When Chris Young returned to the road a few weeks ago after pausing 16 months for the pandemic, he experienced something he’d never witnessed before in his 15-year career: fans singing along in concert for the first time to a song that was already a hit.
During the COVID-19 shutdown, “Famous Friends,” a duet with Kane Brown and the title track to Young’s eighth RCA Nashville studio album, steadily climbed the charts, reaching No. 1 on Billboard’s Country Airplay chart this summer.
“It’s so weird because that’s not how it works in country. You don’t go from nothing to everything. It’s not like it’s a hit and then you’re touring it and you see crowds hearing it for the first time,” says Young, calling from the tour bus as he headed to a gig in Wisconsin. “So, to be able to go from zero to 100 with ‘Famous Friends’ was just wild, but I will say I don’t want that to ever happen again,” he adds with a laugh.
Though it’s been almost four years since Young’s last album release — 2017’s Losing Sleep — fans have heard a steady stream of new material from Famous Friends since its first single, party anthem “Raised on Country,” came out in 2019. That was followed by the emotional gut punch of “Drowning,” co-written by Young as his response to a friend’s sudden death, and then the title track.
The three songs highlight the musical and lyrical breadth of Famous Friends, which Young attributes to his broader experiences as he gets older and “being open and letting the music be what it needs to be without worrying about where it comes from and how it gets started.”
Time was also on his side as the pandemic gave him unlimited time to craft the album. Young never had a release date before the pandemic for the set, but adds,“I kind of look at it as the one blessing in disguise from 2020 — being able to take the time and write more songs and continue to curate the record that it came out this way. With the amount of time I had to do this album, everything has its own lane.”
True to the title, Young had some well-known pals join him. In addition to Brown, the album features collaborations with Mitchell Tenpenny and Lauren Alaina, as well as background vocals from Sarah Buxton and Hillary Lindsey.
Upon its release on Aug. 6, the album, which Young produced solo and with Corey Crowder and Chris DeStefano, hit No. 1 on the iTunes all-genre albums chart.
Young’s been a remarkably consistent performer over the last 15 years, when 16 of his last 18 singles have gone top five or higher in his slow, steady build to superstardom. All of his albums from his 2006 self-titled bow on have debuted in the top 10 on Billboard’s Top Country Albums chart, with 2015’s I’m Comin’ Over and Losing Sleep starting at No. 1.
Like many artists during the pandemic, Young turned to Zoom writing sessions but found them lacking. “Most of the stuff that I wrote over Zoom, even the stuff that was the best of that, I do feel like there was something missing, at least for me as a songwriter,” he says. “So I don’t think there’s anything that ended up on this record that was a Zoom write, but I’ve had some stuff that was a Zoom write that was on hold for other artists.”
Young, who co-wrote 13 of the 14 songs on the album, estimates he wrote 80 to 90 songs during the shutdown. He found comfort in the process — to a point. “It’s weird because I’m one of those strange personalities where I’m an introverted extrovert and I didn’t necessarily mind being in the studio for a year, but when someone tells you you can’t leave the studio for a year, you can’t go outside, I did not take to that very well,” he says. “But I’m glad I at least had that outlet artistically.”
He and Tenpenny did manage to write his new single, the driving “At the End of the Bar,” in person — just barely. It was day three of an ice storm in Nashville and the pair decided there was just enough of a thaw to safely go write with DeStefano, in part prompted by Young’s fear of missing out if they delayed the writing session. “There’s no guarantee that what you would get one day is what you would get the next day,” he says. “I’m really, really glad we got together that day.”
The album also highlights some of Young’s most romantically vulnerable songs, including “When You’re Drinking,” “Rescue Me” and “Break Like You Do.” Unlike many of his fellow country stars who are open books about their love lives, Young shares very little of his personal life in interviews or on social media — other than adorable photos of his German shepherd Porter on Instagram — and he cautions against trying to read too much into his lyrics.
“I don’t feel like I need to necessarily go ‘This was written about this girl in particular’ when it comes to falling in love, falling out of it, breaking up, getting back together, but I’m not afraid to dig into that,” he says. “That’s a form of honesty, which is important as an artist and important as a writer.”
And many of his songs do draw upon his life, just not in a way that reveal specifics. “I had a moment before where a girl’s at the house, there’s a song on and we’re dancing while no one’s watching, and that’s kind of where the very last song on this record, ‘Tonight We’re Dancing,’ came from,” he says. “So I feel like I put that part of that out there and that’s so personal. I really hadn’t described who it was or the timing of that happening, [but] I’m sharing that part of myself in a song and other people are going to relate to it because I know they’ve done the same thing.”
But fans looking for him to spill details have long learned that’s not his style. “I have dated people and, no, I don’t feel like it’s part of my artistry for me to tell you who it was or when it was or what her name is. It’s just something that stays private with me,” he says. “That’s not for everybody, but for me, that’s what works best.”
Young, who reached arena headliner status for the first time with 2018’s Losing Sleep Tour, will kick off an arena/amphitheater headlining outing starting Oct. 21 at Little Rock, Arkansas’ First Security Amphitheater. Tenpenny and Callista Clark will provide support.
He is confident he can continue the momentum the last tour started and, as he plays festival and fair gigs this summer, Young takes to the stage with a new appreciation after the shutdown. “It’s something that no one ever took for granted — being out there playing for thousands of people very night — but if there is even a tiny part of us that didn’t understand how precious that is, how special that is, we’re making up for lost time with being back on the road,” he says.
Young — who has expanded into podcasting with his The Quad With Chris Young podcast and moved into video directing — says at some point he will likely take on producing other artists. But for right now, it’s all about moving forward, in whatever way that occurs. “If I had to put it in one word, it’s growth…just continuing to grow what I’ve built,” he says. “There’s a fantastic foundation there whether it’s the live touring part of it, having bigger hits and continuing to grow everything that I’ve already put in place. That’s the most important part for me.”