Chris Young recently had the joy of seeing his second album for RCA, The Man I Want to Be, debut as Billboard's highest-charting new country CD of the week. That same week, "Gettin' You Home" (aka "The Black Dress Song"), his current single from the album, landed in the Top 10, and the single's momentum is still strong.
Although he's long been a familiar face around Nashville, Young didn't gain national attention until he won the Nashville Star contest in 2006. With that victory came his contract with RCA. The label released his self-titled album also in 2006.
James Stroud produced The Man I Want to Be under the firm charge that he emphasize Young's traditional country edge and bring out the lower registers of his voice. This he has done. Young's approach and sound are both reminiscent -- but not imitative -- of Keith Whitley's best work.
The 10 songs, three of which Young co-wrote, hew for the most part to such standard country themes as the virtues of rough, simple living ("That Makes Me"), respect for one's elders ("Voices," "The Shoebox"), shouldering responsibility ("It Takes a Man") and praying one's way out of emotional holes ("The Man I Want to Be)."
Young essays two cover tunes: "Rose in Paradise" (Waylon Jennings' 1987 hit) and "Rainy Night in Georgia" (the Tony Joe White composition that Brook Benton turned into a pop classic in 1970). Willie Nelson duets with Young on "Rose in Paradise."
Young grew up in Murfreesboro, Tenn., just a short drive from Nashville.
"One of the earliest concerts I remember seeing that really made an impact on me," he says, "was Vince Gill playing at [the now defunct] Starwood [Amphitheater]. He did one song where he just told his band to lay off. He stepped up -- him and his guitar -- and just destroyed whatever he was singing. I remember sitting there in the audience as a kid going, 'I want to do that.'"
Young's grandfather made a big impact, too.
"He kind of grew me up listening to Marty Robbins and Lefty Frizzell," he says. "Then I found Keith Whitley, Randy Travis and guys like that on my own.
"Living so close to Nashville, it was really easy for me to meet guys who were in the country music profession and watch them go through their careers, whether it be songwriters or musicians or singers. I got to go to the [Grand Ole] Opry several times when I was a little kid -- a lot of stuff like that that most people don't have access to."
Since his star began rising, Young has appeared on the Opry 40 times, the first with his enthusiastic grandfather in tow. "It sounds horribly morbid when I talk about it," he says. "But my grandfather would always say, 'Before I die, I want to see you play on the Opry.'
"I actually got to take him the first night I played the Opry. He brought his guitar, and we sat backstage and played Marty Robbins songs together, and he got to go stand on the side of the stage and watch me play. I went back to my dressing room. At some point, it was just me and my granddad sitting there. It got kind of quiet, and he leaned over, and he goes, 'Before I die, I want to see you become a member of the Grand Ole Opry.' And I was like, 'No! You can't do that. We've just got past the other goal. Can you give me 24 hours?'"
Young is happy to report that his grandfather is still alive and eager. So he may yet witness another Opry-oriented milestone.
Having once decided to be a country singer, it didn't take Young long to put his dream into action.
"I started playing pretty heavily in high school with a band I just kind of threw together," he explains. "I don't think we were all that good, but they played for free, and we played as many dates as we could possibly do."
In college, Young says he studied jazz and classical music and music theory. "I just wanted a base going in," he says. "But I never ever wanted to sing anything other than country."
After he finished high school and was readying himself for college, Young paid for and released his first album, A Little at a Time. He soon followed it with his second independent collection, I Wish I Was Lyin'.
"Please, dear God," he moans, "don't try to find a copy. Nobody needs to hear those."
Young continued to do live shows. "All the way through college -- up until I was 20 years old -- I was ... playing about 100 to 150 dates a year wherever I could play."
Singing in downtown Nashville one night, he encountered some people who were connected with Cowboys, a nightclub in Arlington, Texas.
"They said, 'We'd love for you to come down and play in our club,'" he recalls. "At first, I was just a little skeptical, but they said they'd fly me down to audition with the band. I ended up taking a job there, because the club, which used to be a K-mart, is huge. It seats over 3,000 people. There was a seven-piece band there playing with me all the time, and I was doing about half the number of hours I'd normally play in an acoustic show in Nashville. ... I played there for eight or nine months."
Then a friend suggested he audition for Nashville Star. "It was probably one of the best things I've ever done," he concludes, "because it hooked me up with my label."
This year, Young has been headlining many of his own shows, as well as holding down opening chores for the likes of Jason Aldean and Tim McGraw.