It's been a meteoric career rise during the past year and a half for Dan Smyers and Shay Mooney. The two first met in December of 2012. Today the singer-songwriters have a hit album on their hands as the duo Dan + Shay.
"A great song always wins," Smyers says about the duo's main philosophy. "It always has and always will."
The two have all the ingredients for major label country stardom. They are attractive twenty-somethings with a polished Nashville pop sound reminiscent of Rascal Flatts and Lady Antebellum.They wrote or co-wrote all the songs on their first album, "Where It All Began" (Warner Bros. Nashville), which debuted this past April at No. 1 on Billboard's country albums chart.
Dan + Shay play Wrigley Field on Saturday as part of country star Blake Shelton's Ten Times Crazier Tour. The bill also includes sibling trio the Band Perry and veteran country singer Neal McCoy.
For Dan + Shay it's a coup to open for Shelton, the Country Music Association's reigning Male Vocalist of the Year and a star judge on NBC's "The Voice." Smyers notes that touring with the country superstar has been a master class in the art of performance.
"Every single time we watch Blake, we learn so much from his set," Smyers says. "Blake has been doing this for a long time. He's got his set dialed in. He's super professional. It's crazy when you watch his set front to back. It's all No. 1 songs. That's inspiring for us as new artists."
The Shelton tour takes Dan + Shay to arenas nationwide. "It's an insane thing to be playing big venues," Smyers says. "I grew up going to concerts at outdoor sheds, pavilions and arenas. Being on those same stages, I have to pinch myself to prove it's not a dream."
Part of that dream includes playing Wrigley Field. The duo is thrilled to play the historic ballpark. "It's a once in a lifetime experience," Smyers says. "I'm going to have to take a lot of pictures because I don't know if this opportunity will ever come up again."
Smyers, 26, and Mooney, 22, have an interactive relationship with their fans on social media. The two men pay close attention to the online ideas and comments of their audience. "We love listening to our fans," Smyers says. "We poll them and ask them questions and get one-on-one feedback."
The two singer-songwriters had worked in numerous musical projects with limited success before they met in late 2012. It was a fateful night. Smyers was living in a house with little heat, but threw a holiday party anyway. Among the guests was Mooney. The two hit it off, pulled out the guitars and ended up jamming into the wee hours of the morning.
Smyers and Mooney soon got together for their first formal songwriting session. They clicked as collaborators and friends. Success came quickly. Within a couple months they'd attracted industry attention and signed a publishing deal with Warner/Chappell Music. They soon signed to a major label. They released their first hit single, "19 You + Me," in 2013, followed by their full-length debut this past spring.
Smyers recalls his pre-duo years as tough ones. "I had been working on music for ten-plus years and struggling," he says. "I couldn't pay people to come to my shows and listen to my songs."
Hailing from Pennsylvania, he packed up his car one day and moved to Music City with no money. He lived the life of a starving artist. "I moved into a house with no locks on the doors, no heat, no air conditioning," he recalls. "I would go to Walmart, go to the very back of the store and find a loaf of bread that was three days old with the yellow sticker for 67 cents."
Smyers played writers' nights and worked on his songwriting chops. The level of competition was intense but he found a welcoming community.
"I think that's the beauty of Nashville," he explains. "Talent thrives. Everybody's supportive of one another. It's competitive, but that just makes you want to be better."
His future kicked into gear when he met Arkansas native Mooney. The two shared a dedication to songwriting as the primary focus above all else.
"The thing that clicked between me and Shay is that we both wanted to write songs," he says. "At the end of the day, the songs are the most important thing in an artist's career. We didn't have any gimmicks. We didn't even have a band name. We weren't initially pursuing a record deal. We just started writing a ton of songs. While this was happening, people around us started listening to the songs and getting their hands on them. Things just fell into place."
While most aspiring artists in Nashville are looking for a solo deal, Dan + Shay never balked at the idea of working as a duo. Smyers points out that it's been a gift to share a career with a musical partner who is also a close pal.
"We haven't regretted for a minute becoming a duo," he says. "It's truly fun and exciting to share all these experiences with a buddy. The road is a tough place to be 24/7. I think being out there by yourself might get kind of lonely sometimes. We're in this together. We've written all these songs together. We're still just as tight as we were when we met."
As further proof the two are committed to their career for the long haul, Smyers and Mooney both have tattoos of the Roman numeral "19" on their arms to commemorate the success of the single "19 You + Me." Smyers says they always want to remember their breakthrough moment.
"It almost brings me to tears when we talk about this onstage," he says. "The tattoos signify that moment that changed our lives. That song got our foot in the door. It got us nominated for awards. It gave us memories we will never forget. I look down at my arm every day. People ask me about it. It's cool to be able to talk about the moment when we wrote that song, then all these cool things started happening to us and people started believing in our dream. That's something we'll never forget. No matter what happens we'll always have that."
Smyers says that he still lives frugally and buys discount bread at Walmart, but now it's by choice, not necessity. Regardless, he never takes his current success for granted.
"We were super lucky to have crossed each other's paths," he says about meeting his duo partner. "If Shay had not shown up at my party on December 7, 2012, who knows where we'd be? I'd probably still be in that house without food to eat. It's a blessing and a dream come true."
When: 7 p.m. Saturday
Where: Wrigley Field, 1060 W. Addison St.
Tickets: $45.$75-$89.75; 773-404-2827 or chicago.cubs.mlb.com/chc/ticketing/blakeshelton.jsp