The Georgia singer's musical taste mixes traditional twang (Alan Jackson and Randy Travis) with pure pop (Katy Perry and Maroon 5)
Credit: Mike Coppola/WireImage

Each day leading up to next week’s CMA Awards, PEOPLE will feature one of the five CMA new artist of the year nominees sharing thoughts on his or her favorite music and memorable musical moments.

Cole Swindell has come a long way – from selling T-shirts for fraternity brother Luke Bryan to being nominated for a CMA Award.

But he hasn’t forgotten the lessons he learned while manning Bryan’s merch table. “I went from selling merch to having my own merch, and to see all that change over the past seven years, I’m just thankful,” says the singer, 31, who went on to open for Bryan on his recent tour. “Hopefully one day I’ll be able to be where Luke is and be able to help a new guy.”

Swindell’s own musical taste is a blend of classic country like Randy Travis and pop hits (Katy Perry gets plenty of airtime on his iPod) – perhaps not surprising for a guy who co-wrote songs like Florida Georgia Line‘s “This is How We Roll.” Here, the “Chillin’ It” singer fills us in on the artists and songs that have made a mark on him:

First album you bought?Alan Jackson, A Lot About Livin’ (And a Little ’bout Love). I don’t remember how old I was but I know I was young enough to be driving my mama crazy by putting ‘Chattahoochee’ on repeat. I didn’t even know what half of it meant but it sounded cool and Alan Jackson was one of my favorites. He’s a Georgia boy like I am and with that crazy guitar riff, everything about that song sounded cool.”

Best concert? “The first time I ever saw Kenny Chesney in Atlanta when I was in college. I bought some tickets on eBay for a lot of money. I had three tickets and I had a buddy going with me and was trying to find a girl to go with me but didn’t so I gave the extra ticket to Luke, cause he was in town playing a show. But seeing Chesney live and seeing him work that stage, it was like, ‘This is the best entertainer I’ve ever seen.’ It was a big part of me wanting to move to Nashville and be on that big stage.”

First song you played in public? “I didn’t grow up singing, but I did do karaoke when I was 17 or 18 in Panama City, Florida I did Lonestar’s ‘Amazed’ and people were like ‘You’re pretty good,’ so that kind of started it. I played the bars in college in Georgia and our first gig was me and a buddy of mine, just acoustic and I was so nervous I could barely breathe or sing. The first song I ever sang was ‘Don’t Happen Twice,’ by Kenny Chesney.”

Your must-have album?Eric Church’s first album, Sinners Like Me. When I first heard that album, it made me realize I want to write my own songs because it was the best stuff I heard at the time. It will always be one of my favorites.”

Most recent album purchase? “I just bought the new Jason Aldean CD, Old Boots, New Dirt. I’ve always been a huge fan and it’s exciting to get to hear his new music. And the great thing is that he just announced I’m going to be on tour with him next year.”

Fave road music? “Any new country stuff, like Jason’s new album or the new Florida Georgia Line. We like to listen to what our buddies are putting out and also we’ll play anything on the top 100 playlist. I like to know what the top songs are to see what everybody is doing in different genres.”

Preferred pre-show music? “We’ve been listening to Maroon 5 lately – that “Maps” song and the “Animals” song. I’m digging some Maroon 5. It just fires you up. It’s totally different from the music we make but it’s just cool to hear. Anything with a good beat gets us pumped up.”

Guilty pleasure song? “Probably Katy Perry’s ‘Teenage Dream’. I like to jam that one out. The beat is just different from anything I do and it’s just a cool song.”

Song that makes you cry?Dierks Bentley, ‘My Last Name.’ It’s talking about how important his last name is to him and it’s kind of all he’s got and there’s a twist at the end when he’s asking the girl to marry him. It’s a cool song and I’m proud of my name so I can relate.”

The CMA Awards air live on Wednesday, Nov. 5, on ABC.

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