Welcome to the Writers Round, a monthly column where Sounds Like Nashville sits down with Nashville-based songwriters and learns about each writer’s journey to Music City. This month, Erik Dylan sheds some light into his life as a songwriter as well as shares the stories behind some of the songs off his new album ‘Heart of A Flatland Boy’ as well as Eric Paslay’s current single “Angels In This Town.”
Guitars were always present in Erik Dylan’s home as a young boy. The Kansas native vividly remembers listening to his father’s record collection which included artists like Jerry Jeff Walker, Waylon Jennings, Lynyrd Skynyrd, James Taylor and Guy Clark. Once he was older, he recalls his hour-long bus rides to and from school with the radio dialed in on mainstream contemporary country.
“That’s where the musical journey started for me,” Dylan tells Sounds Like Nashville over coffee at East Nashville’s Sip Cafe. “I’ve always loved music but I moved to Tennessee to go to MTSU for recording and production technology.”
While attending Middle Tennessee State University, Dylan got the songwriting bug and attempted to transfer into the songwriting program unsuccessfully. As he recalls, the professor of the program told him he wasn’t qualified to be a songwriter because he didn’t know enough music theory. Though this news sidelined him for a while, it wasn’t before long that he picked back up his guitar and began to write songs more seriously.
In 2011, Dylan hit a wall. Miserable at his job, he realized he wasn’t happy doing anything but music so he began playing open mic nights around Nashville every chance he got. As he recalls, he played close to 200 shows that year.
“I’ve always had a philosophy that you must be present to win with whatever you do and I thought at least being off of the couch and playing in front of people would give me a chance to find out how to get plugged in,” Dylan reasons. “I really didn’t know anybody in the music industry and wasn’t related to anybody in the music industry so I just kept doing that. One night I was playing at Belcourt Taps in the Village and luckily a guy named Kip Moore walked by and heard me and got me in touch with his publisher and producer, Brett James. That was the only publisher I ever met with and that’s who I signed with and I’ve been there for the last five years.”
While Dylan is the first to admit there are many highs and “tons of lows” when it comes to life as a songwriter, he says it’s his family who constantly keep him grounded.
“There are days where I wonder if I had the sort of normal 9-to-5 job, would I be making more money? Would I be making the same money? Would I be able to provide better for the family? I think what it comes down to is that I’m a better person when I’m writing songs,” he says. “I think I’m a happier person, I’m more grounded and I think it’ll be cool that my son knows he can do anything he wants to do, to chase a dream.”
Since he signed on as a songwriter with Cornman Music and Warner/Chappell, Dylan has been able to write with some of his heroes including Guy Clark and Steve Earle. He recently performed at the Ryman Auditorium as part of a memorial concert for Clark, citing it as the coolest moment he’s had in Nashville.
Another rewarding moment is having his first major label single with Eric Paslay’s “Angels In This Town.” Written with Paslay and Corey Crowder during a writers retreat in Alabama, “Angels In This Town” was finished quickly. Dylan remembers Crowder initially playing a track he had started while Paslay began strumming his guitar and humming a melody.
“Melody just falls out of Eric. He’s amazing when he sings. He has melodies for days, you never have to worry about a melody,” Dylan shares. “It sounded like he was saying ‘Angels In This Town’ at one point and we all looked at each other and I said, ‘I think that’s our song.'”
From there the song practically wrote itself and Dylan says the three collaborators were “in the zone” writing. He recalls throwing out the line “the skin of your tire” because he thought it was a good play on skin of your teeth.
“Eric said the day we wrote that song that he was going to cut it and his first record had just come out so a lot can change in a couple years,” Dylan says of their write in 2014. “You write a lot of songs but I commend him for doing what he said he was going to do. That’s one thing with Eric, I never doubted that he was going to record that song and he did and then we get the surprise that he’s singling that song. I’m really proud of that song.”
Dylan has had several album cuts over the past few years including Kip Moore’s “Comeback Kid” — a song he says he’d love to release on his own album one day — and Justin Moore’s unique “Put Me In A Box” which compares getting killed to falling in love.
While Dylan spends many of his days writing for and with other artists, he also writes songs for himself and 10 of those tracks are featured on his new album Heart of A Flatland Boy. Calling his music “flatland punk,” the album showcases the heart of growing up in a small town and the characters that are often found in these communities.
“Where I’m from in Kansas inspires me to write songs. A lot of my lyrics are trying to shine a light to the place I grew up in and what things are really like in a rural area in a small town,” he explains. “I wanted it to represent where I came from and what it’s really like to work and live and raise children and have a family and just the struggles that you go through. What I found on the road, though, is that every town is like my town. Every community out there is very similar. We deal with a lot of the same things.”
Dylan’s first single off the album is the haunting “Pink Flamingos” co-written with Adam James. A vivid tale of a boyfriend who is now “pushing up pink flamingos” after he crossed the line with his girlfriend’s young daughter, “Pink Flamingos” is storytelling at its finest backed with rollicking guitars that bring to mind ’60s rockers The Byrds.
While Dylan said he had pitched the idea to several writers to no avail, he recalls telling James who he calls “a fearless writer.” The two got to talking about what the song could mean with the phrase “pushing up pink flamingos.”
“If you’re pushing up pink flamingos, what could you possibly do in a trailer park that might cause you to disappear? That was the story we came up with. It’s actually more about the community than it is the girl,” he explains. “It’s more about the community than Becky because it’s a song about looking the other way. I’ve read stories about towns that people disappear and nobody knows where they went and you know someone saw something.”
Other highlights on the album include “It Ain’t Broke,” a song Dylan says paints the picture of where he is from, and the heartfelt “Fishing Alone” which is an emotional song about the guilt one feels when it’s too late to say goodbye to a loved one.
On the day he was supposed to write with Doug Waterman, Dylan got the call that someone in his life wouldn’t be around much longer. Instead of canceling their session, Dylan decided he needed to write that day and the two songwriters came up with “Fishing Alone.”
“Your weakest points are when you need to write because that’s when you’re truly inspired,” Dylan shares. “We started writing that song and I found out that his dad had committed suicide a few years before and that song was him. Every time I play that song live it never fails at the Bluebird. At least a couple people come up and tell me their story about their relative or their dad or their grandfather. It just crosses lines that I didn’t think it would cross. I wrote it very directionally from me and what’s so cool about it is that it continues to move people and I still get goose bumps every time I play it.”
Dylan has accomplished much in the past five years since he first signed with Cornman Music but says he’s still learning every day, noting that the business is as much about talent as it is who you surround yourself with.
“I would tell myself 10 years ago to be patient but diligent and try to enjoy this crazy ride,” he says. “It’s finding other writers and finding other people to surround you, to keep you up and prop you up and convince you that you’re kicking ass. I think a lot of this business is just believing in yourself and it honestly doesn’t matter what anybody else thinks because it all comes down to you believing in yourself.”
He adds: “It really just comes down to, can you do anything else in your life and be happy? If you can, it might be a good idea to do that because it’s tough. But if you know in your heart that you can’t do anything else, that you were put on this earth to write songs, then that’s what you need to do.”
Erik Dylan’s Heart of A Flatland Boy is out now.