Luke Grimes on His Foray into Country Music and How Lainey Wilson ‘Took Some of the Fear Away’ About Making an Album

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Luke Grimes may be known for his role as the confident Kayce Dutton on the popular television series Yellowstone, but the actor was equally enamored with music while growing up in Ohio, as he listened to the Johnny Cash and Waylon Jennings records his Pentecostal preacher father played at home.

Still, Grimes says the prospect of releasing his own proper album was “terrifying” at first.

“There’s some imposter syndrome there. Sometimes it feels like I stepped into somebody else’s job for a minute,” he told Billboard backstage at Tennessee’s Pilgrimage Festival, where he performed alongside Ashley McBryde, The War and Treaty and Zach Bryan. Grimes took courage to step into the music world from singer-songwriter, and fellow Yellowstone actor, Lainey Wilson.

“It was inspiring to watch Lainey step into those [acting] shoes,” he said. “As much as I was afraid that people would naturally be like, ‘What is this guy doing here?’ I realized that no one on our set was like, ‘What is she doing here?’ Everyone was like, ‘She’s awesome and we’re glad she wants to do this.’ That took some of the fear away for me.”

Grimes’ foray into country music begins with his eight-song EP Pain Pills or Pews, out Friday (Oct. 20) on Mercury Nashville/Range Music. His deal with Mercury Nashville came by way of his manager, Range Media’s Matt Graham.

“Matt was a fan of what I do on the show [Yellowstone] and he heard that I play music and asked me to send him some stuff,” Grimes recalled. “I started sending him a few work tapes of things I had worked on, but we talked about music for two years before I did anything.”

Earlier this year, Grimes’ debut single, “No Horse to Ride” (which he wrote with Tony Lane and Jonathan Singleton) was featured in the mid-season finale of Yellowstone. The song peaked at No. 7 on Billboard’s Country Digital Song Sales chart in January and has earned 22.3 million official on-demand U.S. streams, according to Luminate data.

His grainy vocal and the stripped-down production proved an early signal that Grimes’ brand of country music has more in common with the gruff, singer-songwriter fare of his influences than with the highly-polished, pop-infused country that has proliferated playlists and airwaves over the past decade. Grimes’ playlists are filled with music from Americana stalwarts Bryan, Steven Wilson, Jr. and Colter Wall.

“When I heard The Highwaymen on records my dad would play, they seemed like tough guys, but when you heard their music, it could be really vulnerable and I liked that,” Grimes said. “I love all kinds of music, but when I tried to write my own songs, it always came out folky and Americana. I love the whole process of songwriting, just a bunch of people in a room bouncing ideas off one another.”

Grimes is a co-writer on six of the project’s compositions, working with a slate of top-shelf Nashville writers and artist-writers including Lane, Singleton, Jessi Alexander, Randy Montana and Josh Thompson.

Grimes worked with producer Dave Cobb (known for his work with Chris Stapleton, Sturgill Simpson, and Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit) to craft the rugged-yet-revealing sounds that permeate Pain Pills or Pews. To gauge Cobb’s interest in the project, Grimes sent Cobb a work tape with “No Horse to Ride,” “Oh Ohio,” and “Playing on the Tracks.”

“For him, it was like, ‘I just need to hear the songs.’ He wasn’t going to do it unless there were [good] songs. Most of the demos were just me and the other writers and acoustic guitars, recorded in the writing room on an iPhone,” Grimes said. “That’s how Dave likes to work — It’s a thing in Nashville to make the work tape sound like a huge production. For Dave, it’s like, ‘Well that painting’s already painted.’ He wants a sparse canvas so he can add colors and do his own thing. It’s like taking a masterclass, just watching how he works. He always wants what is best for the message of the song and for the singer.”

“Oh Ohio,” written with Alexander and Jon Randall, pays homage to Grimes’s home state, while grieving the deterioration that has come with time, as the lyrics recall “before they parked the trains on the tracks and the parking lots grew weeds.”

“One of my favorite Ryan Adams songs was [2000’s] ‘[Oh My] Sweet Carolina,’ where he’s singing about his lifestyle, traveling all over the place and just dreaming of being home,” Grimes said. “I wanted to take a swing at a song like that, but with a twist, where it’s not all completely positive messages, but you still love the place. For a long time, I would go home to Ohio and it would feel like home still — but about 10 years after leaving, I went back and realized, ‘Oh, this is not home anymore.’ It was a really crazy feeling.”

Foy Vance, who is signed to Ed Sheeran’s Gingerbread Man label, joins Grimes for “Hold On,” which Vance wrote with fellow singer-songwriter IIsey Juber.

“Foy and Ilsey wrote that for a female [to sing], and Ilsey sang the demo, but I thought it would also be cool if a man sang it. It’s a very vulnerable message. I think those feelings of being afraid to fall head over heels for somebody are universal, but you don’t often hear men opening up that way. I played it for Dave and he loved it. And then we got Foy to sing on it with me.”

Grimes wrote the defiantly free-wheeling “Ain’t Dead Yet” with Aaron Raitiere. After sifting through notebook pages of ideas, they began discussing their shared musical inspirations, including Nirvana’s classic MTV Unplugged in New York album.

“We thought, ‘What if we wrote a Nirvana-sounding song? What if Kurt Cobain was a redneck from Kentucky, and had lived to be 70 years old and wrote a song for his wife? What would that sound like?’” Grimes noted.

Grimes’ love of music stems from years of playing drums, and later picking up guitar. When Grimes was 12, his parents’ church needed a drummer, so Grimes learned the instrument out of necessity. He played drums in various high school bands but was simultaneously drawn to acting.

“I would walk out of the theatre after seeing a movie and think, ‘I could do that,’” Grimes recalled. “I wasn’t able to do anything about it in Ohio — I could have done school plays, but that’s very different from films. Music came as another creative outlet at a time when I couldn’t do acting, but I fell in love with that, too.”

Grimes made his way to New York and then Los Angeles to pursue acting, which has included his role on Yellowstone, and roles in 2012’s Taken 2 and 2014’s American Sniper, as well as 2015’s Fifty Shades of Grey and its two successors. But along the way, Grimes continued dabbling in music. Grimes was previously part of alt-country band Mitchell’s Folly, which released an album in 2008.

“I honestly don’t see them that differently,” Grimes says of making music and acting in films. “It’s a similar process, whether you are coming up with a song idea or bringing a character to life. The really good artists do kind of create a persona that’s bigger than life, like Hank Williams Jr. People want to see that when they come to a show, and there’s different levels of that, clearly. I’m still trying to figure out what that is for me and where that lies.”

Coming up, Grimes will follow the EP with a full album, and will make his second performance at California country music festival Stagecoach in 2024.

“Right now, I just want to get more comfortable performing,” he said. “There’s definitely some nervous feelings before getting onstage, and then halfway through, it gets really fun. I’m waiting for that halfway through feeling to start in the beginning.”

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