Erik Dylan digs deep for meaningful songs, sets sights on major cuts
Various Artist - Topic

Thousands of aspiring musicians and singer-songwriters flock to Nashville each and every year, with as much strength and songwriting grit as they can muster. As what has been promised as a glitzy career choice, many fall victim to misguided notions about how truly difficult and devastating the industry can be. Quite a few might land a publishing deal, with even fewer ever making it past the Saturday night honky-tonk circuit. When the dark reality finally does settle on their shoulders, they've pumped so much time, money and energy into their careers that they can't see a way out. On paper, that does sound a bit depressing, but for Kansas native Erik Dylan, he's found a way to make a living on writing songs and developing his live show and to be happy in the process.

As a diamond in the rough who writes particularly moving stories about real life, Dylan toiled away for eight years before signing his first publishing deal (in 2011), with Cornman Music. Founded by prolific songwriter Brett James (Dierks Bentley, Miranda Lambert) in 2007, it's home to such notable artists and writers as Kip Moore, Justin Weaver, Steven Lee Olsen and Caitlyn Smith. Now four years later, Dylan is witnessing the fruit of his labor; he's landed cuts on several upcoming major releases, including Moore's (a song called "Comeback Kid"), Eric Paslay and Thompson Square. It's an overwhelming moment for the guy who is a fifth generation farmer from Kansas and only had the love of his family to get him by. As I sat across from the husky-voiced sharpshooter over coffee this week, there was a gleam in his eye: he talked intensely about his music, his family, country radio, why Brandy Clark deserves every ounce of acclaim and his commanding new song "Color Blind."

He also wasn't afraid to address recent rioting headlines, more specifically the Ferguson unrest that splashed across every newspaper and digital outlet last summer. When the verdict was handed down a few months afterward, Dylan, on the couch with his one-year old son, was struck with a lightning bolt. "It’s the first time as a parent that I felt that guilt of ‘what the hell am I leaving for my kids?’ I tried to write that song in a way that was personal, and I didn’t want to offend anyone no matter what side of the fence you were standing on," he says. "I really think we have a lot of room as human beings to improve. At this point, we shouldn’t be dealing with race issues. It seems it’s continuing to get bigger and bigger. I don’t care what the opinion is or who is right or wrong on the issue, I just think it’s a red flag for everyone to look around and say ‘we need to fix this.’ There’s a problem here and everyone could benefit from us improving the situation."

When the topic turned back to his music and his fans, Dylan's mood shifted to sunny optimism but with a grounded understanding of the industry. With a decade of barely getting by under his belt, he shines with a polished wisdom and easy confidence, offering up insightful wishes for Music Row and lessons he's learned along the way. Check out the full interview below, and stick around for commentary on several unreleased tracks, too.

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What’s it like having such loyal fans who push you and your music so intensely online?

It’sgreat. I love it! I call them friends, because that’s what they are. When I go to shows, I recognize everyone from Twitter. These people I’ve talked to over the years, you finally get to meet them in person. It’s really cool to have that kind of support. They really help me decide what I should be doing as an artist because I see what connects those loyal listeners. That’s how I decide what I’m going to put out next.

The first song I ever heard of yours was “Color Blind.” It truly blew me away.

That song was a very personal song. I wasn’t really thinking anywhere outside of my living room. I was looking at my son; he was about a year old at the time. It was around 8:30 when the verdict came out for Ferguson. He was sitting there with me and we were being father and son, just hanging out. I look up and seeing all these horrible things happening on the TV screen. I understand why people are angry and rioting. I don’t think that’s the right way to go about it at all. They’re destroying their own communities, which is really sad. There’s still a lot of pain since the civil rights movement. I also have a lot of friends that are police officers that are good police officers. I think the media is really good at taking the worst and blowing it up and playing it over and over again. I saw this morning the peaceful protest march that was going on in Baltimore. I think I saw that once, and I saw the riots about 20 times. We need to deal with that, too. Bottom line is that’s sensationalism.

Have you gotten negative feedback from the song?

More positive than negative, by far, but I have had to deal with several comments on Facebook and Twitter. I call them the internet trolls. My wife works in the tech industry, and she has to deal with the same type of trolls, too. Basically, they’re people that stand behind the little egg on Twitter and you don’t know who they are. They say really mean things to people. If that makes them happy, go for it. It’s their right. It just fuels me to know that I wrote the song correctly. The worst comment I saw that the only thing the listener took from the song was that I ‘wasn’t proud of being white.’ If I was ‘proud of being white, [I] wouldn’t want the world to be colorblind.’ To me, that showed me that there’s a ton of work to do. I really didn’t know how to respond to it, so I didn’t. I just deleted it. That’s what I do when I get comments like that. I love taking criticism, but there’s no right or wrong way to react to that comment without giving them the enjoyment of knowing they pissed me off.

I’m really glad I wrote that song, and I’m really glad Victoria Banks was there to write that with me. I came into the room the next morning with just scribbles with all of these ideas and lines from the song you know now. I sat down with her and said ‘are you ready to maybe write something a little bit dark, a little bit deep today and probably will never get cut?’ And she got her guitar out and said ‘hell yeah!’ I think that was the day before we left for Thanksgiving break. It’s one of those songs I didn’t have to try very hard to write, and the idea was there already. I know if we were color blind, the world would still have issues to deal with: that’s the other criticism I’ve gotten from listeners. If we fix that, we’re still going to be fighting over religion. That’s a whole different song. I totally need to write it. [laughs] I know the song doesn’t have a definite answer on how to deal with the issues, but it makes people think. Maybe they have the answer for their family and community after listening.

How have you seen music heal in your own life?

I’ve always used music as a coping mechanism. If there’s something that’s on my mind, it releases that tension after I write a song. ‘Color Blind’ helped me heal just as much as the listeners. It made me think about the decisions I make in my life and how I can make my kid’s life better. Another song I wrote called ‘Jacob’s Ladder’ probably won’t get cut either but it’s a dark song about watching one of my best friends go through a meth addiction and waste his life. It put him into a position that I don’t know if he’ll ever be able to get out of. I wrote that song so I could play it for him. I thought that would make a difference and hopefully it has. I try to write songs that friends and family and people I grew up with in Kansas would listen to and be proud of. I’ve done party songs. I released ‘Where the Party’s At’ as my first single. I don’t think it was a bad decision, because it brought all those fans in that are now supporting my deeper songs. I feel like I could have taken a bigger risk and released something a bit dark. I hope I didn’t confuse anyone that wasn’t a party song. That song was a hit in Canada [.......]. Sirius XM started spinning it, and then we shot a video. It was fun. I got a bunch of friends together [Caitlyn Smith, JT Hodges] and had a guitar pull. Logan Mize is in it; Jimmy Stanley, too. The video was awesome. Glen Rose shot the video. He loved the song, too. We basically wanted it to be this song that everyone (like all my friends that are trying to break out in the industry) having a guitar pull and getting drunk together. That’s basically what we did. In the future, I will release songs that are uptempo and fun. That’s a big part of my live show, but I can’t abandon the songs that make me want to write songs, the songs like ‘Color Blind’ and ‘Bad Way to Go.’ Those are songs that mean the most to me and the tunes that after I play a show get the most attention. I have new listeners coming to the merch booth asking about those kinds of songs. I don’t get people coming up to me saying ‘Where the Party’s At’ is the ‘best song ever.’ It’s not. It’s a fun song. That’s it. I didn’t move mountains with that song. I’m still glad I wrote it and released it but I want to release songs that are deeper.

Do you think it’s important for mainstream country music to have those party songs to draw new listeners in?

It’s a good avenue to bring new listeners in. I think it’s fun. You have to think about who you are writing for and what you are writing for. Now, if I went out to large country festival and played ‘Color Blind’ on a Saturday when everyone is trying to forget about life, have a good time and drink beer, that song wouldn’t go over great. ‘Where the Party’s At’ would. That’s great, too. I love seeing people having fun, but I would love to be the guy that can play that live and let people have a great time. But it’s more important for me to be the person that you listen to on a Saturday morning with your headphones when you’re sitting at your house. That’s the main thing for me: to write songs that stick around and mean something for long than the party lasted. A lot of what you hear on country radio (the party songs) are popular because the live show is dictating what artists release. The live show is honestly where most of the revenue is at now for artists because of all the piracy and streaming. It’s all about ‘how do we make money?’ A lot of that is what festival fans want to hear. Those are gonna be the singles you hear to promote to radio. It’s always been that way, to some degree. It’s really rare that you can have art and industry intersect. Sometimes, it does happen. I look at artists like Brandy Clark and Kacey Musgraves. I look up to Brandy a lot. I think she’s an amazing writer and artist. I’m so happy that she’s got her shot as an artist on a label to do what she’s doing. We need more artists like her out there.

What’s amazing for Brandy is she landed a Best New Artist nomination at the Grammys with very little radio support.

That’s because she’s writing stories that are touching people. They want to hear what she does. The listeners choose her because they understand what she’s singing about. Plus, [‘12 Stories’] is a damn good record. I listen to it a lot.

There are a lot of people that do listen to radio, but here are just as many choosing their music through apps like Spotify and iTunes Radio and all these other avenues. Radio is where the most money is made. So, obviously, it’s one of the more important ways for the industry.

Do you think models like Spotify and iTunes Radio harmful, as an independent musician?

It’s great for an independent artist. As a writer, it’s not a very good thing, because we’re not making any more on the songs. For an independent artist, it’s great. It’s a major way listeners consume music. Streaming is the future. Whether we like it or not, we’re gonna have to deal with that. That comes down to negotiating rates with those companies so the songwriters don’t get robbed. Without Spotify, I wouldn’t have made a lot of the fans that I’ve made. Those are fans that are now coming to my shows and buying my music. Whenever I release a full-length, I know that they’ll go to iTunes and purchase that record, too. We can gripe about Pandora and Spotify all we want, but I’m really careful about it because the listeners don’t know we’re getting robbed on the songs. They just want to consume music that they enjoy. They’re doing it legally. We’ve negotiated those rates through our PROs. Everything is legal right here. It’s just up to the higher ups in the publishing industry to renegotiate those. I give away as much music as I can. If I have a listener that hears a song live that I don’t have online, I’ll gladly email them the song, just to know they enjoyed it. The goal for me isn’t to get rich as a songwriter, it’s to continue to be a songwriter professionally to pay my bills. That’s the end for me. If I make a lot of money, that’s great. If I’m in the game, I’m happy. That’s all you can ask for.

You write four or five days a week. Do you ever get tired of writing?

I write about 150 songs a year normally. I have those days all the time. That’s when you rely on your co-writer to come in and have this idea that sparks something in your brain. I can tell when I get burnt out. I can feel it. That’s when I make the phone call to my publisher and say ‘I’m toast.’ Then, I take a week off. We cancel the writes and maybe I got travel a little bit. I built a deck on our house last time I took a break. It was very therapeutic for me to just hit a nail for four days. What I get to do is amazing. I’ve worked so hard and so long to become a writer that is signed. I want to write as much as I can, as long as my writing doesn’t suffer for it. Then some weeks, I’ll write eight times, just because everything is firing and feel inspired. That’s when you want to write as many songs as you can. What I do is made up of peaks and valleys. Sometimes, you’re on the peak and having a great time writing. Other times, you wonder how the hell you ever wrote a song. That’s what’s frustrating. I’ll just get in the room and go ‘I’ve got nothing. I don’t even know how to write a song right now. I have no clue.’ It’s an interesting industry. You just try to stay between those peaks and valleys and never get too excited or too depressed. What we do is so subjective. It’s up to us to stay sane through it.

If everyone is OK with what you said or wrote, I don’t think we did our job. It’s not your job to make everyone happy. I want people to be passionate about what I wrote. Sometimes, they love it as much as they hate it. That lets me know I’ve polarized the listener and actually listened to it, and that it evoked some kind of emotion. The songs that bug me the most are the ones that everyone goes ‘...OK...cool.’ It’s no different than going in and having your morning coffee and going about your day. You didn’t change anything.

In your songwriting, is there a personal line you don’t cross?

I’m pretty open to write about anything, as long as it’s a good idea. I don’t want to offend someone or be hurtful in my lyrics. I’m writing songs that mean something to me. The line I don’t cross anymore is writing a song that doesn’t mean anything to me. The first four years of my publishing deal, I was just trying to keep it. I wrote a lot of great songs and I wrote a lot of songs that were chasing radio. That’s no way to write or live. I feel like the dark horse always wins in this industry whether we like it or not. There are a lot of dark horses that fail, but if you stay between the lines, what are you really accomplishing? I don’t regret anything I’ve written. There are a lot of songs that are preparation so I would know how to write the right song when it walked into the room. That’s why we write so much on Music Row. It’s not to right a 150 hit songs a year. That’s a good goal, but it’s to keep our pencil sharp so when that idea comes in, we are sharp and know how to write it. I consider what we do an art. When I hear the word ‘songcraft’ or a phrase like ‘true to his craft,’ it doesn’t offend me but I don’t think it’s true If you are crafting songs, you’re not making art. I’d rather go build a house or something. I’d rather do something that makes me feel I left something important here.

Which song are you most proud?

That’s a tough one. It’s usually the last song I wrote. [laughs] Songwriters always think the last song is the best. I’m really proud of ‘Color Blind’ and ‘Marlena,’ mainly because that is the song that got me the meeting and first publishing deal. There are so many songs that make me proud. That’s why I rely on good publishers to get those cut. If it were up to me, I’d be telling everyone these songs are all great. I know some of them aren’t. I’m proud of sticking it out in this town. I was here for almost eight years when nobody cared or knew who I was, just trying to figure out how to get into the position I am now to write where we do have industry ears on it. There is a chance I could get a song on the radio. That’s what I’m most proud of and continued to do it throughout all those valleys and all those bad part-time jobs and late-night open mics. My wife was very supportive throughout all of that. Sometimes, I wonder why the hell she stuck around. She believed in what I did and propped me up when I felt like going to Craigslist and selling every musical instrument I ever owned.

What are some of those bad part-time jobs?

I worked in an AT&T kiosk in the mall once. I did taxes mainly for musicians. I worked in a place that did a lot of touring musicians taxes. That was a great way to meet people, too. I helped an eccentric millionaire prepare for the end of the world. He thought the world was going to end in 2012 and wanted to build a lot of structures and everything out east of Nashville. That was the last job before I came back to town and landed my publishing deal. He actually fired me after he heard one of my songs. He said, ‘I don’t think this is gonna happen anymore and you need to be in Nashville. You need to get these songs out there.’ So, that’s that only job I’ve ever been fired from.

When I didn’t have a job, my wife and I had bought a house in East Nashville that needed tons of work. When I was in between jobs, I would just start remodeling the house. We’ve done the entire thing by ourselves. Carpentry is my coping mechanism and hobby. Every songwriter needs a hobby besides songwriting or they’ll go crazy. I’m not a very good golfer, so I try to build things.

You’ve written with a ton of big names here in Nashville, including Kip Moore. What are some lessons you’ve taken away from those sessions?

What I’ve learned from writing with an artist that has a direction and release in mind is to listen to them and find out what they’re passionate about, find out what’s on their mind and try to write their song in the best way you can. You don’t want to steer the boat when you’re writing with an artist because they’re the captain of that ship. Our job as a songwriter (when I put that hat on) is to try to make their idea and song as good as it can possibly be. I’ve written with a lot of artist and I’ve realized that the artists I love writing with are the ones who know who they are. They’re not discovering; they already know. Like Eric Paslay, I wrote a song that’s going to be on his new record. It might have been one of the easiest writes I’ve ever had. He knows 150% who he is as an artist, as a person. He’s confident, and he’s a great singer. He knows exactly who he is. I felt lucky to just be in the room with him watching him write.

I wrote with the rock band Hinder. I’m on their new record; it comes out in May. That was a lot of fun. It got me out of the country box and into the rock ‘n roll/metal box.

What was that process like?

It was totally easy. I listen to a lot of heavy music, too. I actually listen to everything from folk to heaviest of rock you’ve ever heard. I’ve been a fan of those guys for a long time. They just came to town and wanted to write for the record. We wrote a slamming song [“Wasted Life”]. I didn’t expect it to be on the record and didn’t know what was going to happen. Their guitarist [Cody Hanson] called me. I believe it’s the second or third track on the record. It’s fun to be able to write songs like that, too. I’m always up for the challenge. When an artist comes to town to write and they appreciate me enough to ask me to write, I’m in.

And didn’t Thompson Square cut a song of yours, as well, for their upcoming record?

Yes, they did. I’m just waiting to see if it made the record. We never know if it made the record until we buy it or until Music Row Magazine releases the track list. It’s kind of crazy what we do, because I’ll write a song that is two years in the past. The Thompson Square song was pretty quick. I wrote it with Phil Barton and Andrew DeRoberts (who produces a lot of my stuff). We wrote the song and Natalie Harker and Liz Rose just pitched the song instantly, and it was on hold that day. Within a week, it was cut. It’s crazy. That never happens. Most of the time, you pitch and pitch and pitch. Then, you get a hold and months later, you find out they cut it or passed on it. It’s a very slow business. I celebrate the day we write the song and then try to forget everything else. If you look at charts or track lists online, you will drive yourself batshit crazy. [laughs] That’s the way it is. I’m still guilty of it. I’m always wondering if I made a record or not. But that interferes with your writing process, too, when you’re worried about something that happened 10 months ago.

It’s been a really good year so far. This is my fourth year of my deal, and I’m starting to see the cuts trickle in. I’m starting to notice that some people know who I am now. A lot of it is just getting yourself out there to the artists ears so they’ll want to cut your song and know what you’re about. That just takes time. You have to be patient.

Who were some of your musical heroes growing up?

Guy Clark is #1. I remember two songs as a kid. I couldn’t have been five years old. My uncle was playing ‘Desperados Waiting on a Train’ in his Trans Am in high school. I was sitting in the bucket seat when that song came on. The main reason I remember it is because I had no clue what the song was about, but it made me sad. I thought ‘wow, I need to know why I feel that way.’ So, I started listening to Jerry Jeff Walker. The older I got the more I noticed that there is a G. Clark after all the songs I loved. That’s when I became a Guy Clark fan. That brought me into Townes Van Zandt (who I named my son after). I love his writing. Steve Earle is a major influence. That pocket of Texas writers are the ones I look up to the most. I’ve always been a fan of the singer-songwriter type, maybe the guy that doesn’t have the best voice in the world but does tell their story truthfully and honestly. It’s their story.

That’s what I love about Steve; he writes some of the best songs I’ve ever heard. He does it in a way that’s 100% him. He doesn’t care what anything thinks about it. He releases it and we love it. That’s how it is. He gave me the confidence as a writer, you can release songs about the Midwest and work and farming. Those flatlands songs gave me purpose in the area I grew up in. The 'Exit Zero' record made me proud of being from Kansas, being proud that my family cut the land I’m standing on and planted. If I had stayed there, I would have been the fifth generation to be on the same plot of land. That’s always a goal of mine: to get back there someday. I get a lot of inspiration from where I grew up and my family and that tiny little map dot in Kansas. I write vicariously through my friends that are working those blue collar jobs. I feel like they appreciate it, too, because in some small way, I’m giving what they do purpose and make them proud for who they are.

What else do you have planned for this year? An EP or LP release?

I’m trying to decide. As an artist, I’ve been playing fewer shows this year than last. I’m picking the shows that matter to me and are doing to either put me in front of the biggest amount or people or to a town where I already know I have a following. Or maybe shows that’ll get me in contact with radio stations that I haven’t previously had contact with. Being a dad and on the road and a full-time songwriter, I have to make sure that every hour matters, because those are hours I’m away from my family. That’s what it comes down to. I do know when you drive 10 hours in a van and you play 30 minutes, the songs you play have to matter. I learned that this year. I learned some of the songs that I was playing didn’t really matter to me, and I should have been following my heart more than following what other people saw. That’s what has put me at peace this year. I’m letting everything go at the rate it wants to go. If stuff is going to happen, it happens. If it doesn’t, it doesn’t. I don’t have control over it. My job is to be an artist, a writer and a dad.

I thought about releasing an EP that would focus more on my flatlands songs. I have this EP in my head called ‘Flatlands,’ and I think I need to do it. I’ll continue to release one song at a time, just as I feel like to put music out. As an independent artist, that’s the great thing: I can do whatever I want to do. If I get enough fans that want me to release a song, I release it. In a lot of ways, I’m managed by my fans. It’s awesome. It’s going to be more of that this year. I do want to focus on finding an avenue to get more acoustic and my darker songs out there beyond Nashville and beyond the Bluebird. I’d like to put a band together for those kinds of songs that is a little bit more in the Ryan Adams vibe. I might do it and fail, but I’ll be happy I did it.

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Track By Track Commentary

“Bad Way to Go”

That’s Caitlyn Smith singing on the ‘Amazing Grace’ outro. She wrote that with me and James Slater. Caitlyn had the title, but she didn’t have any ideas about what it was going to be. We sat down and me being the dark person I am, I thought it would be really interesting to write a song that romanticized living a good life and dying. It’s something to be proud of. You lived, you fell in love, you had a family, you died. All of that stuff. We know it’s going to happen. Nobody gets out of this life alive. I wanted to write a song that talked about being at a funeral and you see the guys family. You look around. It’s said, but man ‘that ain’t a bad way to go.’ He had it all. He did it. I would love to be able to say that about myself when I go, too. It makes you appreciate the life that you have.

“Fishin’ Alone”

That was a tough one. I was scheduled with Doug Waterman. My mom called me to let me know my grandfather was suffering from dementia, to a point that was a lot larger than anyone really realized. They didn’t realize that until they went out to move him back from Arizona. It was just a really shitty day. I wasn’t going to write that day. I didn’t feel like writing. I called Doug and told him I had some things going on. He said ‘feel free to cancel. I totally get it.’ I thought ‘these days are the days we need to write.’ So, he came over to my house. We wrote it in 30 minutes. It just happened. I didn’t know, at the time, that he had lost his dad a couple years before we wrote the song. He had been through a very similar situation and had a vantage point that I didn’t have. His line is about ‘catching rainbows in Arkansas.’ That’s something he remembers, and he’s a big fly fisherman. That song was his life and my life all intertwined in three minutes. That song moves more people live than any other song I’ve ever written. When I play it at the Bluebird [Cafe], everyone needs kleenex afterward, which makes me feel bad. But it also makes me feel that I did something that day. I always see the cell phones coming out after the show and people are calling their parents or grandparents to talk to them. I even had a fan tell me that he heard the song on Zuus TV. It moved him enough to give his dad a call, who he hadn’t talked to in years. It just so happened that a couple days later, his dad passed away. He said ‘that song is the reason, my dad and I got to mend those fences.’ I teared up reading that. I still don’t know who the guy is and it doesn’t matter.

“Willie Nelson T-Shirt”

It came from spending months in Texas touring, playing gigs like Floore’s Country Store outside of San Antonio, watching the fans. I love the Texas fans. They’re hardcore. The one thing I noticed is if I want to make friends with these people, I had to say something about Willie Nelson. That was going to help me. I wanted to write the song in a way that was tongue in cheek and funny. But I didn’t want it to cross that line of being a parody. I also wrote that with Doug Waterman. I pitched that idea to eight different writers on eight different writes. Seven of them shook their head and we went on to the next idea. But I told Doug about it, and he was like ‘dude, let’s write it.’ That’s one of my favorites to play live. The cool thing about it is that the girls in the audience like it just as much as the guys. I was wondering ‘am I going to piss off all these girls?’ It’s an interesting way of writing a breakup song. Plus, if you had a classic Willie Nelson T-shirt, I would want it back. [laughs] She can keep everything else.

“Stuck in My Own Ways”

I wrote that with Phillip White. He’s a great writer; we write every other Tuesday. We were talking about radio. That’s how things always start. The one thing you’ll notice about songwriters is we bitch about everything. We love country radio. We were also talking about the things we appreciate in life. I like old trucks, old dogs. There’s a lot of guys out there that carry that pocket knife that they’ve carried for 50 years. It’s part of them. The world can change as much as it wants to, but there’s still going to be those good ol’ boys that are stuck in their own ways and don’t want to change, good, bad or indifferent. The way I wrote it, the things I’m talking about are good things. Some people that are stuck in their ways probably should think about changing. [laughs] A lot of that comes from listening to songs that are all about the immediate gratification of getting hammered one night and having the best time ever or meeting the girl for one night and then nothing else after that. I wanted a song that tipped my hat to the guys that are tried and true and do their thing everyday. It’s also a tip to the guys who are changing the oil in their trucks on Saturday morning and get that satisfaction knowing their truck will go 100 more miles, even if it wasn’t supposed to.

“That Girl That Got Away”

I had that first verse for about six months. Jake Mitchell and I wrote that first verse when we were in Nashville. He actually plays guitar for me when we’re out on the road. My goal was to see if Guy Clark wanted to finish that song with us. I kept bringing it up to him. He liked the lyric, but one day, he told me, ‘I think you need to write it. It’s really good, but I don’t think this one’s for me. It’s for you to finish.’ I hope he liked it. Who knows. [laughs] I wrote with Westin Davis and Phillip White that morning. Westin and I were feeling inspired and wanted to write another song after. I played that first verse to him, and he was all in. Everything started firing. That was his idea about the ‘girl that got away.’ I had all these lyrics about fishing and missing the big one, like he hopped off the page like a Hemingway book. I didn’t know where it was going. Westin said ‘you’re writing about that girl. It’s the same thing.’ Then we wrote the second verse about dirt road racing and ‘watching your checkered flag turn to junkyard parts’ and ‘tasting the dust of a faster car.’ We compared that to that one girl, the best thing he ever had and kind of the kicking-yourself type girl. That song has been written probably a million times in country, but I’m really proud of that song, too. Every kid has had that guitar that has hung on the wall in a music store or pawn shop that they thought they were going to get. Then, when they finally scrape up the cash to get it, it’s gone.

“Who I Hurt Along the Way”

That’s probably the darkest song I’ve ever written. That title and the idea happened in the middle of the night. I don’t know where it came from. I woke up about 2:30 or 3 and burning to write that song. It was that phrase that I came out of a dream with. ‘It ain’t so much about where you’re going. It’s who you hurt along the way.’ My wife was probably wondering what the hell I was doing. I was wanting to write a song to make people think about how their decisions in life don’t always just affect them. I hope it inspires people to think again about taking that last drink before taking a drive, that they’re affecting everyone else when the get behind the wheel. You see things on the news where accidents are caused by drunk drivers. You can ruin someone else’s life and family by making a dumb decision yourself. That’s not our right as human beings, to put an innocent bystander in harms way.

“Moments Between Milestones”

I wrote that with Tofer Brown and Matt Nolen. I had been on the road a lot when we wrote it. I had been in a van all summer and most of the fall. That song is about being frustrated where you are and trying to get to that next step. For me, it’s trying to be hard as an artist and as a songwriter. My idea was taking a deep breath and stepping back and saying ‘it’s really not about those trophies or big points in your life when you get to celebrate what you’ve done. It’s getting there and realizing you are alive.’ That song set me at peace with not knowing where I was in life and being OK with that, knowing that I’m breathing, get to play guitar and sing for a living. If that’s all that ever happens, enjoy it. Just live. We only get a finite number of years on earth, and we need to enjoy them.

“13th Floor”

I was preparing for a write with Lee Miller. It was the first time I had ever written with him. He’s a great writer and written a ton of really great songs. I really had nothing that morning. I usually get up around five or six in the morning and either run or do something to try to get ideas or titles. I was watching the morning news, and there was an elevator in one of the pictures. That titled popped into my head. I wondered how you could write that. I brought it into Lee. He asked what I was thinking about, and I said ‘everyone has that spot where they put all their bad stuff, all their memories they don’t want to think about.’ I thought that’d be really interesting if that was the 13th floor. We all have that. That’s where you put your blacks and blues, like your dreams fell through or you lost that girl you knew.

We wrote it so many times, too. We wrote it once and almost had it finished. Lee got up and walked back in. We looked at each other and Lee said ‘let’s start over. We missed it.’ We wrote about half of it again. Then, we scratched that. We both knew that title and that idea was important and our job not to screw it up. It took a long time. We were there from 10 am until 6:30 or 7 that night. We didn’t stop for lunch. We drank a lot of coffee and talked about it. That night, we continued to tweak that song and send each other mp3s of iphone recordings of different options. After about five times, we knew it was finished then. We had Tim McGraw in mind, but he passed on it.

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