Over the past decade, Dan + Shay’s Dan Smyers and Shay Mooney have won multiple Grammys and scored a string of Billboard Country Airplay chart-toppers with their melodic ballads, bolstered by Smyers’ lush production and Mooney’s otherworldly tenor.
But on July 9, the duo shocked fans by posting a video to social media titled “The Drive,” where they shared they had reached a breaking point in early 2022.
“It was important to us to be honest,” Smyers tells Billboard.
The story of how they salvaged their partnership and returned with a renewed creative vigor and strengthened bond plays out on their fifth studio album Bigger Houses, out Friday, Sept 15, on Warner Music Nashville.
“This album was birthed from literally just us hanging out, and it just started [with us] writing all these songs and there was no pressure — and that’s how we did it on our very first record, and I think there was some magic to that,” Mooney says.
Smyers and Mooney met more than a decade ago at a party in December 2012 — or as Smyers puts it, “A lifetime [ago] in the music business.” Then, they were both single, talented guys, working doggedly toward aspirations of musical stardom.
“Early on, we didn’t have any responsibilities — the only thing we had to worry about was like, ‘Dude, let’s write a couple of songs today,’” Smyers says.
The hustling soon turned to success: publishing deals, a label deal with Warner Music Nashville, followed by their 2013 debut single, “19 You + Me.” Then came the hits (and the megahits): “Tequila,” “Speechless” and “10,000 Hours,” the latter collaboration with Justin Bieber hitting the top five on the Billboard Hot 100. The pair, who are managed by Sandbox Entertainment, earned three consecutive Grammys for best country duo/group performance, and back-to-back CMA Awards for vocal duo of the year.
Life surged forward on all fronts: Smyers wed Abby Law in 2017, while Mooney and Hannah Billingsley wed and welcomed their son Asher, in 2017, followed by Ames in 2020 and Abram in 2023.
As with the rest of the world, 2020 also meant their lives and careers were upended by the COVID-19 pandemic. Dan + Shay had to come off the road just three shows into the start of their first headlining arena tour. The outing resumed in September 2021, and by the time it wrapped on Dec. 7 at TD Garden in Boston, the grueling pace of nearly three dozen shows in three months had taken its toll.
“I remember getting off that stage, just completely in maximum burnout,” Smyers recalls. “I didn’t know if I could do it anymore.”
Over the past decade, while Mooney has forged a reputation for his formidable vocal prowess, Smyers has earned a reputation for geeking out on production and songwriting, spending hours in the studio refining songs to perfection. But as the massive tour wound down in December, Smyers says, “I looked back and I had written four total songs that year, which is nothing for me. I needed a hard reset.”
The rigors of touring and balancing family life had also left little time for true communication between Smyers and Mooney.
“You’re touring 150 days a year, 200 days a year, and you come home and the last thing you want to do is spend time with each other,” Smyers says. “People have asked if there was a specific incident, or, ‘Did something happen?’ There was no incident; we never really fought, and maybe that was part of the problem — we never fought. We never really discussed tough issues and weren’t super open in our communication with each other.”
Mooney and Smyers didn’t speak to each other for nearly four months after getting off tour, but at the same time, they were gearing up for another major tour — this time ascending from arenas to stadiums, as openers on Kenny Chesney’s Here and Now 2022 Tour.
“We were doing that tour either way,” Smyers says. “I didn’t want to go do that tour in vain; if it was our last tour, I wanted to high-five it, blow it out and ride off into the sunset — we got to play football stadiums! But if it ended up not being our last tour, I wanted it to be a fresh start, a new slate.”
That reset began in March 2022, prompted by a text from Smyers to Mooney, asking if they could hang out. When Mooney responded that they could get together in a couple of days, Smyers insisted they meet up that day.
“I think that was the point where he kind of knew I was serious about it,” Smyers says. “He came over to the house, we sat on the back patio, just the two of us — no outside influences. We hadn’t had a ‘Come to Jesus’ moment in a long time. We both apologized for not communicating enough and for not going out of our way to nurture the relationship. Being in a duo is tough. There’s money on the line, notoriety on the line — and that’s why a lot of duos, historically, have fallen apart. But if you don’t go out of your way to work on the relationship, it will fall apart, and you will go separate directions.”
“I’ve learned so much about communication,” Mooney adds. “When you are with each other all the time, you take it for granted that you’re talking and communicating, but there’s a difference between being present and communicating. It’s being able to say the hard stuff.”
“That night was the most pivotal moment in our career, to this point. It changed everything,” Smyers says.
The notion of Dan + Shay’s recorded music outlasting their time together as a proper duo fueled the Bigger Houses album’s origin story, beginning with “Always Gonna Be.”
“We talked about feeling like we owed it to our fans to figure things out, because Dan + Shay is always going to be the first dance music at someone’s wedding, or the tattoo on someone’s arm,” says Smyers, who recalls those sentiments being among the ones he jotted down, which made their way into the lyrics of “Always Gonna Be.” “A few more hours went by, and we talked about what we needed to do to give this a shot again.”
Chief among those renewed priorities was intentionally spending time together, as friends rather than just business partners. Though, as musicians do, they found those leisurely moments inevitably drifting to music. Nowadays, they take time to encourage each other’s personal journeys, whether that’s checking in on workouts or spending time together intentionally before a concert.
“We’ll sit in lawn chairs outside the bus, catch up or watch TV,” Smyers says. “In the past, we were in our own dressing rooms doing that — but now, they’ll always set us up with two dressing rooms and we only ever use one of them.”
Mooney’s renewed focus on health—eating well, cutting out alcohol—also led to a creative and relationship rejuvenation. “I think I’m in better shape than I have been since high school,” Mooney says, noting he lost over 60 pounds. “I shed some of the toxic things that were in my life. It played a big part in being able to get to this place with Dan and us being able to move forward. If this had been two years ago when I was in a low place, I don’t think I would be able to handle the pressure, with an album rolling out. I’d probably be having panic attacks again. But I’m super grateful that I’ve been kind of preparing for this moment; it feels good to be able to handle all the new stuff.”
While they return to form on Bigger Houses with lush, romantic ballads, such as the surefire wedding favorite “For The Both of Us,” they also take chances. “We Should Get Married” skewers the duo’s reputation for show-stopping balladeering, featuring Mooney’s voice in rapid-fire mode over a quick succession of lyrics and up-tempo percussion.
“We’ve been fortunate enough in our career to have songs used in weddings and first dances — which, if all else goes away, people will always be getting married, so it gives us a bit of job security,” Smyers says with a laugh. “We’ve played weddings — whether it’s a celebrity, non-celebrity — and after you play, there’s a local band or DJ who cranks some ‘Uptown Funk’ or ‘Twist and Shout,’ and everyone’s on the dancefloor. I thought we should have a song everyone can start dancing to.”
Mooney says, “It was great to be able to play around with that fast melody and fast phrasing and do something we haven’t really done in our career. I was still learning the words when we were in the vocal booth [recording]. You could hear how much fun we had making the record. Now we just have to figure out how we’re gonna pull it off live,” he says.
If “Always Gonna Be” marked the album’s beginning, the project’s title track, “Bigger Houses” is the thru-line, spawning from a conversation Smyers’ wife Abby had with Dan + Shay’s longtime writing collaborator Andy Albert and his wife Emily.
“Andy and Emily had just bought a dream home — big yard, beautiful home — and Abby had visited,” Smyers recalls. “Eventually, they mentioned how people are always looking forward to what is ahead, and sometimes we stop appreciating what we have. We have a roof over our heads, we’re doing something we love and we can afford groceries—those are things we shouldn’t take for granted. Andy and I couldn’t afford a meal when we moved to Nashville. We couldn’t afford heat or AC in the house we lived in, and we’ve all come a really long way.”
Albert wrote down “Bigger Houses” on his phone, and brought it into a writing session.
“He told me, Abby said, ‘The thing about happiness is I’ve found that it don’t live in bigger houses.’ I was like, ‘Well that’s a hook right there.’ It’s a song that is close to our hearts and something we think about every day,” Smyers says.
“If there is one message for people to hear from this album, it’s this song,” Mooney adds.
In 2024, Dan+Shay will return to the road, stronger than ever, for their headlining The Heartbreak on the Map Tour, with openers Hailey Whitters and Ben Rector.