|Chris Young's NEON Glow|
|Chris Young's 'Neon' Glow|
A former 'hat act' raises his sights with chart-topping hits
By Phyllis Stark
Special to MSN Music
A country radio programmer in Tucson, Ariz., is so convinced that Chris Young's current single, "Tomorrow," is a No. 1 hit that he's vowed to eat a shoe if the song, currently at No. 5 on Billboard Hot Country Songs chart, sputters out before reaching the summit. And while Young has expressed his desire to choose the shoe, that doesn't mean he's not also fervently hoping the song will go all the way.
That kind of faith from radio is a big change from three years ago, when Young was stuck in the middle of a large pack of young male country "hat acts" of middling success. What's happened to him in the interim is the bullet train of career achievements: three back-to-back No. 1 hit singles, a feat that has bumped him out of the C-list artist pack for good.
With his third album, "Neon," due July 12, he's hoping to continue his winning streak with what is easily the best album of his career. It's packed with potential future singles like "Save Water, Drink Beer," "I Can Take It From There," "Old Love Feels New," "Flashlight," the title track, and the album closer, "She's Got This Thing About Her," which soars with the help of an 11-piece string section.
The career game changer for Young came in 2009 with "Gettin' You Home," his first No. 1 hit and a Grammy nominee for Best Male Country Vocal Performance. It was followed by "The Man I Want to Be," which stayed at No. 1 for three weeks last year, and then this year's chart-topper, "Voices."
Along with his first hit two years ago came some unexpected advice from Sony Music Nashville labelmate and fellow Tennessee native Kenny Chesney.
Young got the news of his first No. 1 via a call from an executive at his label. "I said a couple of words that I probably shouldn't have screamed at the Nashville International Airport," Young recalls of his reaction. The exec then put Chesney on the phone to offer his congratulations.
As Chesney shared the story of celebrating his own first No. 1 hit, he was met with skepticism from Young, who was pretty well convinced he was being pranked by a Chesney impersonator.
"I thought they were screwing with me," he says. "There's no way Kenny Chesney is telling me congratulations for my first No. 1." Incredibly, Chesney finally convinced Young of his identity by singing part of one of his hits over the phone.
After that memorably awkward first encounter, the two artists soon connected in person.
"He actually ended up meeting me out in Nashville, buying me a beer for my first No. 1, and talking to me," says Young, who remembers pumping Chesney for advice on how to sustain a career.
Chesney's reply? "A lot of people can have one [hit]. Try to have three." While a triple play doesn't guarantee the support of radio programmers, Chesney told him, it will at least get them to give your music serious consideration. Two years later, it's mission accomplished for Young, who shares a manager with Miranda Lambert.
But his future didn't always look so bright. In fact, after a shaky start with several failed singles (including "Voices" the first time it was released as a single in 2008), Young says he was in danger of losing his record deal and having to start over elsewhere. Before "Gettin' You Home," he says, "I lost three singles off of two different records. Nobody actually came up to me and said this, but it was pretty well understood," that his record deal might be on shaky ground. "You can only go so long without having some sort of hit on the radio," he says, noting that he went three years without one. "That's just a long time to go without a hit. It makes you nervous. If I could go back in time, I'm not sure I'd be able to [tell myself] 'Don't worry about this. It's going to take off in, like, two years," he says with a laugh.
Lately, Young has been getting a lot of media attention for changing up his look by shedding his trademark black cowboy hat, and that attention is something he's especially bemused by as an artist who formerly couldn't get mainstream media to take any notice of him.
"I said this as a joke, but I so meant it: If I realized I could get that much publicity out of taking my hat off, I'd have done this, like, three years ago when I really needed it," he says with a laugh.
Thanks to his string of hits and that Grammy nomination, Young's confidence as a songwriter has grown, and his work has taken on a new heft that's evident on his upcoming project. He co-wrote seven of the 10 tracks on "Neon" and also had his pick of outside cuts to choose from this time around. (An available deluxe version of the album includes two additional songs.)
In writing for this album, Young says the plan was to keep the sound familiar, but to step everything up a notch and really challenge his voice. He calls power ballad "Tomorrow," the hardest song to pull off vocally that he's ever recorded. "Having that stretch in my vocal range is something that I don't know if I'd have ever written that way a couple of years ago," he says.
"I'll say this, it was almost like I was trying to **** myself off," he says of the more complex songs he wrote for this album. "I was in the studio singing one of the songs on here, and I was like, 'I hate myself, don't I? I'm making all this stuff really hard to sing.'
"I've started to know where my limits are and where I can kind of push and get stuff that's as vocally challenging to sing as possible," he says. "I definitely think we did that on this record. This is the most vocally hard album that I've done so far, and I like that."
Young's niche in the country format is that of a traditional-sounding country artist with a modern sensibility, a role the 26-year-old singer eagerly embraces.
"I'm a young guy," he says. "Obviously my music was influenced by people that I was a huge fan of, [like] Randy Travis and Keith Whitley, but I don't think you could ever put my stuff up next to theirs and it would sound the same."
The same can be said of his live performances. "I'm never a stand-in-front-of-the-mic stock-still kind of guy. I like to run around and jump down in the crowd sometimes," he says. "That's just part of who I am ... both of those things [modern and traditional] kind of mixing together. And I think that that's a cool place. I like having that as my spot to live in as an artist."
Young is spending the summer playing the second slot on the bill of Jason Aldean's My Kinda Party tour. He's previously toured as an opener for Alan Jackson and Rascal Flatts.
Even during the downturns in his career, the 2006 "Nashville Star" winner who dropped out of college to pursue a music career says he never once considered doing anything else for a living.
"I'm never going to hang up music," he says. "I love it too much. I couldn't go without it ... I'm never going to get tired of it, or bored and want to move on to something different. It's always going to be my first love."
"Tomorrow" was recently certified gold, selling more than 550,000 downloads. And while Young is hoping for it to potentially become his fourth No. 1, he's still readying that shoe for the Tucson programmer.
"With 10 to 12 guys on the bus, every now and then it can get a little funky," he says, blaming part of that issue on his drummer's feet. "So I think I'm going to make him eat one of my drummer's shoes."
Veteran entertainment journalist Phyllis Stark has been reporting extensively on the music industry for two decades. As a freelance writer, her work appears regularly in numerous publications and sites, including Radio-Info.com, where she authors the newsletter Stark Country. She previously was Nashville Bureau Chief at Billboard magazine.