When describing their songs — or the third-party songs they've chosen to record — many country stars lean on the word "real." Authenticity is the ballyhooed hallmark of country music, but more often than not, such talk of "realness" can come across as lip service.
Not so with Chris Janson. His new single "Holdin' Her" is a candid recollection of meeting his wife Kelly and how their eventual union changed his hard-living ways. Far from just a love song, "Holdin' Her," off Janson's debut album Buy Me a Boat, doesn't shy away from the things he's done during, what he calls, his "drinking days." The first verse details booze-fueled one-night stands: "I woke up in places / that I couldn't remember / who's lying next to me / or even how I got there."
Although Janson no longer drinks, he's adamant about not glossing over the more regrettable decisions of his life.
"No way, you can't. You can't do that, because that's not real," says Janson, sitting backstage prior to a performance at the Grand Ole Opry, the country music institution he's played now more than 130 times. "I woke up in places I couldn't remember — I think we've all probably been there at one point in our life, no matter who you are."
At the Opry that night, Janson closes his three-song set with "Holdin' Her," the same song he performed when he made his debut in the hallowed circle as a still unknown artist in 2013. He receives a standing ovation, and even a security guard standing near the stage door remarks, "Look at that." Because of the song's bare-bones honesty, and the passionate way in which Janson sells it onstage, "Holdin' Her" has become a fan favorite, and the response it receives nightly rivals that of his breakthrough Number One "Buy Me a Boat."
"It gets a bigger reaction than 'Boat' actually," clarifies Janson, who co-wrote "Holdin' Her" with James Otto. "It's the oldest song on the record, and I've been playing it for a lot of years. People have always gravitated toward it. I think they like the story and it's gaining new fans as it's heard on the radio and since the video came out. It's catching steam on its own."
"Holdin' Her" got its greatest bump when Janson performed it during the New Faces showcase at February's Country Radio Seminar, the annual gathering of radio tastemakers in Nashville. There too, the song received a standing ovation from program directors and deejays — despite its undeniably traditional country arrangement. While "Buy Me a Boat" also featured steel guitar, its up-tempo vibe and Everyman theme fit nicely into country-radio playlists. "Holdin' Her," however, sticks out as both a ballad and for its heartfelt, serious subject matter. Then again, Cam's "Burning House" was no party anthem either and it became a major hit. And, conversely, Janson's follow-up to "Boat," the trite drinking song "Power of Positive Drinkin'," stalled in the Top 30.
Janson says he's bolstered by the reaction "Holdin' Her" received at New Faces and optimistic about the song's chances. "That was a pivotal moment for this song. Playing it live in front of the industry can make or break a song, and either gain some hype or lose some hype, but it was fortunately a good boost of energy for us," he says.
For the video to "Holdin' Her" (watch the clip above and a live Opry performance below), Janson and Kelly furthered the true-to-life nature of the song, returning to the spot in Franklin, Tennessee, where they were engaged, and putting their children on camera. The transformative key line of "Holdin' Her" is Janson preaching about how the birth of his daughter made him "a brand-new man."
Together, the couple has four children, two from Kelly's first marriage. Janson refuses to call them stepchildren and instead heralds them as his "bonus kids."
"There are kids coming to shows with [homemade] 'Bonus Kids' T-shirts on," he says, a sign that his Janson jargon is catching on. "'Holdin Her' has become a lifestyle piece. It's way more than just a song. It's a testament to true love, which is hard to find, and I have that. I married my best friend, I got bonus kids when I got married, and I got two more kids that God blessed us with. The song is the epitome of that."
While the cynical may consider it sappy, Janson's commitment and loyalty to Kelly trumps all else, including his career. When the surprise, independent success of the song "Buy Me a Boat" made him the must-sign act on Music Row, Janson didn't dive headfirst into the storm, but retreated to his wife, who is also his co-manager.
"When 'Buy Me a Boat' hit and everything was falling into place in such a big fast way, I said, 'I will not do this, I will not even jump on this adventure without my wife being the very first one that I rely on.' It's the way it is. It's the way it will always be," he says. The couple tour together, often with their kids in tow. "The music biz is a crazy fast-paced lifestyle and if you don't have your family with you, they won't be with you. You have to trust the one you lay down with at night. She has my absolute best interests at heart. And everyone who has teamed up with us understands that. They have to understand that."
The fans who come to his shows — he'll headline his own Buy Me a Boat Tour this summer — certainly get it.
"Real resonates with people," says Janson, going back to that buzzword. "The truth always wins."