Savannah born songwriter/producer, Steven Battey, has followed an unconventional path in music — one that has taken him from working with pop icons in Los Angeles to writing hits for country superstars in Nashville.
Now Battey is ready to step out as a recording artist with Exit 216, his country duo with the young and prodigiously talented Cole Burkett. Exit 216 released its debut single, "Brother," and an accompanying video Friday. The duo hopes that listeners are inspired by their message of diversity and friendship.
Battey describes the video as portraying the duo "sitting side by side basically explaining how it is to grow up in different environments, but at the end of the day we’re both brothers...I think it will spread a lot of unity and love."
Battey grew up making music in Savannah with his brother Carlos as the R&B duo Jackie Boyz. The brothers eventually developed a successful career co-writing multi-platinum selling hits for artists like David Guetta, Justin Beiber, Flo Rida, and even Madonna, with the song "Revolver" which appeared on her compilation, "Celebrity."
Surprisingly, "Revolver" was originally pitched to Rihanna before director Guy Ritchie heard it and convinced Madonna to sing it.
"That’s why I tell songwriters to never give up on your songs because Rihanna’s team didn’t really like it," said Battey. "To come from Savannah, Georgia, from the west side where I grew up, to have that kind of credit, sometimes you forget because it’s so surreal, to be like, ‘I forgot I wrote a record for Madonna on her greatest hits album.’."
After making a name for himself in R&B, pop, and hip-hop, Battey moved to Nashville where he ended up working with country star Luke Combs on the song "One Number Away," which became a No. 1 Billboard Country hit and 2019 ASCAP Song of the Year.
"What’s crazy is, me and Luke, we all wrote that song...when he was just figuring it out," Battey recalled. "I remember when he first came to my studio the first time in Nashville, I just saw a talent and thought, ‘Man, you’re going to be huge.’ I was trying to pitch ‘One Number Away’ to other artists and no one in town took the song."
Combs asked Battey if he could perform the song in his live sets. The response was so good that he recorded it for his debut album.
"Honestly, a lot of people were telling him [not to use it], because it was so different," said Battey. "I’m just so grateful for him fighting for that song to be a single. He was taking a bit of a chance, in my opinion, doing a song that was more soulful, a little more R&B."
Battey’s transition from writing Grammy Award winning pop songs to country hits has been remarkable, particularly for a Black artist who developed an interest in country music not that long ago.
"I got in late, because growing up in Savannah, I grew up on a lot of Love101.1, so I didn’t get into country until 2016," said Battey. "I remember falling in love it. The first song I heard in Nashville was ‘A Little Bit of Everything’ by Keith Urban. That song just really inspired me...I remember thinking, ‘Man, I want to do this.’ All that was under my belt was pop, R&B, and hip-hop.
"That’s one of the beautiful things about music and not putting yourself in a box—to keep growing and climbing because you never know what else you might be good at and what you might fall in love with."
Battey’s Exit 216 partner, Cole Burkett, developed playing music in the Nashville bar scene since he was 15 years old. When he graduated high school, Burkett turned down a baseball scholarship to pursue music and quickly developed a reputation as a gifted songwriter, singer, and guitar player. Having worked with some of Nashville’s top songwriters and producers, Burkett got introduced to Battey, who was looking for a singing partner.
"It’s not everyday that you find people with an ‘ear’," said Burkett of his meeting with Battey. "You can’t train an ‘ear.’ Steven and I have a very similar ear, so when you find that cohesiveness with somebody, it’s just very hard to find that. I think we both kind of winked at each other when we knew that we clicked.
"I’ve been around music my whole life, but never thought about being an artist until 4 or 5 months ago when I met Cole and that’s when the idea came about," said Battey. "I was like, I’d like to see a little more diversity in country (music). I noticed that the genre started changing a little bit."
Following the success of "One Number Away," Battey wants to incorporate more urban and R&B elements into country music while still appealing to core fans.
"I wanted to hear more of that sound on the radio, so me and Cole thought we could bring that kind of soul and country mix to it," explained Battey. "I think it’s the perfect time as well, with everything going on."
After the release of "Brother," look out for Exit 216’s second single, "Other Side of the Sun" featuring fellow Georgian Bubba Sparks.
[Listen to Exit 216’s debut single, "Brother."]