Dillon Carmichael’s Road to Music Was Shaped — Not Paved — by His Famous Uncles
When Dillon Carmichael first met Dave Cobb at the studio to begin recording what would become his debut album, the celebrated producer told the newcomer he was going to scare the hell out of him.
He wasn't joking.
Carmichael — who stands over six feet tall and presents the figure you'd hire to bounce at a bar — laughs a familiar laugh as he recalls the story. Cobb (who is quite a bit smaller and by all accounts a mild man) was indeed the right person to bully Carmichael's best sound out of him. A friend of a friend paired them up just as country's next young traditionalist was about to pull up stakes and move back home.
"I wasn’t writing. I wasn’t getting any gigs in Nashville. I wasn’t getting any gigs anywhere but Kentucky," Carmichael tells Taste of Country, describing a discouragement so familiar to Music City newcomers. So he was set to return to Burgin, Ky., where he learned from his mother (singer Becky Montgomery) and two famous uncles, Eddie (of Montgomery Gentry) and John Michael Montgomery.
It's Eddie's thick rumble of a laugh you hear when Carmichael thinks something is funny, and it's his familiar parsing of words you're drawn to when he drops a "might oughta" or turns "I wasn't" into "I whatn't." He's confident in his craft, but humble in conversation. He knocks nervously through the interview, held in central Colorado over Labor Day weekend.
His mother's brothers don't make life easier for him in tangible ways. Carmichael recalls both uncles telling him he'd have to pay his dues. He did — he has. Security jobs at the Grand Ole Opry and later Honkytonk Central (where it was "choking people out, people choking me out," he says, laughing once again) paid his bills Monday through Thursday before he'd head home for a weekend residency at a local bar. The way Carmichael saw it, both of his uncles "made it" without moving to Tennessee, so he could, too.
"I consider the advice they have given me over the years a shortcut. Just their existence being my uncles has been a shortcut in a way," he says, admitting he did have an edge over other newcomers. "We’re talking about it right now, sorta thing."
It's true. Having the two hitmakers and to a lesser extent, Troy Gentry (who was very supportive but not as close as kin), in his corner was a foot in the door, but those doors kept slamming on him. That was until one night at the bar, with a buddy who knew this manager who told Carmichael not to leave for six months.
“In that six month period we recorded two songs that essentially got us a record deal and a producer commitment with Dave Cobb,” Carmichael recalls. “It all was just really fast.”
Typically it's at this point in the story where comparisons set in as a way of describing a new artist's sound, but it's difficult to pin down the nuances of Carmichael's brand of dedicated country music. The two songs on Hell on an Angel that come closest to defining him, he says, are the rowdy "Country Women" and more touching "Dancing Away With My Heart," which Carmichael admits was originally a heartbreaker until Cobb told him to listen to Elton John and re-write it.
“I got two sides. I got the party side and I got the other side of me," he says, and you understand that he means the softer, more vulnerable side that a still-young former bar bouncer doesn't love talking about with dudes. He also doesn't enjoy comparisons, but he understand why they're helpful.
“I think Jamey Johnson is amazing. I don’t see a comparison to Jamey Johnson," Carmichael admits ahead of a set at Dierks Bentley's Seven Peaks Festival. " I see more of a comparison in the way I talk and some of my phrasing with Eddie than I do Jamey Johnson. I definitely don’t see Chris Stapleton.”
If Carmichael were 5-feet, 4-inches tall and weighed 120 pounds, he wouldn't get comparisons to Stapleton — the man who really brought Cobb's talent under the spotlight a few years back. Cobb's gift is capturing honesty, which can scare the hell out of an artist.
“What it ended up meaning was that everything was live," Carmichael shares. "There’s no fixing this and fixing that. You get it right and you like it or if you don’t like it we’ll re-record it."
Fortunately, this talented vocalist was capable and willing to do just that. It will pay off.
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