off a pair of successful albums and a trio of No.1 singles from their 2016 Obsessed album, 2018 found the harmony-heavy duo releasing their acclaimed self-titled third album, it promptly hitting No.1 on the Billboard country chart in its debut week and, perhaps most notably, with the tender, heart-wrenching smash single ‘Tequila,” the duo landed their multi-week No.1 single.
“The trajectory of our career has completely changed,” Mooney offers of the impact of “Tequila.” To date, the song has been streamed more than 125 million times on Spotify alone. “It’s kind of a crazy thing,” the singer continues. “People are hearing that song and it’s bringing them into the country format. We’ve had so many people come up to us at our meet-and-greets and say, ‘I’ve never listened to country music but I heard “Tequila” and I just love it so I started to listening to country radio and other country artists.’ I think that’s just an amazing thing,” he adds. “We’re definitely thankful to be in that position to have a song where it’s not just a hit but it’s an absolute game-changer for us.”
Suffice to say, “it’s been an incredible year for us,” Mooney admits when the pair calls from their tour bus one December afternoon, hours before taking the stage for one of the year’s final gigs. Amid the mania that was 2018, “We’ve tried to take as much time as possible to slow down and say ‘This moment right here, we need to take this in and realize how incredible this is and how lucky and blessed,’” Mooney declares. “But it’s really tough sometimes,” he admits. “It’s happened so fast. You play show after show and you lose perspective of what’s really going on. You can get into that routine and you forget how incredible it is being able to go out every night and play for thousands of people and have people at their houses all across the country listening to your music and making you a part of their lives in such an intense way. It’s all kind of crazy.”
Though, “being in a duo helps keep each other in check,” Smyers adds. “Anytime either of us is starting to let it all float by the other is like, ‘Dude, this is insane! Are you realizing what’s going on right now?!’”
Both men agree making this moment even sweeter is the slow and steady path they’ve taken to get here. Following years of individual struggle before the pair met in 2012 – first as songwriting partners and then bandmates – and soon formed Dan + Shay, they’ve steadily amassed a fervent fanbase via consistent touring and ever-improving albums. Smyers calls their slow-burning growth “a blessing in disguise” and says the duo’s steady build has allowed them to cultivate lifelong fans. “It builds your fanbase for real,” he says. “It gives you a core audience of people who are loyal and dedicated to the brand. They want to grow with you. Some of the most timeless artists in history have done that. You look at their career and their albums and they just consistently push themselves to get better.”
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And having shared the stage with iconic artists including Kenny Chesney, Tim McGraw and Darius Rucker, the need to constantly evolve and improve extends to Dan + Shay’s live show as well. “It’s been fun being able to watch those guys because they’re seasoned pros,” Mooney says of years spent opening and sharing festival bills with some of country music’s most legendary acts. “We try to just be sponges. We look and learn. We go in the crowd and we see what the crowd reacts to and we learn and adapt and change.”
Still, both musicians agree they’re typically their toughest critics. “Sometimes people come on the bus after one of our shows and are like ‘That was the best show I’ve ever seen!’” Smyers recalls. “And we’re up there like ‘We sucked tonight! This is terrible!’” He laughs and says, “Though I think having that attitude keeps us getting better. We’re no longer in a place where we can just get up there and throw it together.”
That’s because after spending much of 2018 as support on Chris Young’s Losing Sleep World Tour, Dan + Shay are set to kick off their first major headlining tour this upcoming February. Having already sold out nearly every show on the tour, Mooney says, “Now we have to deliver an amazing show for those fans because there’s a lot of anticipation. Hopefully we can really bring our A-game.”
That sort of pressure to live up to their current success is something Dan + Shay have been learning to contend with over this past year. When they’ve had the rare moment to get back into the writer’s room, “Obviously it’s a bit harder now because we have put out a few albums and we have that bar that’s set now that we have to beat,” Mooney explains. “We have to continue to write better songs. But I also think we’re better equipped to do so just by seeing what our fans react to and what’s worked on this last record. Those are all tools in our arsenal to be able to bring into the writer’s room now and say, ‘OK, this is the standard and we have to beat this.’”
Not that they mind the task: Smyers says although the madness of 2018 has left little time for personal matters–he’s typically getting offstage and immediately fine-tuning a new video or track–it’s all for the greater good. Anything to help push their career farther along, “It’s a great thing,” he says. “Because we’ve been on the other side of that where we weren’t busy and that’s really not any fun. But yeah, it kind of never stops. It’s pretty crazy. I guess I’m not good about taking breaks.”
And should fans expect either of these two musicians to begin working on outside projects as songwriters or producers? “I’m sure when we retire when we’re 98 Dan will begin his successful career as an outside producer for some other artists,” Mooney predicts with a laugh.
“Honestly though, I pour so much heart and soul into doing what we do that I just don’t have time,” Smyers explains. He admits he’s had offers to produce for other artists but he’s turned them down “because I just care so much about what we do in Dan + Shay and it’s not just as easy as going and pressing record and churning something out. I like spending time on what we do. Hopefully things keep rolling for us and keep us working hard.”