November 28, 2014 at 05:00 AM EST

You don’t have a typical country-star résumé. You were a philosophy major and a star quarterback in college. Were your parents worried when you headed to Nashville?
[Laughs] I’m sure they were, as any parent is when their child is in that transition from school to adulthood.

Does musical talent run in your family?
Not that I know of. But my grandfather was a storyteller. He would take us out dove hunting and he would tell us stories, and we’d sit around, all the men and boys, and listen and hang out and talk.

The first single off your new debut album, Montevallo, ”Leave the Night On,” went platinum. Did it feel like a hit when you wrote it?
I thought it was a song that could do well. But truthfully it wasn’t my first choice, because it had been so long since I had written it, I had lost a little bit of perspective. There are a lot of songs that are themed in a similar way, and I wanted to put something out that was unique.

What’s different about writing songs for yourself versus for other performers?
It’s easier and it’s harder. It’s easier because you can look into your own life and be a little more personal with the songwriting. But it’s tougher because a lot of times a good idea might come up, but it doesn’t represent me. So I have to pass on it and keep digging.

You’ve been associated with ”bro country.” Does that term get under your skin?
I don’t know if the phrase originally was meant to be derogatory, but it’s turned into that. Whoever is judging music — including mine — as that, I don’t think they’re listening really closely to the songs and the lyrics.

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