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Dan + Shay: Country’s New ‘Bold’ Hitmakers

Dan and Shay
Terry Wyatt, Getty Images

Country songs about drinking beer and making love all night have played the role of Goliath for well over a year. The radio is dripping with testosterone — heck, even females struggle to score a hit unless they’re shooting someone, or so it seems.

Then, suddenly, a duo comes along with a song reminiscent of a sweeter, gentler time. It’s an era few were calling to return, but even so, the song is a smash. Consider the landscape at the time Dan + Shay‘s ’19 You + Me’ was released:

Florida Georgia Line are arguably the hottest thing on country radio. Tyler Hubbard and Brian Kelley — good-looking men prone to showing off their tanned, bulging arms — sing hip-hop-inspired songs on trucks with lifts taller than Little Jimmy Dickens to women that make Barbie jealous. ‘Cruise’ was a country innovation. Their new song ‘This Is How We Roll’ pushes the country/hip-hop relationship even further.

Songs by Luke Bryan and Chase Rice also talk about things each singer would like to do to (not with) his lady. Maggie Rose has a new song out that includes two murders and an execution. Jerrod Niemann’s ‘Drink to That All Night’ is a club-thumpin’ jam looking for a rave. Eric Church recently married heavy metal and country music.

The headline-stealing hits are living on an edge.

But while chivalry was taking a nap, Dan + Shay were making plans. Their debut single ’19 You + Me’ is sweet, sensitive and delicate. The song’s video is safe with a capital … well, SAFE. Spend 30 minutes watching a country music video channel and you’re bound to see a singer paying homage to hip-hop, be it in the the song itself or the bling (a diamond plated tool box, perhaps) showcased. If the video for ’19 You + Me’ were any more suburban, the Girl Scouts would be selling cookies door to door.

Dan Smyers and Shay Mooney chuckle and say thank you when presented with the quirky idea that their song is the ballsiest on country radio. It’s a compliment to two men who never fought the sound that came out when they picked up guitars and started writing. “Different” happened naturally, Smyers tells Taste of Country.

“Nobody told us how to sound or how we should sound and shouldn’t sound,” Smyers says. “We were just doing the tracks and demos ourselves and that turned into the album … It’s just natural evolution.”

"If the video for ’19 You + Me’ were any more suburban, the Girl Scouts would be selling cookies door to door"

The response was immediate. Country radio stations were quick to jump on board, making it the most successful debut by a new duo in country history. Now fans are catching on, and quickly. At first glance, the song runs counter to everything working in country radio.

Barry Mardit would disagree. Mardit, of Barry Mardit Media Consulting, says anyone who thinks the song runs against the grain hasn’t been paying attention. Country radio has always embraced variety, contrary to what those with a narrow definition of the format believe.

Still, “a song like Dan + Shay’s kind of sticks out,” Mardit says.

Dan Smyers and Shay Mooney’s brand of country music has existed forever. Tight harmonies and lyrics about the beautiful angel you can’t forget are hardly new — Rascal Flatts made a career of it. But calling that trio your greatest influence when most everyone else is quick to claim Johnny, Merle, Willie or Ludacris as de facto mentors certainly seems bold.

That may be overthinking the issue. Mardit says the song is working because of what it is, instead of what it represents. First, images of summer tend to play well in January and February — especially this January and February. But more importantly, the duo have penned a great song.

“Before I even saw the video, it was the same picture I saw in my mind,” Mardit says, adding that he doesn’t think ’19 You + Me’ represents a pendulum swing in tastes.

"‘Before I even saw the video, it was the same picture I saw in my mind,’ Mardit says, adding that he doesn’t think ’19 You + Me’ represents a pendulum swing in tastes."

“Historically, there is a pendulum swing when there is too much of something.”

There isn’t too much of anything — except maybe drinking songs — on the radio, he adds. This hit (currently inside the Top 20 on the country radio charts) is bold, but we’re living in an environment where little but bold works.

“We don’t go into a writing session saying we need another one of these,” Mooney adds, “we just want to be who we are. And obviously we wanted to write a big song that people loved, but you gotta be different and find your own sound.”

“You don’t need another one of the last hit that was made,” he furthers.

The rapid success of the song shines a light on a dark corner of the country chart that hasn’t been stealing headlines. There you find the less audacious, but equally talented artists. It’s where Charlie Worsham hides. David Nail, the Eli Young Band, Brad Paisley and Darius Rucker all reside there. Think of it as the Good Guy Club. Truthfully, this quiet group represents most of what you hear on the radio, but their songs aren’t packed with guitars, vocal effects and machismo.

They’re not making headlines. They’re not winning the awards currently, either. That could change. The industry seems eager to reward Worsham, who was a well-known picker before signing his record deal. Dan + Shay were just nominated for Vocal Duo of the Year at the 2014 ACMs. They may be a longshot this year, but their name is at least part of the conversation.

Mardit is right when he points out that the Rascal Flatts/Dan + Shay-loving audience hasn’t been under-served in recent years — Flatts’ waning success probably represents the backside of an artist’s natural career arc — but it sure seems like it. ’19 You + Me’ isn’t pushing the pendulum back to the days of bubblegum-sweet, pop-country music. But this duo is certainly zagging when many (but not all) are zigging.

Bad boys have ruled country music lately. The newest member of the Good Guy Club may be the one to gain footing alongside them.

Next: Country's Average Joe: Cole Swindell

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