This past January, Steven Battey and Cole Burkett decided to form their own country duo, Exit 216 — named for the exit that takes drivers to Nashville International Airport.
At first, Exit 216 had a list of career goals that would look familiar to any new artist in Music City. They wanted to score a record deal, make hits and get on the road.
Seven months later, in the midst of a tumultuous year, their ambitions have expanded.
“Now it's like, 'Man, we have a purpose,’” says Battey. “God put us together for a reason.”
This week, Exit 216 releases their debut single, “Brother.” The song was written less than two months ago, as protests surged across the country in response to the death of George Floyd.
On the track, Battey, who is Black, and Burkett, who is white, sing about finding common ground while acknowledging their differences, and starting a dialogue.
‘We’re not the same color, but we all bleed red,” they harmonize on the chorus. “…Maybe we need to discover a little more about each other/ We might have grew up on a different track, but you’re still my brother.”
Battey grew up in Savannah, Georgia, and began his songwriting career in Los Angeles in 2009, co-penning hits for Madonna (“Revolver”), Justin Bieber (“Eenie Meenie”) and Flo Rida (“Sugar”).
He moved to Nashville in 2014, and broke into the country market with Luke Combs’ 2018 chart-topper “One Number Away,” which he co-wrote and co-produced.
Burkett hails from Smyrna, Tenn. and only began seriously pursuing music about three years ago, when he graduated high school. He started making contacts in town after entering the Nashville Rising Song contest. When he and Battey were introduced and had their first writing session, he says they quickly hit it off.
“We have a lot of same traits, and just like the song, we feel like brothers in a lot of ways."
After Battey co-wrote “Brother” with David Mescon, and Drake White, Exit 216 didn't waste time, recording the studio version of the song and shooting a music video in a matter of weeks. The clip sees Battey and Burkett seated back to back, facing in opposite directions while singing to one another.
“Brother, I want to understand how you feel right now,” Burkett sings in the second verse. “Can you show me how?"
“I had the concept of different worlds meeting back to back, because I don't know what it's like to walk in Cole's shoes, and Cole doesn't know what it's like to walk in my shoes,” Battey says.
“I grew up in the projects. I was around crime, I was around violence my whole life. I wanted that perspective to say, 'Hey, we didn't grow up in the same place, but that doesn't mean we can't find common ground, and have love and respect for each other.'”
As a self-described “country soul” duo, Exit 216 formed mainly out of a desire to blur the lines between country, R&B and pop. But from the beginning, they say they’ve recognized the importance of putting Black and white voices together in country music.
They’re certainly not the first to do so – a recent, very successful example is Jimmie Allen and Noah Cyrus’ hit duet “This Is Us” – but by being a permanent duo, they’re entering largely uncharted territory.
“We're a hundred percent excited about bringing that forward, because I think it's time,” Burkett says. “People have been waiting to see it.”
This article originally appeared on Nashville Tennessean: New country duo Exit 216 release 'Brother' about finding common ground