You know everything you need to know about Erik Dylan when you open the backdoor of his black Chevy Suburban. On the floor is a guitar case, as he is—per usual for a weekday—on his way to a writing session at Warner/Chappell Publishing, where he’s signed as a songwriter. In the middle is a car seat, where his two-year-old son Townes sits when he’s riding with Dad in the truck. That’s Erik Dylan—family and music. The end.
But, of course, there’s more to it than that.
“Where I come from, everyone’s got a farmer’s mentality,” he tells me as he eats some breakfast tacos.
I initially nod like I know what this means, but then I realize I have no clue, so I ask.
“It’s the ‘if something’s broke, we fix it’ philosophy,” he explains to me. “If you drive down a road in my hometown, you’ll see something like a silo that’s been converted into a cabin. Farmers are really creative people.”
And by hometown, Dylan means northeast Kansas, where everyone does in fact farm and the nearest McDonald’s is 35 miles away. This is a “Map Dot Town.” It’s where Dylan was born and raised, where he met the girl that is now his wife and mother of his little boy, and where he’ll always call home.
But while Dylan may have been a farmer in another life, he knew from an early age, while listening to everything from Guy Clark to Bruce Springsteen to Nirvana, that he wanted to take his “farmer’s mentality” and apply it to writing music.
He eventually found his way to Nashville, graduating from Middle Tennessee State University with a degree in musical engineering, but he quickly realized that he liked writing music much more than he liked producing it. Wanting to stay in town and needing to keep the lights on, Dylan worked a series of fine jobs that would have made fine careers, but he knew his calling involved a guitar in his hand—he just didn’t know exactly how that would happen.
As is often the case in the music business, success hid from Dylan early on. He was not a good enough writer to garner attention from publishing companies and he did not fit into the mold of artist that labels were looking for. After grinding it out at open mic nights and fine-tuning his craft, however, Dylan became the cream that was able to rise to the top. He signed a publishing deal with Warner/Chappell and has not looked back since.
Despite his success as a songwriter, Dylan is almost obnoxiously humble when talking about his work. In just the past year alone, Brent Cobb, Kip Moore, Justin Moore, and Eric Paslay have cut his songs. Still, Dylan is far more likely to talk to you about how much he loves being a father or how he married a girl he’s known since high school and couldn’t be happier about it.
This girl—his now wife, Jackie—was the one who stood by Dylan’s side when the expected waves of rejection hit during his early days in Nashville. “She’s my pillar,” he tells me. “I couldn’t have done it without her.” And when he says this, with sincerity in his voice and truth in his eyes, I know it’s not just a line or a clichéd hat tip to the lady of the house. Dylan means this, and what becomes blaringly obvious when you speak with him or listen to his first full-length release, Heart of a Flatland Boy, is that everything he says and does comes from a place of rich candor.
Dylan’s certitude is so strong that you wonder when he sings about the killing and burying of a bad guy in “Pink Flamingos” if it’s a true story or he’s just being an imaginative and persuasive raconteur. It’s also why you tear up when he sings about the loss of a father figure in “Fishing Alone.” “I got busy, [and] he got old”; it’s a simple yet stark reminder that life goes by much too quickly.
But if 2016 has yielded a more appropriately titled album I’ve yet to be introduced to it. In just over 30 minutes on Flatland, Dylan literally sings about everything that could possibly trouble or influence a young man growing up in rural Kansas. There’s little wasted space and every word is sung with conviction. From the raucous breakup tune “Willie Nelson Tee Shirt” to the anthemic title track “Flatland Boy,” it’s literally impossible to not root for Dylan.
If the content alone doesn’t hook the listener, the record’s backstory certainly should. Bootstrapped entirely by Dylan himself and recorded live in just two days, every note on the album feels just as authentic as every word. After all, when you’re buying your own studio time, you have no choice but to make it all count. When you’ve refinanced your house to fund the project and have a two-year-old boy at home, there simply is no half-assing it.
Perhaps the most refreshing part of my chat with Dylan was when I asked him how he expects people to hear the album and what genre they’ll classify it as. He answered me quickly: “I don’t know and I don’t care. I feel like I’m a square peg in a round whole, but I like that.”
I met Dylan only once for this piece and we chatted for about 90 minutes. I know nothing more about him than what he told me over breakfast and coffee, and yet I feel like I’ve known him for years. His happiness is contagious, and while I never like to say another man has peaked, if 2016 does in fact prove to be his zenith, I truly don’t think he would have any complaints.
So thank you for reading this piece. You now know a little more about Erik Dylan, the successful songwriter and the artist behind Heart of a Flatland Boy. I also apologize, however, because you really did only need to read the first paragraph to learn everything you needed to know. That car seat and that guitar—that’s Erik Dylan—family and music. The end.
– Joseph Rapolla Jr.