Country music star Chris Young got surprise on stage at the Grand Ole Opry, when Vince Gill invited him to become a member, Aug. 29, 2018.
Cindy Watts/The Tennessean
Two days before his 21st birthday, Chris Young sat on the couch in a barren dressing room backstage at the Grand Ole Opry House and wondered about his future in country music. It was June 10, 2006, and Young was about to make his Grand Ole Opry debut — part of the prize package he received for winning the televised singing competition “Nashville Star.”
“What if this is all I ever do?” he asked, his hands folded in his lap. “Then at least I can say I played the Grand Ole Opry,” he answered.
Young will be inducted as the newest member of the Grand Ole Opry on Tuesday. In the 11 years and 78 Opry performances since his debut, the Murfreesboro native has racked up nine No. 1 songs and is preparing to release his seventh album, “Losing Sleep,” on Oct. 20.
The singer envisioned a similar career path for himself 11 years ago and hoped for the best. But he didn’t expect it to happen. He started to say he didn’t think any artist would have that foresight, but then turned the observation inward.
“I never imagined, a decade later, I would be becoming a member of the Grand Ole Opry … getting ready to go out next year and tour my butt off and being able to do everything that I want to do right now with music,” Young said from a leather armchair in his manager’s office near Music Row. “I have stuff completely blindside me that I never expected. That’s really special.”
Vince Gill invited Young to join the Grand Ole Opry in August, and Young’s upcoming induction is one of a handful of full-circle moments the singer is experiencing. “Losing Sleep” is the last album on his first recording contract — which he also won through “Nashville Star.” He recently re-signed with Sony Music Nashville, which has been his longtime label home.
“It’s definitely the start of the next chapter, but it feels like the closing for the first one and that’s cool,” Young said.
At 32 years old, the singer is still asking himself questions — just different kinds. He co-produced “Losing Sleep” with Corey Crowder and had lists of boxes to check for the project to meet his own expectations. Young was so inspired by the creativity he tapped into on his sixth album, “I’m Comin’ Over,” that he kept writing songs after the album was complete. He wrote “Losing Sleep,” the title track and debut single from the new album, immediately. When Sony Music Nashville Chairman and CEO Randy Goodman flew to Wisconsin to watch Young perform last year and was trapped on the tour bus by inclement weather, the singer had a wealth of new songs to play for him.
“It looked like a tsunami in the sky,” Goodman recalled. “The bus was actually rocking. Until that point, my time with Chris had been in these snatches. But here we were stuck on the bus … and there were two jars of peanut butter we went through, and Chris just started playing these songs.”
A few songs in, Goodman looked at Young and said, “So, this is your album?” The executive said the singer never let on he had no concrete plans for the music. But since Goodman had opened the door in such a positive way, Young just went with it.
“He sat there for a second, looked and me and said, ‘Yeah, yeah, that’s right. This is the new album,’ ” Goodman said with a laugh. “We were stuck on the bus, happily eating peanut butter and crackers, listening to music and had this great musical philosophical discussion.”
Crediting Young’s classic, rich baritone and willingness to experiment with sonic boundaries, Goodman called the singer among the most underrated male vocalists in the country music format. With the CMA Awards approaching on Nov. 8, Goodman shared his frustration that Young wasn’t nominated for male vocalist of the year — but said it wasn’t for lack of trying.
“We’re all pushing and shoving and screaming and yelling and trying to make noise,” Goodman said. “His commitment to this format (is unquestionable). He’s a traditionalist, but he’s always … looking at how he can make his music sound different.”
The album’s title track, which Young co-wrote with Josh Hoge and Chris DeStefano, is a shining example. “Losing Sleep” begins with a sexy, R&B-inspired verse before exploding into a contemporary country chorus. The song is the most progressive of Young’s career. Young said once his voice is applied to anything there’s no doubt it’s a country song.
“Chris is influenced by Keith Whitley and Vince Gill but also by tons of R&B singers,” Crowder said. “To me, this album has more R&B chops vocally, which … just showcases how great of a singer he is. Sexy songs are the thing that a lot of country artists struggle to pull off, and Chris has always pulled it off better than anybody in the business.”
Young co-wrote every song on the album, which is his third in less than 24 months. In addition to “I’m Comin’ Over,” which came out in November of 2015, Young released his Christmas album, “It Must Be Christmas,” last year.
People often ask the singer if the entire new album sounds like “Losing Sleep.” His answer is a resounding no. Other tracks on the project include the classic, rip-your-heart-out piano ballad “Where I Go When I Drink,” the R&B-meets-steel guitar summer vibe “Holiday” and the stripped-down Jon Randall and Josh Hoge co-written “Blacked Out.”
“Everything has its own stylistic lane,” Young said of the album. “I think it’s a step forward and trying to walk that fine line of wanting to do some stuff that’s different … but I also want to give them some of the stuff that they’ve come to expect from me. It’s just balancing that growth with the knowledge I’ve accrued over 11 years in the studio.”
Reach Cindy Watts at email@example.com or 615-664-2227 and on Twitter @CindyNWatts.
If you go
What: Chris Young’s induction into the Grand Ole Opry
Where: The Grand Ole Opry House, 2804 Opryland Drive in Nashville
When: 7 p.m. Tuesday. There also will be a 9:30 p.m. Opry Tuesday that will include a performance from Young but not a repeat of his induction.
Tickets: $38-$105 at www.opry.com or by calling 1-800-SEE-OPRY.
More information: Other performers on the Tuesday night Opry include Dustin Lynch, Tracy Lawrence and Henry Cho.
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