Upon completing a graduate degree at Auburn University (Plant Pathology, 2011), Dustin Herring intended to return to Hartford, a small town in South Alabama where his family worked the land.
However, Herring's natural gift as a singer-songwriter plus economic shifts back home rerouted his path within three years to Music City, where a blue-collar mentality forged on the farm has helped him outlast other dreamers with hearts full of country songs.
"There's just something about where you grow up at and the smell of fresh dirt," Herring told Wide Open Country. "But as time changed, people slowly and slowly got out of farming. We still had our farm at the time. Whenever our family got out of farming completely, I realized that wasn't going to be a future for me. I was like, 'Well, this is the sign I've been praying for. It might not be the answer I was looking for, but this is the sign.' That's what compelled me to move on up here [to Nashville, Tenn.]."
While studying at Auburn, Herring became a proficient guitarist and began performing at open mic nights. The lifelong country music fan further developed his songwriting chops during a lonely stint working for an agriculture company in the Mississippi Delta.
"All there was to do every day was work and then come home and write songs," Herring said. "So that's what I did: I just poured myself into writing over there. It's kind of ironic that it's the home of the blues. That's what I say at all of my shows. There's just something about that land and the ups and downs and the history out there. There's just so much [inspiration] out there in those fields, and that's where a lot of this came from."
Indeed, a trying stretch of young adulthood taught Herring the healing power of a song.
"You're now homesick. You're now single. You're now a grownup," Herring explained. "It was a big transition, and that's how I filled that void of downtime and loneliness and everything else out there. It was a big reflection time."
In 2012, Herring won the Texaco Country Showdown Songwriter Competition as a relative unknown, opening doors for him to network with Music Row's publishers and professional songwriters.
A move to Nashville followed in 2014, as did Herring's Geneva County EP and debut full-length The High I Crave. Since then, he's opened for such like-minded country singers as Mark Chesnutt, Ashley McBryde and fellow Alabama native Jamey Johnson.
Sophomore album Acquired Taste (out May 10) makes a stronger and more cohesive musical statement than past releases thanks to songs as confessional as the ones that helped Herring pull through hard times in the Delta.
"The stuff I did at the beginning got a lot of attention and a lot of positive feedback," Herring added. "The more I gravitated away from what I started doing, the less attention it got and the less people it reached. That's because people wanted stuff that's authentically me. Not necessarily the happiest songs or the most bubbly songs. They wanted songs that were real. I think real listeners, or at least what would be my listeners, can tell the difference. That's what I really focused on with these songs. I have to be completely vulnerable and be completely me or it's not going to work."
The album begins with a cover of Garth Brooks' "Alabama Clay"-- a song written over 30 years ago by Larry Cordle ("Murder on Music Row") and Ronny Scaife ("The Whiskey Ain't Workin'"). Herring hears elements of his own country-to-city experience in the lyrics. Likewise, he hopes that listeners of Acquired Taste relate to his truths about such universal topics as romance ("Horseshoes and Hand Grenades," "What I Always Knew") and religion ("It's Me Again, Jesus").
"That was such a special song to me growing up," Herring said of "Alabama Clay." "It's a familiar story. I got pulled away to the city, and in the same way, I just miss that stuff from home. It's a good example of how I feel about music and everything. You've got to get back to the roots of everything with it."
Though he's doing something much different for a living over a decade later, Herring doesn't regret his college experience. After all, Nashville's bright lights never lose their luster amid the uncertainties faced by an independent artist because of lessons learned on the family farm and in the classroom.
"It's been hard, and there's been really, really, really tough times, but it goes back to that skillset [from farming]," Herring explained. "There's good years and bad years, and you just have to hold on. If you hold on and outwork and outlast... I mean, I'm here. A lot of people that are more talented than me are gone. I'm still doing what I have to do to accomplish my dream."
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