“He kinda played wherever they’d let him play, just like me,” Chris Young said. “He instilled a love for country music history in me—he was the reason that I knew all of the Gunfighter Ballads by Marty Robbins, you know? The first 45 and 78 records that I ever heard were in his house.”
For Young, the influence of his grandfather—country musician Richard Yates, whose career highlights include an appearance on the mid-20th century Grand Ole Opry competitor, the Louisiana Hayride—was paramount. Growing up an hour outside of Nashville in Rutherford County, by the time Young was old enough to listen to music, his grandpa was indoctrinating him in the country tradition.
“He had this music room in his house with upright pianos and a bunch of different guitars—he still has that room, actually,” Young said. “It’s so random too, but for whatever reason, he collects a bunch of pigs. Like, stuffed pigs, porcelain pigs, salt and pepper shaker pigs, big pigs, small pigs… he has them all up against a wall and beneath them, he has his record player and all his records. We would listen to Marty and Lefty Frizzell and all of those old classics, which is how I got into all of that. So, growing up watching my grandpa play this music is a big reason why I’m such a huge fan of country music history… it’s a big reason why I am who I am.”
These days, Young is no longer just a fan of country music history. Now, he’s making it. Since first hitting the scene in 2006—after winning a season of Nashville Star, a country-themed American Idol-type show—he’s put out a handful of platinum-selling albums and a plethora of beloved singles (many of which have also gone platinum). All of these accomplishments have earned him his place in the Pantheon of modern country icons.
But even though he’s occupied a space on the “mainstage” for a decade and a half now, 2021 is proving to be one of the most exciting years to date for Young—in August, he put out his eighth studio album, Famous Friends. Featuring a number of his literal famous friends, a moving tribute to his metaphorically “famous” friends (in the form of the title track, which grew into a No. 1 country single), and a slew of hard-hitting tunes showing off the world-class talent of his team, the record is a triumph for the now-36-year-old artist. Years in the making—with one of them being 2020, no less—it offers a comprehensive look into what Young is all about.
Fittingly enough, the record opens with the aptly-named track, “Raised On Country,” which not only honors the legacy of his grandpa but speaks to the life-defining tradition of country music as a whole. “Corey Crowder, Cary Barlowe, and I were on the bus, just trying to hone in on the music that made me,” Young said about the song. “The people I name drop were obviously very important to me growing up; as an artist, as a writer, as a listener, and as someone who was just a huge fan of great songs. I mean, everybody that I name throughout there has songs on my ‘Top 10’ list. So, it was really fun to honor that and kick off the album that way.”
Written before the pandemic hit, “Raised On Country”—as well as Famous Friends as a whole—took on a new dynamic once things started to shut down. One of the main names featured in the hook is Joe Diffie, the legendary honky-tonkin’ songwriter who passed away from COVID-related complications last March. While the song is old enough that Diffie got to give Young his blessing (it first dropped in 2019), the world has certainly changed a lot since Famous Friends first started to come together as a project, and the losses from that time weigh heavy on the music community’s soul.
But in a lot of ways, the growth these songs underwent in that period of turbulence and change endowed them with a timeless quality. In talking about things like community, friendship, and love, the classic hallmarks of country music become something even more profound and touching within the wider context.
“It was bad… that’s pretty much the only thing we can say about it,” Young said. “It was a really hard time for a lot of people. I think music was one of the only sources of solace during that time—it was one of the only things we could do. For me, I was really glad I had built out my studio because I couldn’t be around anyone else… but even that was strange. The only thing I knew I could do was just continue to work on this project. But, I don’t think the record would’ve been the same without the extra time I spent on it. That’s really the one blessing in disguise to come out of this whole past year.”
While he may not have fully realized it at the time, working on Famous Friends not only gave him an important outlet as an artist but gave him a place to process life itself. Clad with radio-ready, country-pop hits, the record also has numerous moments of soul-baring truth-telling, which are arguably some of the finest cuts in Young’s entire canon.
“Yeah, it was grounding,” he said. “If you look at this record, there are a lot of tracks that are a little more personal, like ‘Drowning.’ I wrote that about a friend of mine who passed away unexpectedly in a car accident. It’s from before the pandemic, but it means even more after seeing the response it got as a single throughout 2020. People listened to that song and reached out to say ‘Thank you for this song’ or ‘This song meant the world to me,’ people who lost dads or uncles or loved ones. I saw that people were relating to it… and, I mean, as a writer, that’s always what you want. ‘Drowning’ was a very sad song with a very serious subject, but it had the potential to mean the world to somebody. That’s one of the things I love about country music: there are no limits on what we’re allowed to put out. It can be a party song, it can be a song about falling in love, it can be a song about losing somebody or it can be a song about your friends—there’s nothing off-limits.”
It’s true—throughout Famous Friends, Young and his co-writers play with all sorts of angles and themes drawn from the human experience. Another highlight is the aforementioned title track—that’s the one “about your friends.” Paying homage to the everyday folks who make the extraordinary magic of life happen in local communities, the tune is equal parts catchy and uplifting. “That’s a meaningful song to me for a couple of reasons,” Young said. “One, it specifically calls out the people who made me who I am—the friends I grew up with, the folks most people wouldn’t know. It’s about your teachers and firefighters and friends, all the people who you grew up around. They might not be famous to everybody else, but they were famous to you, they’re famous when you got back to your hometown. I think that’s something that’s real for everybody. I think that’s one of the reasons so many folks got drawn into that cut, even Kane.”
Alluding to Kane Brown—another modern country icon, who’s featured on the track “Famous Friends”—Young is always sure to note how much of a team effort the record-making process is. Joined by Lauren Alaina and Mitchell Tenpenny for additional duets, Sarah Buxton, Hillary Lindsey, and Shay Mooney provided backing harmonies, and Josh Hoge, Mark Holman, Matthew McGinn, and more provided writing help. All in all, there was a small army of close-knit artists working on operation Famous Friends.
“The longer I make music, the more I completely abandon the thought of going into anything saying, ‘Well, I need this,’” Young explained. “Instead, it’s ‘What’s the best idea we have? Let’s write the best song we can.’ Like, if we end up writing eight ballads in eight straight days, that’s cool, so long as they’re great. The more I step into that headspace on records, the more I find that I don’t have a ‘missing piece.’ It’s really cool.”
Perhaps as a testament to the urgency of music in its finest form, the multi-year story of Famous Friends is decorated with episodes where brilliance struck against all odds. In a way, the fact the record exists at all is a prime example of that, considering the pandemic-induced setbacks. But even on a smaller level, amazing songs came out of less-than-amazing circumstances. “At the End of a Bar,” the duet with Tenpenny, is a great case study—sometimes, you convince yourself to do something you don’t want to do with the justification of “Well, what if something once-in-a-lifetime comes out of it?” That might not always work in terms of being an uber-strong motivational tool, but it was definitely the question that inspired Young and his co-writers to meet for a session this past February.
“Me, Mitchell Tenpenny, and Chris DeStefano had this date on our calendar, but it had completely iced-over in Nashville,” Young said. “I’ve tried to explain it to people who aren’t from here, but Nashville is not prepared for that at all. It happens, like once every three or four years and it shuts down the whole city for a couple of days. But this time, by day three, it was more snow than ice and you could get out of your driveway—so, we decided to do the session.”
Once they got in the room, the energy was already at a high. Tossing around ideas and finding leads, it didn’t take long until the trio struck gold. “I’m normally really good about picking things that people say out of a conversation and going, ‘That’s a song title,’” Young said. “Well that day, I was talking to Chris and I was like, ‘The other day, me and Mitchell were sitting at the end of a bar…’ and Mitchell went ‘That’s what we need to write! It all starts at the end of a bar.’ We were like ‘Okay, cool!’ and we wrote the song in about 45 minutes.”
At the end of the day, “At the End of a Bar” and its companions on Famous Friends constitute some of the best music modern country has to offer. Forged out of such a difficult time, it lives up to the important task that country music has always undertaken: being an unwavering source of comfort in the hardest of circumstances. With heartfelt romps, touching tributes, uplifting anthems, and an overall air of homegrown authenticity, Young and his collaborators created something that holds its own in the annals of country music history. For his part, Young’s just overjoyed at the opportunity to continue sharing the gift that his grandfather gave him all those years ago.
“I feel great having this music out,” he concluded. “I feel like I’ve been constantly teasing people about these songs for a year and a half now, so to finally have them out so everyone can listen is a lot of fun. And, I mean, it’s so cool that after the crazy, crazy year that was 2020—which was really more than a single year, since it kinda dragged into the beginning of 2021—this album can come out. I really just feel blessed.”
Photo by Jeff Johnson