When Shay Mooney held a high note for 14 seconds at the end of their massive crossover ballad “Tequila” on this year’s Grammys, it was the cherry on top of a startlingly stark performance. On a night of bigger, louder, more, Dan + Shay chose to strip it back to just piano and guitar, and let their song do the talking.

By the time they won the Best Country Performance by a Duo or Group Grammy, they’d made a powerful introduction to an audience numbering in the tens of millions. And rolling into the 2019 ACM Awards, the duo, who eschew look-at-me attention grabs, tied Chris Stapleton for the most nominations with six: Duo, Album, Single, Song and 
Video for “Tequila” and Vocal Event for “Keeping Score” with Kelly Clarkson.

Even more impressively, Dan Smyers picked up an additional four as the writer of Song and producer of their Album, Single and Vocal Event. He’s only half-joking when he says that little has changed since he started in his garage at 13 with two friends who are now the group’s bass player and video-content creator. Now, on the verge of Dan + Shay’s tour launch, Smyers takes HITS inside the logic of unconventional wisdom, the duo’s abiding belief in the power of the ballad and keeping the focus on music.

You guys took an unconventional approach to the Grammys.
We knew whatever we did going in, we were never going to be as big as Cardi B with “Money,” so why not go to the thing that defines us? Go into the song, and Shay’s voice, and let that lead. We figured the most stripped-raw version would be the thing that would really stand out.

[Laughs] When I saw Cardi B’s performance in rehearsal, we never could have had that. Her star power and conviction, not to mention the budgets! Camila and “Havana,” the same way. But yeah, I remember thinking, “Jason [Owen, their manager]—Pyro! Get some.”

No you didn’t.
For a second, but we knew what we were doing would let people focus on the lyrics, the song and Shay. When he went and hit that high note most people can’t, and held it for 14 seconds, that really got people’s attention. I was told “Tequila” was the most Shazamed song of the night.

You’ve always preferred a less-is-more approach.
It’s very conscious. When we put out our first single, there was some buzz, some heat. We’re in this crazy world of social media—and you can get caught up in it. Then we had a slow start relative to people who explode out of the gate, and we had to decide: Do we do everything we can to use social media to create something, or do we keep elevating the music?

Our first record happened by accident; it was friends writing songs, and it just happened. Shay and I had met in my crappy house on Nolensville Road and hit it off. One thing led to another, and here we were. Our second record was us experimenting, being all over the place, but having fun with this music. But we always believed that’s where it was for us.

You’d had hit singles. But obviously this album changed everything, starting with “Speechless,” then “Tequila.”
I love viral videos, content, crazy branding stuff. But I fought for the music. To me, that’s what it’s about. When it came time for the album, I knew all I wanted was Gotham bold font across the cover, very minimalist, to let the music really speak.

How does a kid from outside Pittsburgh get into country music?
A bit of rebellion from the whole “What college?” and “What sports are your kids going out for?” thing. I was in bands my whole life, playing and booking shows. Y108 was playing Keith Urban, who started my appreciation for the songwriting and musicianship. Kenny Chesney, Tim McGraw, Rascal Flatts. I was this emo kid, listening to Dashboard Confessional. I learned four chords and got a capo. Female country was really popping too; their voices were so pure and the production had this thing. Those songs were so good, I wanted to write those kinds of things, and I thought, “Why not?”

And you became a ballad specialist.
I know country acts tend to reference Waylon, Merle and Willie, who were rebellious in their day. Johnny Cash was very progressive. But like that, I want to find a way to be the anti, the rebellious. Dan + Shay as a whole is about love and heartbreak; people tend to avoid the “B” word. But I want songs that are going to be around in three years, in 30 years, and those are songs that mean a little bit more than just tempo-tempo-tempo. I see it on all the pitch sheets—party song, anthem, show opener, tailgating song.

Yet you believe in energy.
When I first started going to shows, Kenny—even before the stadiums—felt reminiscent of rock stars from the ’70s and ’80s, who really bled for the songs, who gave everything away. That was what hooked me. Music was everything for me. I still have a bag of faded tickets from going to all those shows. I’m thanking my parents for dropping me off at 2:30 to get in there—and now I’m seeing those parents dropping off their kids outside our shows, and I hope we live up to everything we got from those shows that changed our lives.

Are you surprised by the way “Tequila” has taken off?
We did some remixes and stuff, but we also wanted to keep the song true to what we created. It has that edge of “Let me put myself out there,” because it’s so naked. It has a dobro solo, and a piano-vocal open. We figured, “That’s gonna make it stand out,” but it turns out it also lets that emotion fill in the cracks. The emotion is universal, you know, and Shay’s voice just carries it.

You guys have an aggressive schedule. Is all this a blur?
I’m trying to be better about taking it all in. It grinds my gears a little bit, all these things coming at me when I’m trying to work on the music, getting the show together for the tour, and I wonder, “Am I soulless?” Because I know how grateful I am, but I was a kid who wouldn’t get a second job. It all had to be about music, producing song demos, playing guitar, grinding out $30 dollars here and there at this crappy house off Nolensville Road without heat. When you’re that driven, that says something about how important the music is to you.

Any moderating factors?
“Keeping Score” is the truest thing on the record. My wife came back from Thomas Rhett’s house, where [Rhett’s wife] Lauren [Akins] had written “Don’t let comparisons take your joy” on a chalkboard. She came in and wrote that down—and then she wrote, “Keeping score.”

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You're gonna make a poor boy outta me.
...than 24 hours in a day.
on a Saturday night
Lamborginis and caviar Dry martinis, Shangri-La

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