Chris Young doesn't have to wait till "Tomorrow" to be the hottest twentysomething male singer in country. He's already arguably claimed that spot. Shortly before the release of his new album, Neon, Young came by the Yahoo! studios to tape a special Ram Country performance of three songs: "Tomorrow," the top 5 leadoff single from the new record; "Voices," his most enduring hit to date, and "Fishin' in the Dark," a Nitty Gritty Dirt Band oldie that he makes sound... young.
Here's some good news, if you haven't already noticed: Some time during the last year, he dumped his ever-present cowboy hat. If he became as big as he already was while hiding in the relative anonymity of the shadow of that brim, imagine how popular he'll become now that the public is actually able to see his fresh-faced charisma.
After his performance, we sat Young down to talk about all three of the songs he did in the Yahoo! studio, as well as get some fresh details on the just-released Neon album.
YAHOO!: You've been singing "Tomorrow" for a while now, but I just saw you there in the control room, going over takes and trying to figure out how you could nail it. It must be a pretty challenging song to sing.
YOUNG: You know, I laughed with my producer, James Stroud. I was halfway through recording this album and I was like, "James, I messed up." He was like, what? I said, "Dude, I made everything insanely hard to sing on this record!" But I like challenging myself as a singer. I want people to know that what drew me to music first was singing. I like to sing. There's some people that are more songwriter, more guitar player, or other things that were their first love in music. And singing was mine. I love writing, I love playing guitar -- but at the end of the day, if I had to pick one, it's being a singer. So that is the long answer to get back to: Yes, I made "Tomorrow" insanely hard to sing! At least for where it sits in my voice. But I think that's one of the reasons why the song comes off so powerfully: Because it uses a lot of my vocal range.
YAHOO!: Did you know "Tomorrow" was The One off this album when you cut it?
YOUNG: When we wrote this song, we were going "Man, this is a first single." And everybody says that -- and of course it always ends up being an album cut. Every time I write, I've got my iPhone with me and I save the recording into that and then mail it to myself so that I have a copy of everything and it's actually in order. Otherwise, as ADD as I am, I'd lose everything. I always get up the next day and listen to it first thing to go "Hey, is this is as good as we thought it was? Not as good? Is it just amazing?" And I woke up up and called my co-writers and said "Dude, this is gonna be my first single off the next record." It was just one of those really weird things where everybody at the label, too, was like "Absolutely, first single." I was "Really? No one's gonna argue?" They loved it, and radio loved it. With it being kind of a power ballad-type song, a slow song, you never know if you're gonna get push-back from that. But it's the fastest climbing thing I've ever had. It's pretty unreal.
YAHOO!: I'm betting you've had those kind of oil and water relationships you describe in "Tomorrow."
YOUNG: I think everybody has had that relationship. I definitely have. But you know, everybody else has different ways that those end. One of the reasons that I love about the song is that it never really ends. It' s almost cyclical, how it repeats the beginning. Did he leave? Did she leave? Do they stay? Are they together? You have no idea where it goes from that song. It's one of the things that I like, because as a songwriter, you're always trying to write something that everybody can go "Oh my God, I've been there." So it really left it open. I've had a lot of people with completely different stories come up and tell me why they love this song and why it connects with 'em.
YAHOO!: It is very musically cyclical, even between verse and chorus, the way one line feeds into another.
YOUNG: Yes. I'll tell you what's so weird, too, is when we wrote it, we were going, "Man, are we singing 'tomorrow' too much?" Evidently, we are not! [Laughs] But that's one of those things where you almost try to overthink when you're sitting there writing a song.
YAHOO!: Why did you choose "Fishin' in the Dark" -- which was a No. 1 hit for the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band in 1987 -- as your cover song for this session?
YOUNG: That was a song that I don't care who you are, you probably heard it and you can probably sing along with it. It's a really good melody, simple, and works really well live. When I would hear it as a kid, I would reach up and turn the song up. It doesn't matter how many times I've heard it. All kinds of people have covered it. Andw e started doing it at our show about a year ago. It's one of those that we have in our hip pocket in case we ever need a cover.
YAHOO!: Do you have any other covers in your usual live set?
YOUNG: We usually rotate 'em in and out. We actually just started doing "When You Say Nothing at All" again, because I'm a huge Keith Whitley fan. So what's funny is now I'll find that I'll play that and people wil lcome up and be like, "No, that's an Alison Krauss song." I'm like, "Well, she did it, too, yeah, but Keith Whitley did it." And they're like, "No no, that's an Alison Krauss song!" I'm like, "Well, did you like it? "Absolutely!" I'm like, "There you go! Good." We'll also do "Sharp Dressed Man" every now and then just to do something a little different.
YAHOO!: The other song you did for us is "Voices." No performer wants to be identified with just one song, but if you have a signature song right now, that's probably it. In a lot of singers' cases, their first No. 1 single might be their signature song, which was "Gettin' You Home" for you, and "Voices" was your third No. 1. But the spot it occupies in your career -- having come up at two different points, first as a flop, then as a smash -- might make it the most special.
YOUNG: Yeah, I think it is. I remember having my first No. 1... [He pauses and thinks about what he's saying, then laughs.] I don't think I've ever said that before. That's awesome! Sorry. I remember both No. 37s before the No. 1s, so the first No. 1 is exciting.
If you look at everything that happened in my career, being that I did come from TV (Nashville Star) to get my record deal, and then the first record actually didn't really do much, and then we had two singles tank at radio -- usually right there it doesn't matter who you are, you're gone off of the label. And I think it was real lucky that I was at a label that I loved the history of and they ended up loving me and believing in my music, to get a second album. And then they put me on another radio tour, and "Voices" was the first song, and it went to 37 and died! So usually, again, they should have let me go then, and they were like "No, we're gonna give it one more shot." And then we had that first No. 1 (with "Gettin' You Home"). And I don't know if anything will equal that feeling of all that time, and that was the first No. 1 for RCA in like seven years.
But from the other aspect of it, one of the reasons "Voices" was so important is it broke a record that had been there for 25 years (for longest time elapsed between a song's initial release and it reaching the top). It was the first time since Randy Travis re-released "On the Other Hand" and had a No. 1 with it that that had been done. And it was just such a groundswell thing, from not only fans but everybody in radio, and everybody in music period that I ran into. Everybody was almost as excited as I was for it to happen. It was so funny. We almost did not get that No. 1. It was one of those things that we were at 3, Keith Urban was at 2, and he shipped a new song, so radio stations bailed on that and started playing the new one, and that enabled us to get around him and get into No. 1. I was like, "Thank you!" I need to hug Keith Urban the next time I see him. It really was I think the reason that that song is kind of what people identify me with: Really, it seems like it's been around my whole career, almost. But it's just cool that that song put my name in the record books next to Randy Travis, who's somebody else that I grew up on. It's awesome being able to say that.
YAHOO!: The story behind how your label finally broke "Voices" is really fascinating.
YOUNG: I honestly don't know if it'll ever happen again. It's weird that it even happened with me. Because I'll tell you what: I wrote the song, and I love the song, but I was like, "I don't know if that's the right idea! Can we go with something new?" And my head of promo, Keith Gale, who is New Jersey to the core and doesn't really take no for an answer, it was his idea. And he went to Joe Galante, who was the head of the company, and said "I'll put money on it. I want this, and we can get it."And to his credit, the staff at the label went out there and pounded radio. And I think radio really embraced it. It's been cool for the fans, too, because a lot of people told me "We hated that that song didn't make it." And then when I told people we were gonna put it back out, they were all about it.
YAHOO!: And "Voices" is the song you end your live show with now.
YOUNG: It is. I realized that I was getting more reaction for "Voices" than I was for "Gettin' You Home," because I was closing with "Gettin' You Home" and that was an older song now. And when I swapped it, it was funny -- when I put "Voices" at the end and put "Gettin' You Home" closer to the beginning, people started responding to "Gettin' You Home" like it was brand new again. It's funny how such a little change in your set will do that.
YAHOO!: How the chemistry of a set changes because of the song sequence is an interesting science.
YOUNG: Like I said, we've been putting different covers in, and the other day I put "When You Say Nothing at All" in in place of some (up-)tempo that we had in there, and it actually made the set work better, because there was another ballad. It was really strange. But I think that's one thing that constantly evolves. Your set never stays the same. I look at people like George Strait and Alan Jackson and even Chesney and Brad Paisley -- they don't even play some of their hits. They skip stuff to get through a show, which just blows my mind. I can't wait to be there!
YAHOO!: Anything you'd want people to know about the new album, beyond the single?
YOUNG: If people have heard "Tomorrow," they've got a pretty good idea of what I think the bar was for my record. There's a lot of (varied) stuff on here. The title song, "Neon," is probably the countriest thing I've ever done. George Strait could have cut this, easy. And then the last song on the record is a song that's just keys and an 11-piece string section. There's an up-tempo song on there called "Save Water, Drink Beer," so it's not all taking itself too seriously. But at the same time I really wanted to make a great country record. And I think we did. I'm pretty fired up about it.