2022 was a big year for Dan Lepien.
With two single releases that may be his best releases to date, the Wisconsin native also earned award nominations and recorded with legendary Nashville musicians, all the while, staying incredibly active on the stage and bringing what has become a much-discussed live show to plenty of fans and faces.
As he enters 2023, he enters with a few single releases in his back pocket that are set for release throughout the year. With a newfound release mindset and another heavy live schedule, Lepien seems more poised than ever to have another strong year.
We chatted with Lepien about his love of traditional country music, the music he’s released so far, new music on the horizon and more!
Pro Country: Your bio mentions that your musical inspiration falls between 70s outlaw country and 90s neotraditional country. What is it about those sounds that connects with you and allows you to express yourself best with your own music?
Dan Lepien: I think when I was in my early 20s, I really resonated, and still do, with that idea of being free and living on the road playing music. And you hear that theme a lot in those classic outlaw country tunes. There’s a free, unshackled spirit about that kind of music, and I think it’s really neat.
When I think of late 80s/early 90s country, I think of a resurgence of traditional country; guys like Randy Travis, Clint Black, George Strait, Mark Chesnutt and Keith Whitley dominated the charts before the more wild spectacle of stadium rocking country kind of took over with Garth and Shania. In the honky tonks, I’ve played all of that stuff, even Shania [laughs], but I think that straight up real, pure, unwavering country music really sets the bar.
PC: You’ve mentioned that as a teenager, you saw yourself as more of a guitar player and played in metal bands. What lead to your transition into country music and taking center stage?
DL: I always liked breaking out the acoustic and singing some songs, but I only did it every few months because I always felt like I wasn’t that good at it. It seemed a lot easier to crank the distortion up and chug on an electric guitar. After a while, I finally realized to get decent at something, you gotta stick with it and put your time in. I also played metal because that’s what was around me in high school, at least for most of the kids who were big on music. There were a lot of country kids in my school, but none of ‘em really played music. I went to high school from 2007-2011, so I was at the tail end of a big surge of aggressive underground music. I’ll always find myself going back and jamming that stuff from time to time. But after college, it came time to pick a direction in life and stick to it. I just so happened to be falling in love with country music, particularly stuff I had heard from my parents growing up, and missing my childhood home out on Badger Road. One day, my parents said they wanted to do a family trip to Nashville. I had never been there, but I knew it would be a great time. It really inspired me to take a stab at playing country music for a living, even if that meant playing mostly cover songs in bars for tip money for several years.
PC: You recorded your debut EP, A Country Mile, in Nashville with several heavy-hitting musicians, and have recorded with legendary guitarist, Brent Mason. What was it like being present in and recording in Nashville and having the collective talent you had playing on your songs?
DL: I didn’t actually get to work with Brent until I recorded my last two singles, “For You I Can” and “Better Buzzed,” but all of the fellas that played on A Country Mile were also top notch studio musicians in Nashville, including Eddy Dunlap, one of the best steel guitar players out right now. Hearing my song go from a rough, homemade acoustic demo to hearing the players start to work their magic on it is one of my favorite parts of this musical journey. Getting to work with Brent Mason and Joe Spivey and the rest of the crew at Hilltop Studios was a big bucket list thing for me. It’s hard to find a country album that inspired me from the past 30 years that didn’t have one of those two guys playing on it.
PC: You released your newest single, “Better Buzzed,” in September of last year. Can you take us in the room and tell us how the song came together?
DL: I wrote “Better Buzzed” on my own up in Wisconsin. The idea came to me one day when I was actually in Nashville. I was tired. I usually am down there because I’m running around like a chicken with my head cut off and eating and drinking too much. I wanted to make the most of my time down there on that trip, and I remembered getting a second wind one day when I cracked open my third beer, and I said to myself “man, everything looks a little better buzzed.” I had it written in my notepad for at least a year before I finally decided to sit down and write something with it. I actually asked my dad to come up with the themes in the verses. After conversing with him, I decided to take what he said and base it off a true experience I had in my early 20s. It was my first time moving in with a girlfriend. Long story short, it didn’t last and I had to wait out the lease, so I spent a lot of time drinking in downtown Oconomowoc [laughs].
PC: “Better Buzzed” followed your heartfelt single, “For You I Can.” How cognizant are you of offering different tempos between releases? Why did you feel “Better Buzzed” was the right follow up single?
DL: One of the things I love about country music is that it’s real life. And in life, you’re going to have moments where you’re thankful for your loving family, and you’re going to have moments where you just want to drink and forget about your problems. I love dancing songs, but I love slow songs that bring a tear to your eye too. I thought showing off that dynamic would give people a good glimpse into what I’m about.
PC: You recently mentioned on social media that you’re about to begin recording new music. What information, if any, can you give about your upcoming releases? What can listeners expect to hear?
DL: I recorded two new songs at the end of September with the same team that I recorded “For You I Can” and “Better Buzzed” with. They sound great and I can’t wait to put ‘em out. One of them is an ode to the gas station/convenience store that is a lifesaver for Midwesterners who are on the road a lot. The song is called “God Bless Kwik Trip.” It’s a fun one. I’m hoping to have a release date very soon. The other one is called “Single in Nashville,” and it’s about a younger buddy of mine who got a little too excited his first time down in Nashville with all them honky tonk women [laughs]. It made for a great 90s sounding two-stepper, but also a fun story song. That one I’ll probably release this summer. I’m also recording a song up in Minnesota the first week of February. I don’t want to reveal much more about that one yet.
PC: You also mentioned that you plan on releasing music “more effectively” that you have in the past. What have you learned in the release process of your EP and singles that will allow you to present your new music in the best way possible?
DL: I’ve learned to really be patient and wait for when the time is right. We live in an era where a ton of music is accessible, so it can be pretty easy for a song to get released and then forgotten about. I want to make sure each of my next couple singles get their “moment.” I want to release a lot of content for them and focus on the release for a while instead of just uploading them.
PC: You were recently nominated in Shepherd Express’s Best of Milwaukee 2022 for both Alt-Country Band and Best Male Vocalist. What does that kind of recognition coming from within the industry mean to you as an artist?
DL: It’s always nice to be recognized by stuff like that. Playing the music that I love and staying true to myself is my main priority, but getting recognized and reaching new people is a big plus at this point in my career.
PC: Your website shows a very busy performing schedule for the next several months. How much are you looking forward to staying busy on the stage and continuing to bring your music to live audiences?
DL: It’s been a busy start to the year, but I love performing. Until my songs reach a higher level and a larger audience, I pretty much have to play out a couple times a week minimum to make a living. That’s okay with me for now; I don’t have kids or anything yet, so it’s a great time to put some miles on, meet more country music fans and continue developing my craft. I’m going to do my best to continue spreading out and getting in front of new faces all over the US soon.
PC: Along with working on new music and your performing schedule, what do you have planned for 2023?
DL: I’m getting married to my beautiful fiancé in May. I’m excited about that. Other than that, same old, same old. Playing out, writing music and fishing.
PC: Is there anything you’d like to add?
DL: Thank you, Justin. It’s awesome to see someone covering traditional country music and I’m honored to be on your site!
*Dan’s music is featured on The Best of Pro Country playlist!*
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