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Country star Dustin Lynch was at an impasse. The only way forward was to have ‘Killed the Cowboy’

LOS ANGELES (AP) — Ahead of his sixth studio album, “Killed the Cowboy,” Dustin Lynch sensed some inner conflict.

The 38-year-old country star had achieved many of his goals: He spent the last decade securing country radio hits, raking in billions of streams and touring with the likes of Luke Bryan, Florida Georgia Line, Brad Paisley and Kane Brown. He was inducted into the Grand Olde Opry by Reba McEntire. After all that, the question became, what next?

“I’m single, you know, at this point in my life, I’ve chased down a lot of dreams. But what’s the next level to unlock? You know, in my life, where do I want to be in five, 10, 20, 30 years?” he told The Associated Press. “Is that with somebody? Is it still being free and enjoying the adventure? So, there’s this ongoing battle that I have with myself daily (of) what’s the best version of me.”

The album's title, and the title track, stemmed from that idea. Does he kill the cowboy, or let him ride?

If there is a narrative thread throughout “Killed the Cowboy," it is a conversation about a life of domesticity and vulnerabilities that directly challenges any “bro country” labels that might plague a single guy in country music. There's drinking and dancing and lighthearted fun on the album, but he’s also letting his fans into his sense of interiority, exactly where he’s at, and sometimes, that’s wondering about settling down.

That also means his performances transform into opportunities to “lift the single guys and girls up that come out to shows and are putting themselves out there, you know, taking a chance,” he smiles, thinking of the audience members at similar stages of life. “I’m sure we have a lot of first dates."

But he's quick to add, "We have a lot of first dates that have now become married and have kids together that come through meet and greets. So, music brings people together. It’s healing."

The album maintains that energy, keeping it open-ended. Regardless of the listener's relationship status or existential questioning, there's something to find resonance in.

“Killed the Cowboy” manages that universality in surprising ways. There’s the sole collaboration, with 2023 breakout star Jelly Roll, “Chevrolet,” a reimagination of Dobie Gray’s 1973 hit “Drift Away”. The pair harmonize in the chorus: “She said, ‘Give me a six-pack, some Brooks & Dunn / If you want a country girl, you just found one, let’s slip away’ / Yeah, ‘In your Chevrolet.’”

There are songs co-penned by Lynch created solely to bottle the energy of a weekend night on Broadway in Nashville (the up-tempo, cowbell-heavy "Honky Tonk Heartbreaker”) and there are songs to fall in love with a Texas girl (the romantic slow burn of “George Strait Jr.,” full of delightful ’90s country easter eggs). And there are songs that mourn the path not traveled ("If I Stop Drinkin'" and “Blue Lights”).

“This is the most open and honest I’ve been with an album because it really is me discovering what’s next for me, my life, and honestly, a little bit of therapy,” Lynch says. “I’m still figuring out what the right move is for me, you know, am I being intentional enough and trying to find someone to do life with? Am I too guarded?”

Those questions aren’t exactly answered on “Killed the Cowboy,” and frankly, if they were, Lynch wouldn’t be honest to his audience. Life is a journey, and he sees value in spilling his guts on record — and having a good time while doing so.

“I think right now I’m comfortable just being in my own skin and knowing that I’m okay,” he says. “There’s a lot of the guys and girls out there like me and accepting that for what it is.”

Maria Sherman, The Associated Press