For Chris Young, This Time It’s Personal
Singer, songwriter and now producer Chris Young takes full control as he eyes bigger stages with his fifth studio album I’m Comin’ Over.
There’s a story Chris Young tells about his very first music video shoot. It was early morning and he’d pointed his car’s headlights down an empty highway, speeding so he wouldn’t be late.
A cop pulls him over. From beneath a black cowboy hat Young does his best to explain himself. The officer looks at him, eyes his guitar in the backseat, chuckles and sends him on his way without a ticket. He must’ve known then what the 21-year-old hadn’t figured out for himself yet: It's impossible to be late for your own video shoot. It's your video shoot!
Nine years later Young drives a cooler car, but that hardworking kid is still behind the wheel as he prepares his fifth studio album I’m Comin’ Over (Nov. 13). His tall, boyish frame has filled out, and he’s dropped the cowboy hat. He kept the guitar and added a decade’s worth of experience, a few difficult lessons and some perspective to his tool chest.
Young enters Nashville’s Sound Stage Studio through a back door on an unusually warm and sunny Monday afternoon in October. He’s carrying two pressed shirts on hangers and wearing a third that matches his black denim jeans. His beaten black boots have stories to tell. They’re so worn a toe practically pokes out, proving that like Dierks Bentley, Young holds on.
He turns first to his team and falls into a exchange about a tense business matter but, after a moment, remembers his manners and greets the room. When the camera shutter opens, dust from this gruff surface is blown away. He's not a fan of photo shoots, but you wouldn't know it: For 45 business-like minutes, Young is all smiles and poses, taking direction and doing what's asked of him. He talks about the album, the industry, his boots and the hole he's wearing into his favorite acoustic guitar a la Willie Nelson's Trigger.
After the last picture is taken, he thanks the photographer with a polite smile and a firm handshake before moving efficiently to an adjoining room to talk about the project he hopes will carry him to bigger audiences.
Young knows that this is a pivotal moment in his career, one that could mean a jump from two-thousand-seat theaters to five-thousand-seat amphitheaters and then to arenas. As a first-time co-producer, he’s not overlooking the details.
“This situation was such a departure from what [my label] trusted me to do before,” Young says from an easychair behind the soundboard. “I’d never been a co-producer on one of my projects. I really wanted to do it, I believed it would be great. I wanted to go in and just make it happen and let it be artistic and hopefully commercial as well.”
So Young fronted the money to lay the foundation, fully prepared to eat his investment if RCA didn’t like what was there. He and co-producer Corey Crowder quietly recorded demos for six tracks. You’ll find five of the six on the finished product: "Think of You," "Sober Saturday Night," "Heartbeat," "What If I Stay" and “I’m Comin’ Over.”
"I basically said to Corey, ‘I don’t want to give anybody the chance to second-think it until we go out and do it and then show it to them,” Young explains.
“Chris knows who he is and who he is as an artist, who he wants to be,” says Josh Hoge, who along with Young and Crowder helped write all but one of the 11 songs on the new album.
Young wasn’t at all anxious the day he finally revealed the start of his album to his team at RCA. As it turns out, he didn’t have to be. Everyone loved it, told him to finish and ultimately reimbursed him.
From there the songs came tumbling out like gumballs, most written in less than 90 minutes and very few remaining for leftovers. Crowder and Hoge were both surprised by Young’s songwriting ability and his willingness to pull from other genres. “You Do the Talkin’” has an alt-rock feel, and “Think of You” surprises with vocals from onetime pop-punk frontwoman Cassadee Pope. And then there’s Young’s soft spot for Golden Age rhythm-and-blues, which can be heard on the woozy “What If I Stay.”
“Chris and I had talked about pulling out this old-school Babyface kind of R&B acoustic love song,” Hoge says, recalling a songwriting session with Johnny Bulford at Young’s beach house in Texas. “The three of us sat around one morning on the couch and we wrote it, and it was the perfect little fit for something he didn’t have for the record.”
Which is not to say that the singer has given up the straight line of songs like “Tomorrow” and “Lonely Eyes.” Maybe that isn’t surprising: Young has always moved more like a freighter, slow and deliberate, than a sports car zipping in and out of lanes. He hasn’t abandoned his roots; he’s modernized them.
“I don’t know that I’m ever gonna have anything cross over,” he says. “When I open my mouth, it’s pretty damn country.”
“Pretty damn country” is how his listeners know and love him, says Mike Moore, Vice President of Country Programming at Entercom Communications, which owns more than 120 radio stations nationwide. “He is sort of carrying, to a degree, that traditional flag for country music. He definitely has a more traditional, down-the-middle sound, which, for the most part, he’s remained true to.”
The epitome of country music is more like it, according to media consultant Barry Mardit. “If country music was a balancing act, with the likes of Florida Georgia Line on one side and those with the heavy Southern twang on the other side, he’s right in the middle.”
Young pursued a more progressive sound for his fifth full-length, and his core group agrees that he found it. Often artists have a pitch sheet that describes what they want to achieve in the studio. Young did the opposite, focusing first on what he wanted to avoid.
“I feel like we stayed away from some of the themes that I’ve heard a lot,” Young says. “We made a record that kind of doesn’t sound like anything else, I don’t think, top to bottom.”
He’s not bro-country, he insists, but he doesn’t resent the subgenre. It’s a narrow target, but Young isn’t mad about it. His rowdy 2013 single “Aw Naw,” was lumped in with that set during Maddie & Tae’s “Girl in a Country Song,” a cutting critique of a style so overused it became its own cliché. Young thinks the song is brilliant.
“I think our format is wider than it’s ever been, and that’s not a bad thing,” Young acknowledges. “We’re selling better than we’ve sold in a lot of years. I think having different sounding people is a great thing.” When he hears Sam Hunt infuse the genre with hip-hop, he smiles.
“They’re doing what’s them. I’m doing what’s me. As long as everybody is making really great music, do you really care if ‘Well, that doesn’t have a steel guitar on it.’ And do you really mind if all of my stuff does?”
Over the last five years Young has been as reliable as any country male in turning in radio hits. Credit that to his business acumen. He can recite how many radio stations report spins to Billboard and Mediabase, and he can tell you who has the No. 1 album in country music and, of their sales, how many are “legit” (physical sales and digital downloads) versus how many are made up of aggregate streams. He knows where his single sits on the charts and how it's moving relative to his previous 13 singles.
This education was born of necessity. Young’s road to fame was littered with people out to prove that he was a TV star, not a country star. After winning the fourth season of USA Network’s reality competition Nashville Star in 2006, the singer didn't become a household name. (The show’s most notable alumna, Miranda Lambert, finished third in Season 1.) Both singles from Young’s self-titled debut album flopped: “Drinkin’ Me Lonely” topped out at No. 42 on the Hot Country Songs chart; “You’re Gonna Love Me” peaked at No. 48.
“There wasn’t a lot of love for that show," Young remembers. "And I kind of did the rounds, coming into radio stations, and the (Program Director) wasn’t there, the (Music Director) wasn’t there, and the morning show wasn’t there. I was meeting with, like, the afternoon guy and that was it.”
He continued to show up at radio's door, building relationships, learning call letters and convincing people in power positions that he was more than a reality-show winner. Still, he struggled.
“Voices,” the lead single from his second album, 2009’s The Man I Want to Be, stalled just inside the Top 40. Sure, his pure country baritone was as honest as anyone’s since Randy Travis, but the song’s premise — a grown man who goes about his day hearing voices — didn’t connect with listeners.
His fans kept him upright, as they always had. Every artist says they are in debt to their audience, but Young might actually be. Years before he considered moving to Texas and trying out for Nashville Star, followers of Trace Adkins founded Young's fanclub. During a bookstore tour in support of two early independent albums, the then-teenaged singer slept at fans’ houses. He was already seasoned performer by the time he hit the TV stage, and he had a few thousand votes in his back pocket each night.
That still wasn’t enough to convince radio, so many fans — knowing that success in the music industry boils down to sales — bought 10 copies of Chris Young, keeping one and distributing the rest.
"While he wasn't having radio success, he was still selling records," Young's mother, Becky Harris, once told GAC.
So he circled back through the radio markets he felt he’d made progress in. Every artist listens as a programmer shares their opinion, but Young seemed as if his next step depended on it. And it did: When your chart position can be mistaken for the jersey of an NFL linebacker, you don’t get many second chances. Record labels, especially major record labels, look for single digits.
Three years after winning Nashville Star, he released “Gettin’ You Home (The Black Dress Song),” a steamy ballad that Moore and Mardit agree is still his signature song. Comparisons to Conway Twitty came from every direction. Young’s intimate, daring storytelling (“Seein’ your black dress hit the floor”) countered the wholesome love songs other deep-voiced Romeos were selling.
The breakthrough hit took eight months to get to No. 1 on the U.S. Country chart. Young’s next four singles — including “Voices,” which was re-released, plus the first two tracks off his third studio album, 2011’s Neon — got there quicker. The Man I Want to Be went on to become his first Gold record and was praised for its diversity and efficiency. (The album was only 35 minutes long). Industry commendation was harder to come by, however. “Gettin’ You Home” scored a Grammy nomination for Best Male Country Vocal Performance, and “The Man I Want to Be” picked up Country Music Association Awards (CMA) and Academy of Country Music Awards (ACM) nods, but no big wins. That’s when the momentum wore off. His 2012 ACM nomination for Male Vocalist of the Year has been his last at the CMAs or ACMs. Neon’s final two singles ended the streak of No. 1s, and now Young is riding a string of five that haven’t taken the top spot. (To his credit, four made the Top 5.)
Resentment for his first album started to set in, too. After "Gettin' You Home" redefined him, Young says he started to stay away from songs from his debut, thinking they were failures. The album was a memory of a tough time. And then he got over it.
“It wasn’t the most successful thing in the world, but it wasn’t bad,” he says. “I wouldn’t have done so many radio tours, and I wouldn’t know so many people as well as I do in radio, had I not done all of that. There’s nothing I would change.”
At the very least, it provided an education that became his lifeblood, an education that extends today into the studio. Crowder talks about how Young knew the right words to use to get the session musicians to actualize his vision. The lingo is difficult to find for many artists, perhaps most.
“Typically there’s a big getting-to-know-you phase [at the beginning of recording an album],” says Crowder, who was introduced to Young by Hoge on a whim. “[Usually] you’re trying to play sensitive and you don’t want to hurt the other person’s feelings. In this case it really wasn’t like that at all. It was kind of fun from the get-go, and it kind of felt like we already knew each other.”
That fraternity didn’t lead to therapy sessions in the songwriters’ room, but it did birth a deeply personal album that reveals more of the artist than ever before. And that may be the biggest risk Chris Young has taken yet.
“There’s probably a couple someones that are gonna hear the songs and go, ‘I think that might have been about me,’ or, ‘I know it’s about me,” Young says, shifting nervously in his chair. “I do play that pretty close to the vest. I don’t think I’m ever gonna write a song and drop somebody’s name in it.”
His personal life isn’t his favorite topic, and it’s the part of himself he’s kept out of the media his entire career, even in this modern age of social media oversharing. Does he want to get married one day? He does. But he’s never brought a date to an awards show red carpet. Once or twice, he took a date to an afterparty. You won’t find the pictures.
You may hear their stories on this album, though. At the very least you get the impression that Young is content. Of I'm Comin' Over's 11 tracks, nine are love songs. "Sober Saturday Night," a heartbreaker featuring Vince Gill on harmonies, is not "his title." Neither is "Alone Tonight,” on which Young flexes his vocal muscle. The most tearful entry is “I Know a Guy,” written by Benjy Davis and Brett Tyler. The rest find the singer satisfied with a current relationship or, at the very least, with the way one ended. Those close to him say his head is in a good place, and you're left to wonder if his heart is too. He’s not saying.
“I don’t want to be the person who has the gigantic headlines: ‘Look Who So-and-So Is Dating Now’,” Young says. “That, to me, isn’t really who I am.”
These days, that reluctance to bare it all online can be a hurdle to superstardom, Mardit believes. “With social media and everything, everybody kind of expects to know everybody’s business now. Which is really unfair. A Don Williams couldn’t exist in that world, as quiet as he was.”
Young embraces social media like a guy hugs his best friend’s wife: close, but not too close. He tweets and recognizes the important role Facebook played in launching his current single, the fastest rising song of his career. But don’t expect him to Periscope from his living room couch or Snapchat from the front seat of his truck.
"We don’t know enough about Chris Young yet,” Mardit says. "Maybe that’s good for personal life. But when [artists] do parade their lives out there, the people love it, and it does take them to the next level.”
“Going back to the ’90s,” Moore, of Entercom says, “There were guys like Joe Diffie and Collin Raye. They were definitely hit artists, but they never really achieved that arena sellout status, if you will. And maybe it’s just because in the big scheme of things, Garth Brooks and others were more interesting.”
For all his discretion, Young still found himself at ground zero of country music’s gossip story of the year. In July, tabloids suggested he and Miranda Lambert were an item — and the reason for her divorce from Blake Shelton.
“It just sucked because those are two friends of mine," Young remembers. "Literally I was texting Blake and Miranda in the middle of it going, ‘I have no idea how I got sucked into this.’”
Normally, Young ignores such rumors, but he couldn't this time. He issued an irreproachable denial on Facebook. And that was that.
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Controversy is not a tool Young will use to further his career. He doesn’t need to. After two weeks of teasing its release via social media, “I’m Comin’ Over” has sold more first-week singles than any of his career. As album-release day nears, the song sits in the Top 5 of Billboard’s Country Airplay chart.
“For awhile there I kind of hit the plateau," Young acknowledges. “Anytime you do that as an artist, one of two things can happen … you’re either going to start to fall back off or you’re gonna start to rise.”
Cassadee Pope should help him rise, too. She steps in on “Think of You,” a soaring love song co-written by Young, Crowder and Hoge. Landing the right duet partner can be a miserable experience, but it came easily this time.
“I went down and played one of those in-the-round radio shows, and she led it off all the way over on the left of the stage,” Young remembers. “She finished the first chorus of her first song, and I was like, ‘I have to get up as soon as this show is over and go ask her to be on this.’”
But it wasn't just about the voice and the chemistry: Pope had a Platinum single on her hands with “Wasting All These Tears.” That's a rare and astonishing feat, especially for a new female artist in country music.
"You want to have somebody that’s gonna bring something else to the song, and she does that and more,” Young says.
The pair begin a run of 13 tour dates in January. They’ll play theaters and auditoriums, but if there’s one thing Young wants more than No. 1 songs and Gold and Platinum records, it’s the right to play arenas soon. Selling out Nashville's Ascend Amphitheater on a rainy weekday night in September was a new milestone. Doing that nationwide is the next step. This isn’t a now or never proposition — Young is just 30 years old, after all — but with the field growing more crowded each year and the public looking to hitch onto the next hot thing daily, it’s time to stay focused.
Is there room for a traditionalist superstar in this era of hip-hop remixes and pop-country crossovers? Well, maybe a traditional superstar is just what country music needs.
“A lot of artists will tell you who their influences are,” says media consultant Barry Mardit. “Everybody says George Jones, Willie Nelson. If you were to put it in reverse, they would embrace a guy like Chris Young.”