|Murfreesboro's Chris Young soars to success, to no surprise of hometown|
Chris Young’s string of successes marks him as a major player in country music’s new world order.
He’s notched a Grammy nomination and three straight No. 1 hits, with current single “Tomorrow” in the top 10 and climbing. Sophomore album The Man I Want to Be has sold nearly 500,000 copies, with new album Neon slated for a July release. And tonight Young — who first played a side stage at what was then called Fan Fair when he was 16 — is set to take the CMA Music Festival’s main stage at LP Field, a slot that isn’t offered to should-be’s or gonna-be’s.
But in his hometown of Murfreesboro, the “Chris Young Becomes a Country Star” story was predictable.
“I’ve never had anybody in Murfreesboro not supporting me in what I was doing,” says Young, who spent his ’Boro childhood sharing the local “can’t miss kid” tag with baseball ace David Price, who now stars for the Tampa Bay Rays. “That’s a big deal. You want people from your hometown to go, ‘Yeah, we love that guy.’ I don’t want to do anything to screw that up.”
A polite, serious, charismatic fellow with a sturdy, rangy baritone, Young seems impervious to self-sabotage. But, though the soda
sippers at Young’s favorite Sonic on Memorial Drive may not have realized it, his rise from precocious teen to star status was hardly assured. Two years ago, even, the whole thing was in peril.
“He had his doubts, but I never did,” says childhood best friend Meagan McManus, who usually joined Young on the Oakland High School honor roll. “Everybody knew he would make it, it was just a matter of when.”
Of course. The popular perception is that the cream rises, that talent prevails. And in 2011, on the eve of his 26th birthday, Young is a popular reality, and one of a few contemporary country solo stars to emerge from Middle Tennessee (most of the others are the sons or daughters of famous country singers: think Hank Williams Jr., Pam Tillis or Carlene Carter).
All true, and all impressive, though no more so than Young’s ability to weather a succession of career storms that could have cost him a record deal in 2009.
“For me, the most impressive thing was watching him deal with adversity,” says Ben Vaughn, executive vice president and general manager of EMI Publishing, and a longtime Young
supporter. “Things didn’t go the way everyone had hoped for him out of the gate. But he’s always rolled his sleeves up, always worked, and he became a stronger artist because of it.”
Lack of hits
After winning the televised Nashville Star competition and gaining an RCA Records deal with that win, Young had issued three failed singles over 2½ years, with last-chance single “Gettin’ You Home” fluttering in the country charts’ lower reaches.
“If you go that long without having a hit really take off, you’re in trouble,” says Young, riding through Murfreesboro and discussing his career’s most harrowing moment. “It was never said by anyone at the record label, but it was understood.”
What was understood was that Young’s dream was in peril: One more radio dud and he would likely be dropped from RCA, something he discussed with producer James Stroud.
“Hey, he was scared. We were all scared,” Stroud says. “The single nearly fell off the country chart and died twice. Chris would come to me and I’d say ‘Bump in the road, it’s going to be OK. The music will work itself out.’ ”
Stroud, a family friend who had produced major hits for Clint Black, John Anderson, Toby Keith and many others, tried to believe his own words of comfort. Turned out he was right. Driving home one night in 2009, he got an email from RCA vice president of promotions Keith Gale, saying, “We’re over the hump. This is going to work.”
“I was reading the email on my Blackberry, and as I was reading it, ‘Gettin’ You Home’ came on the radio,” Stroud says. “I pulled over and wept.”
Stroud is a 40-year veteran of the music industry and not typically the kind of guy who gets emotional when discussing chart positioning. But Young was, and is, a special case for him, and he was as much counselor as producer to Young during the months leading to the rise of “Gettin’ You Home.” (The song ultimately went No. 1 in October 2009, eight months after its radio debut.)
He recognized Young not just as a budding artist with a convincing voice, but also as the kid who spent his teen years playing cover songs at Middle Tennessee festivals, who ditched a promising collegiate academic career to take honky-tonk gigs in Texas, and who spent his high school senior year spring break playing acoustic shows in Florida, trying to gain an audience.
“I did a run of Borders bookstores down there, and one time I showed up and there were three people there: Two playing chess, one reading,” Young says. “They wanted no part of me playing. I was supposed to play 45 minutes. I got through, like, 29 minutes and said, ‘This is going to be my last song.’ That was the first time
they clapped. That really wasn’t long ago.”
Young recalled those days on a smiling walk through the halls of his alma mater, Oakland High School. Teachers who less than a decade ago were authority figures now asked for autographs and commented on how Young has represented Murfreesboro with class. One who didn’t seek a signature was his favorite teacher, Nancy Jackson, who taught Young’s senior English class and who is best friend McManus’ grandmother. Even with the personal tie, Jackson didn’t give Young any slack during classes.
“She’s the only teacher who ever pushed me out of a chair,” Young says. “I fell asleep in class and she kind of nudged me and I went right to the floor.”
The dozing off was understandable given the hours Young put into school and into extracurricular projects. He was in choir and drama productions, a member of the Grammy Jazz Choir (which earned him time away from school to perform at the Grammy Awards in 2003), and he was a Presidential Scholar in the Arts (more time away, to perform at the Kennedy Center and to get a medal from President George W. Bush).
Jackson fostered Young’s love of novels and poetry, and he still reads constantly, but academic aspirations took an ultimate backseat to country music. His parents understood that and supported him in a decision to nix college in favor of moving to Texas to play in clubs. (His stepfather, whom Young refers to as “my dad,” loaned him $1,000 of hard-to-come by seed money to make the move.) Young stuffed his possessions into plastic trash bags, piled those onto his 1996 Ford pickup and headed off without regret.
After Texas came Nashville Star, which required Young to move to Nashville and stay at Opryland for three months. With McManus and other ’Boro friends, fans and family in the audience, he won the competition, and then had only a few weeks to record his major label debut. The album was quite good for a rush job, but it didn’t do much to set Young apart from the competition.
But with Stroud in the producer’s chair, sophomore album The Man I Want to Be offered a more organic sound that was a better fit for Young’s voice. “Gettin’ You Home” washed away any initial resistance from radio programmers, and Young followed that with the top-charting title track and with No. 1 hit “Voices.” Current single “Tomorrow,” the first from Neon (out July 12), is extending his momentum.
“This right here is what I’ve always wanted,” he says, riding back into Nashville. “I’m here, and I want to stay here.”
All indications are that he will, and that his presence will reflect nicely on some folks who live 34 miles south of Nashville, who have long thought that “here” was where he belonged.