Critics and fans from across the musical spectrum found much to fall in love with this past fall when Dillon Carmichael unleashed his brilliant debut, ‘Hell On An Angel.’ Produced by Dave Cobb—the studio guru behind country radio powerhouses like Chris Stapleton and Zac Brown Band—the album merged a sonically progressive palette with a tasteful reverence for the past and wrapped it all up with a director’s eye for detail, creating a stunning collection that was at once old-school and modern, traditional and contemporary, timeless and timely. The New York Times compared Carmichael to Randy Travis and said his rich baritone voice “moves with the heft and certainty of a tractor-trailer,” while NPR praised his “deep holler,” and Parade raved that “Carmichael defines pure country.” He landed on Artist To Watch lists from Billboard, Rolling Stone, Taste of Country, Pandora, and more, reached #2 at Country radio’s Most Added chart with his debut radio single, “Dancing Away With My Heart,” electrified festival crowds from CMA Fest to Dierks Bentley’s Seven Peaks, and earned tour dates with Aaron Lewis, Dwight Yoakam, Trace Adkins, The Cadillac Three, and A Thousand Horses among others.
It’s been a whirlwind ride for Carmichael, but the 25-year-old was born for this stuff. Growing up in the small town of Burgin, KY, he absorbed the musical life through osmosis: his father and uncles performed in a Southern Gospel Quartet, his mother sang all over the eastern part of the state, and her brothers (John Michael and Eddie Montgomery) both enjoyed massive chart success. Carmichael fell in love with country legends like Waylon Jennings and Vern Gosdin alongside the rock and roll he heard on the radio as a kid, and by the time he hit his teens, he was writing his own songs and performing live.
“I didn’t at any point consciously decide I was going to be a musician,” says Carmichael. “It just happened naturally. I found a kind of truth in country music that I couldn’t get anywhere else.”
After finishing high school, Carmichael relocated to Nashville, where he earned a publishing deal at the tender age of 18. It was his first experience living in a city, and the discovery of a whole universe of like-minded artists whose lives revolved around making music thrilled him. Carmichael began collaborating with some of country’s most talented writers, but no Nashville resident had a bigger influence than Cobb, whose stewardship helped guide ‘Hell On An Angel’ from a dream to a reality.
“Dave just immediately understood my vision,” says Carmichael. “He helped me zero in on my truth.”
It was that quest for truth that led Carmichael and Cobb to begin their studio sessions with a freshly-penned tune called “What Would Hank Do?” Written just two weeks before recording began, the song harkens back to a question that Carmichael would often ask himself before making major decisions. “He’d shoot you straight like his whiskey / Put pedal steel on everything / Write a song with three chords and the truth,” Carmichael sings. “Make you believe it when he sings / Like he’s talking straight to you / That’s what Hank would do.”
“When I got to Nashville, I wasn’t exactly sure who I was or what I wanted to say with my songs,” explains Carmichael. “I found myself jokingly asking what Hank would do, and I let that guide me because the answer always pointed towards the truth. Recording that song first put me in the zone to be honest for the rest of the album.”
The record opens with the slow-and-steady power of “Natural Disaster,” an Anthony Smith track that feels tailor-made for Carmichael’s “aged liked a fine bourbon” (CMT) vocals. The track sets the stage perfectly for an album ready to face down hard times and pain with equal parts humor and heart, and it reveals Carmichael to be just as gifted at interpreting songs as he is at writing them, delivering his lines here with the hard-earned grit and sage perspective of a veteran twice his age. The driving title track pays tribute to the mothers and sisters and lovers who stand by their men through even the roughest of patches, while the tender waltz of “Might Be A Cowboy” turns the western trope of riding off into the sunset on its head, and the shuffling “Hard On A Hangover” showcases Carmichael’s sparkling lyrical wit on top of the brilliant pedal steel work of Robby Turner (Waylon Jennings, George Jones).
“I actually wrote that song with my mom,” explains Carmichael with a laugh. “She’s not a professional songwriter or anything and we’d never collaborated before, but we were driving in the car and she hit something in the road that made us bounce, and her boyfriend looked at her and said, ‘Baby, you sure are hard on a hangover.’ My mom and I immediately made eye contact in the mirror because we both knew that was a song title, so we went back to the house and wrote the whole thing together.”
It’s a fitting musical partnership for an album that draws so much of its strength from reflecting on the meaning of family and home. From the funky “Country Women” to the soulful “Dixie Again,” ‘Hell On An Angel’ is a celebration of roots, those earthly tethers that both bind and sustain us. The songs capture vivid snapshots of the kind of men and women Carmichael grew up around: hardworking, bighearted folks taking life one day at a time, sticking together through the good times and the bad with honesty, dignity, and faith.
“Love is for making / Kids are for raising / And home is that place in your heart,” he sings on lead single “It’s Simple,” a track Rolling Stone hailed for its “swooning, cinematic sweep.” “Don’t over think it / Don’t complicate it / The secret to life ain’t that hard / It’s simple.”