The Swon Brothers, Zach and Colton, remember their first performance in Nashville like it was yesterday. It wasn’t in a packed house during a writers’ night on a dimly-lit stage, or in the office of a publisher who was eager to hear their latest songs. It was actually a “pit stop” on the way to a family vacation in Florida. Of course, they were only 9 and 11 years old at the time, but to them, it was perfectly normal. After all, they’d practically grown up riding their parents’ tour bus and performing as part of their family’s gospel group since they were old enough to talk. So stopping off in Nashville to pick up a record deal on their way to summer vacation just seemed logical to young Zach and his little brother Colton. And… their parents weren’t about to dampen the spirits of their talented and determined young sons.
The guys didn’t land a record deal the day they sheepishly walked into the lobby of Virgin Records and asked the receptionist if they could please sing for someone, but they did make such an impression on the president of the label that the three struck up a professional relationship that has lasted to this day. That single-mindedness of purpose and laser-focused determination to make their music the best it can possibly be has never wavered for either of these hardworking Oklahoma boys, who are poised and ready to share their own unique brand of heartfelt country music with the world.
There really must be something in the water in certain parts of Oklahoma. The state has produced more country greats per capita than probably anywhere else on earth — Reba, Blake, Vince, Garth, Toby, Carrie – all hail from the same state where the Swon Brothers spent their formative years growing up. In fact, Zach and Colton grew up right down the street from American Idol- champ-turned-country-superstar Carrie Underwood, and the three shared a stage many times together throughout their childhood years. Traveling with their parents’ southern gospel group Exodus, the boys were singing and writing songs practically as soon as they could walk. And it was a way of life they quickly grew to love.
“We traveled with our parents every weekend playing churches. Our parents were offered record deals here and there,” recalls Zach. “But the most important thing to them was keeping the family and the band together. So ever since we were babies we’ve been on the bus, hearing music and watching live musicians. It’s definitely what got us turned on to music. I played instruments earlier on than Colton, he was more the singer and stage performer. I started out on drums at age three, and by the time I was 9 or 10 I was playing drums for my parents’ band.”
Already a natural before he was even a pre-teen, Zach found the place he was most at home was onstage in front of a crowd, and he picked up plenty of skills learning from the musicians that constantly surrounded him. “I’ve always said I’m more comfortable onstage than I am in a group meeting new people out in a social environment I guess,” admits Zach. “I just like being onstage. I just feel more myself I think. One of my best memories during those years was playing with Kenny Hinson. He’s kind of the Garth of gospel music, and he’s probably my favorite singer of all time. Unfortunately he passed away from cancer…I think he would have been amazing, but one of the coolest things that ever happened to me was we were doing a show with the Hinsons. It was one of the biggest crowds I’d ever played for, and the coolest thing was when he came out and sang with my parents on a song. I was 10 or 11, and it was so great!”
After leaving the road, their parents formed a family-style variety show back in Oklahoma in a nearby town, Wagoner, OK and soon Zach and Colton were charming crowds each week and cutting their musical teeth on everything from Elvis to Frank Sinatra.
“That was a little different setting, but that’s where I came out of my shell onstage and really began performing,” says Colton. “We had to learn everything from Sinatra to Michael Jackson in the show… even a Grease song, but of course, Country was our favorite music! We both had solo spots in the show where was sang. Zach loved Elvis, so he actually dressed up in a suit and wig and did an Elvis impersonation during the show.”
“And Colton came out with the top hat and sang the Frank Sinatra song, “New York, New York,” adds Zach. “I enjoyed singing back then but I was more into playing. I feel really blessed to be a musician because I’ve never taken a lesson on any instrument. Drums, I just picked up naturally, and I got a chance to watch a lot of good players throughout the years with my parents, and they all showed me stuff. It was at the show in Wagoner where I picked up piano and guitar at the same time.”
The Swons show at the Civic Center in Wagoner became very popular and soon they were filling the building to capacity as fans packed in week after week to watch them entertain. After building quite a following, Zach and Colton decided to begin playing as a duo and focused even more on their songwriting. Both had been writing since they were very young and returned to Nashville year after year armed with songs and eager for guidance from Hendricks after that first meeting during that summer vacation. They actually have that first trip to Music City documented on tape — not that they could ever forget that fateful day when they first became hopelessly enchanted with Nashville and its country music scene.
“Our parents drove us around to every label in town that day,” recalls Zach. “They knew it wasn’t gonna happen, but they filmed it and watched us walk in and walk right back out, and they’re actually laughing at us on camera — you can see the camera start shaking cause they’re laughing so hard at us walking out with our guitars, you know. And we’re seriously disappointed because we thought that’s how you do it… you just walk in, sing good and a get a record deal.”
“We finally made our final stop and it was at Virgin Records. We had gotten kicked out of so many labels and it was so disappointing. It’s hard for me to take no for an answer,” adds Colton, “so of course Virgin said no and we got back in the car. It was our last stop before Florida so my dad said, ‘If you really want to sing for somebody, just go in there and sing for the receptionist…I bet you won’t.’ And that was the wrong thing to say to me! I took it as a challenge! So Zach stayed in the car and I went in, I couldn’t even see over the counter, I was probably 8 or 9, and I was a little guy anyway. I said to the receptionist, ‘Look, we’re really tired of getting told no…could we please sing for you?’ So she said, ‘Sure, it won’t get you anywhere, but you can sing for me.’ So I went out to the car and got my brother, who was hiding in the car. We both went back in and started singing an Everly Brothers song. While we were singing for the receptionist, the president of the label, Scott Hendricks, came down the staircase in the lobby from a meeting and stopped to listen to us. He told us to keep up the good work and then gave us a tour of the record label and some free CDs. He’s been a good friend ever since.
Each year since, the Swons have returned to Nashville to hone their writing skills and make connections within the industry. They took a brief detour a couple of years ago when Zach decided to attend college and Colton temporarily elected to follow a different path — Hollywood. Auditioning for ‘American Idol’ after witnessing neighbor Carrie Underwood’s massive success on the talent competition, Colton made it all the way to the Top 48, but suddenly felt a solo career wasn’t really in the cards for him when it came down to the wire. So he was thankful when he was cut.
“I decided I was gonna try American Idol because of Carrie’s success. I knew it was a real long shot just to get on the show. The odds were way against me. And going into it I did not think I had a chance. It started out with over 100,000 people, and I made it down to the top 48. I was really blessed to make it that far. But right before you find out if you made the top 24, before I went in, I just had this sick feeling like, if I do make this, the duo thing is gonna be really hard to do. So right before that I was uneasy and I was almost praying I wouldn’t make it just because I knew that’s not what I really wanted. I really wanted to play music with my brother. I’m glad it worked out the way it did. Through my exposure on national television The Swon Brothers got good exposure that led to some bigger gigs, and now, to Nashville, where we feel like we really belong, ” says Colton.
The Swons have spent the subsequent few years performing around their home state and releasing a couple of independent albums that have been well-received among their ever-growing fan base. Songs like the irresistibly catchy “Oklahoma Lovin’” and the bluesy, soulful, “This Close To Gone,” not only show off their diverse vocal strengths, but also their ability to pen gripping lyrics that resonate with audiences from young to old. Their strong brotherly bond is undeniable in their performances as they good-naturedly rib and tease each other onstage and trade off on tunes, and their sheer talent shines through as they launch into their tight-knit, seamless harmonies that are reminiscent of groups like the Eagles or Diamond Rio. It’s evident when you watch them perform that music is not only in their blood, it’s in their hearts as well…