It's late morning at Chase Rice's rural Tennessee home, a few minutes south of Nashville, and the area is being battered by one of those Southern storms that feels like something a sailor might weather out at sea. It's an appropriate metaphor for the 31-year-old country singer: for the past three years, Rice was treading water, trying hard not to sink.
"It gets crazy out here," he says as the wind hits the windows, sitting on a brown leather couch in his den in a pair of shorts and a rose-colored T-shirt from the Virgin Islands. The carpeted room, in the large brick home, serves as a reminder of everything the singer has both lost and won: a football jersey on the wall, from his promising career on the field that was sidelined by injury; some framed plaques from Ignite the Night, his first and now last album for Columbia Nashville; a picture of his father, who passed away when Rice was 22. In 2014, when Ignite the Night was released, Rice was as hot of a commodity as they come: the song he co-wrote with Florida Georgia Line, "Cruise," was a massive hit, Ignite debuted atop the charts and a single, "Ready Set Roll," went Platinum. Party songs were king, and he was a knight with a shining keg.
But that was then. As the world began to sour on bro-country, the tide turned sharply for Rice. At his former label, interest and support for his forthcoming work waned, and he eventually cut ties. A set of new singles, "Whisper" and "Everybody We Know Does," failed. And bro-country – as tired of a term as it has become – had been replaced by the more meaty work of Sturgill Simpson and Chris Stapleton. Even Luke Bryan and Florida Georgia Line were stripping things down, focusing less on tailgates and trucks and more on mature material. Ignite the Night was heavy on the parties (beer and booty shorts trumped any lyrical deep thoughts), but Rice had more to offer, and as myopic as bro-country was, its artists were given little allowances to grow past those extended college years.
"It's been hell," says Rice. "I'm still blessed, but when you know what you can do and you're not able to do it, it feels like a slap in the face. I felt like people were holding me back from the music I could create. That's no way to live, and it's weighed me down for a long time. This is actually the first time I have talked about it. My mom will call and I'll say, 'Mom, I don't want to talk about it. Life sucks right now. Let's talk about you.'"
Today Rice is finally ready to open up, even detailing the failure of "Whisper," a song that includes some aggressively sexual lines like "what if I shut you up with my lips on your lips," that was admittedly a little tone-deaf. Rice easily shoulders much of the blame, but he also admits he could have used a little more guidance from a label that already seemed pretty checked-out. "They should have said, 'Wrong time, wrong song,'" he says.
The final straw came when Rice was out golfing with an executive and tried to talk about his next record, only to get dismissive "hmms" in return. "He wouldn't look at me," Rice says, his face serious and fists tense. "I was like, 'What the fuck?'" He went home and called his team. "I said, 'Get me out of this deal. I either want to not do music again or get out of this deal.' I don't think it was 10 days later I was out."
'There will always be people saying, 'You're ruining country.' And there were songs [on Ignite the Night] where I'm like, 'You're kind of right.'"
Rice was free, but he didn't exactly have freedom. He was depressed from time to time, drinking a little too much, wondering if he'd ever make music again. His live shows, where fans still screamed along to every word, would be enough of a rush to sustain him for a while, before the heaviness would hit again. He cues up a video on his iPhone of the crowd from a gig in Texas, where the fans shouted the lyrics to his song "Carolina Can." If it weren't for little shots of adrenaline like that, he might have thrown in the towel.
But a few weeks ago, things changed. The Broken Bow Records imprint, home of Jason Aldean and Dustin Lynch, signed Rice to a deal, and Lambs and Lions – the album he's been working on for years – will finally see the light of day. For the first time in what felt like forever, Rice has started to feel like himself again, recognizing the guy who stares back at him in the mirror. "Broken Bow came into my life at an unbelievably perfect time," he says.
Their unofficial motto for the working relationship? "Let's fucking go."
With production from Chris DeStefano, Mac MacAnally and, perhaps unexpectedly, Jacquire King (Kings of Leon, Cold War Kids, Robert Ellis), the album doesn't find Rice ditching everything he knows to make a throwback LP ("There ain't much pedal steel, but that ain't me," he says). But it is a chance for him to move past bro-dom, experiment with new sounds and textures, and discuss much more than just the party. It's about finding faith in relationships and learning how to persevere when things get a little tough, and is also an emotional dip into the world of an artist who, like many of his peers, was dismissed before he could reach a lot deeper.
The title track to Lambs and Lions is Rice's ode to balancing those opposing sides – but it's not, by any stretch of the imagination, trying to play it safe. Rather, it sounds like the work of someone who's spent ample time studying the dramatic wiles of Metallica: there are strings, horns and a chanting children's choir. Haunting, disarming, thought provoking and a little weird, it's not for everyone – and, at this point in Rice's life, he's fine with that.
Rice calls the song "the backbone of the record," while a much softer track about his father, "Amen," is the heart. It's an emotional ballad that he has difficulty discussing without his eyes welling over with tears. Rice's vocals are tender and stronger than they've ever been, and on "Saved Me," they're more unfiltered. These days, he's making a conscious effort to let his natural capabilities come through, resting confidently on the warm, round edges of his North Carolina twang. "I kept asking, in the beginning, 'Why the hell is there so much tuning?' I can sing, so let me sing,'" he says of his more polished earlier work.
"Chase's songs are fun and tell real stories about who he is, which I admire," says King. "He is also not afraid to mix genres and wants to explore and to grow as an artist. On top of all that, personally I've enjoyed hanging out with Chase. Since the first day I went over to his house to hang out and talk about music, there's an authenticity I was immediately drawn to."
In modern country and Americana, "authenticity" has come to mean a very specific thing – not the act of being innately true to oneself, but to a cadre of rules. Honesty, however, isn't about having a beard and trying to be an outlaw, or throwing in some fiddle for posterity, or growing up in the right town or right state. It's about serving the music, first or foremost. Rice will share that he wasn't being entirely authentic on Ignite the Night, but his new songs are finally true, as he defines it, to his own unique perspective.
"There will always be people saying, 'You're not country, you're ruining country.' And there were songs [on Ignite the Night] where I'm like, 'You're kind of right,'" he says. "I'm very proud of it, but I didn't have a clue what I was doing on that record. I was just throwing a bunch of stuff on a wall and seeing what stuck. There is some stuff on there that is the same old shit and I'm tired of that. They're finally going to see the me I want them to see."
For Rice, that's a person who is both vulnerable and strong; a lion who is not ashamed of the lamb within. It's summed up pretty succinctly in the one song on the album that Rice didn't write: a cover of Chris LeDoux's "This Cowboy's Hat," sung with LeDoux's son Ned. It's an ode to settling differences and realizing that, whether you ride a horse or a motorcycle, we're all speeding along under the same sky. The ominous instrumentals on LeDoux's original version even help put the ambitious "Lambs and Lions" into smart context.
In the end, Rice may still be known more for a backwards ball cap, but he's no longer worried about whether or not he should be wearing a Stetson instead. He's just ready to fucking go.