Chase Rice was ready to pivot, he just needed the songs and support to do it. Finding both for Lambs & Lions was a long, "grueling" process that took three years, several producers, multiple versions of at least five or six songs and at least one very difficult conversation.

"For me, I wanted to get away from 'Girl, perfect night, stars out, tailgate down, sippin’ on something, dirt road,'" Rice tells Taste of Country, mostly relaxed on a couch at the ToC studio. He's never totally relaxed when he's working. He very much lives the Head Down, Eyes Up motto found on his brand of apparel. "I was tired of hearing it from so many artists. I was tired of hearing about it from myself. I was tired of singing about it."

He's referring to bro-country themes found all over his debut album, Ignite the Night, an album that was both celebrated and derided, sometimes by the same people. In large part, the 31-year-old is proud of those songs, but admits there are five or six he wishes he'd not included three years ago. You won't find him saying the same about Lambs & Lions, an often introspective album he fought for with the tenacity of an outside linebacker, his position a decade ago at the University of North Carolina.

"This album, I will say, was not the most fun to make," he says. "That’s just being honest. It’s been a three-year process of so many downs that you don’t look at it and say, ‘I had a blast making that record.'"

Last summer Rice told Rolling Stone Country about parting with Sony Music Nashville when he started to believe they weren't serious about his music. It was an abrupt end to a record contract that was followed by an equally abrupt move to Broken Bow Nashville. "Three Chords and the Truth" was released as a single in July. Then the album was pushed one more time (from September to November) but finally, things started to fall in his favor. Not only is the record out, the song is finding some room at radio, having reached the Top 40 this week.

On Lambs & Lions fans will find the same aggression and edge they loved on Ignite the Night, but not the same themes. Rice parties on "Jack Daniels Showed Up," but not with a paint-by-numbers country girl and not on the back of a jacked-up truck.

Watch: Chase Rice Talks About "Jack Daniels Showed Up"

"Lions" starts the album, introducing this next phase of his life and career with something unexpected: the Lord's Prayer. The track is the one he's been holding onto longest and probably his most ambitious effort to date. Any song that begins with "Our Father" before becoming the ultimate sports anthem is going to stand out even on a project as diverse as this. Rice says he built this album from the idea of comparing lambs and lions, but once he started to share it he knew he was on to something special. NFL lineman J.J. Watt is a fan. Rice played it for him on his tour bus, and a month later the all-pro texted to tell him how jacked up he got thinking about it.

“So when J.J. is saying that, that just legitimizes why I wrote this song.”

Compare that to "Amen," a piano-driven ballad that tests Rice's ability to go deep. He's proven very capable of this before — "Jack Daniels and Jesus" from Ignite the Night is must-listen — but few want to give the muscled, often intimidating country-rock singer credit for being well-rounded. After this he pivots to "This Cowboy's Hat," a Chris LeDoux cover recorded with the late legend's son Ned and included on both men's albums. It's an unexpected collaboration that makes sense only if you're willing to look beyond what you think you know of Rice and his music.

"He saw through that," Rice of Ned LeDoux. "We became buddies right away, and I think we have a lot of the same background and a lot of the same upbringing." Indeed, both men rely on a non-centrist brand of country music and personally, both lost their dads in early adulthood. Their hats are different, but their lives, maybe not so much.

In some ways, "fathers" bookend the album. "Our Father" starts, and the song Rice says his father would be most proud of ends Lambs & Lions. That's not how he planned it. In fact, the oldest song on his second major label studio album was finished last. Originally, a ready-for-battle violin instrumental opened the album.

“Come to find out through an Army buddy of mine," Rice says, "he’s like, ‘Man I love that, it gave me goosebumps but it took me back to a real weird place.”

It was similar to a call to prayer this friend had heard serving in the Middle East, and Rice didn't want to bring back those memories for soldiers who served. So he pivoted one final time.

“That’s how the Lord’s Prayer got on the record.”

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