Chris Janson on Being Country Music’s ‘Most Open Redneck’
Truth be told, Chris Janson isn’t really a boat guy.
“I love the seek and chase of finding cars and motorcycles online,” Janson tells Rolling Stone Country over lunch at one of his favorite Nashville steakhouses, alongside his wife and manager, Kelly. He’s here so often that he has his order – medium filet, nothing on it; plain cheesecake to go; and a bottle of Coke – on reflex. “Boats? Not so much.”
It could seem a little surprising that the singer who rose to fame – and the top of the country charts – with a song called “Buy Me a Boat” would rather be on wheels, but Janson’s full of contradictions. And nowhere is this more apparent than on his new LP, Everybody, and in his hobbies, which are not at all limited to just his penchant for browsing on Craigslist and eBay for various vehicles, a skill he claims he is strangely good at.
“I love chiropractic,” he says, siting in a booth in his “work clothes,” i.e., a tight black shirt, tighter black jeans and boots. “I like to watch it on YouTube – this Houston chiropractor Gregory Johnson. I like gem stone therapy, anything to align the body. I like pranic healing. I’ve been getting into shamanic healing, which is a Peruvian thing and really cool. I’m the most open redneck you’ll ever meet.”
Those multiple sides – from eccentric crystal nerd to dedicated father and husband to shit-kicking, truck-riding Southerner who funnels his fury into his harmonica – is at the center of Everybody, Janson’s second LP. The idea was to write a song for everyone, but there are a lot of Jansons to cover too: he’s a hunter, but he also knows what sushi places in town have ponzu sauce (there’s one in the Brentwood area), and he goes straight to Katsuya or Nobu when he’s in Los Angeles or New York. He’s a Christian, but will happily watch shamans on YouTube in the middle of the night. And he’s not a boat guy – actually, he’s not even really a t-shirt guy, when it comes to life offstage.
“Off work, it’s khakis, a button-down and Cole Haan slippers,” he says. In fact, he’s been playing with the idea of writing a book – a style guide for guys, of sorts, on where to find the finest oxford shirts and various other fashion and hobby items. He thinks men don’t share these tidbits with each other nearly enough. “A coffee table kind of thing. Basically my random thoughts on where to find the best men’s boots, shirts, cigars.” Meanwhile, Kelly – who handles the business side of the Janson world – is charged with dialing him back.
“We don’t even have a publisher yet,” she says.
Janson doesn’t seem fazed. “That’s how I write songs, too. I just think ’em, and do ’em.”
It’s not untrue. Janson has become one of country’s strangest anomalies, after “Buy Me a Boat” exploded his career in 2015, before he even had a record deal. Nashville’s no haven for the independent artist, especially when it comes to terrestrial radio, but Janson, who’d long been writing for artists like Tim McGraw and logging hours at Tootsie’s honky-tonk and the Grand Ole Opry, broke the mold with an aspirational, swampy single about fantasizing over the good life. Thanks to some steady airplay from country DJ Bobby Bones, the song went to Number One on the Mediabase chart.
What’s kept Janson in the spotlight, however, isn’t that one song. It’s a reputation as one of the genre’s most energetic live performers, a characteristic which, once again, seems to run a strange parallel from how he is over lunch: calm, serious, with little variation to his tone.
“I am not the same person on the street as I am onstage,” he says. Offstage, he’s a mild-mannered father and husband, who’s been known to leave his phone at home to go on long solo rides in his Jeep. Onstage, it’s a different story. He shimmies, he shakes, he plays the harmonica while his free hand darts around like a lizard tongue; he does more squats and jumps than an aerobics video. He makes Luke Bryan’s hips seem reserved.
“When he gets on that stage, it’s like Jekyll and Hyde, it’s wild and crazy,” says Kelly. “You put him on stage, and it’s, ‘Get back!'”
Nowhere was this more clear than at August’s ACM Honors, where Janson received one of the loudest standing ovations – in a crowd of country legends, including George Strait and Alan Jackson – after performing a tribute to Shel Silverstein, who received the posthumous Poet’s Award. Covering Silverstein’s “A Boy Named Sue” and “Cover of the Rolling Stone,” Janson was raucous and wild, firing off the lyrics to the latter with record speed in his own breed of punk rock scat-country. And the moves: they were like Jagger.
“Music has always been second nature, but for the ACM Honors I practiced my butt off,” he says. “I lived in a pair of headphones and that’s all I listened to. I wanted to make sure I was honoring him in a good light.”
Janson was actually in Colorado, at Red Rocks with Sam Hunt and Maren Morris, the night before the Honors, as part of Hunt’s 15 in a 30 Tour, and he and Kelly flew home on such a tight schedule that they couldn’t even get the crews home in time – they were up at 6 a.m. with the kids (two young; two older from Kelly’s previous marriage), at the Ryman for rehearsal at 8 a.m., and then rushed straight from there after the Silverstein tribute to open for Brett Eldredge at a radio-station festival down the street, running on stage while his band was already vamping and waiting. It’s that sort of energy that’s seen him grace the Grand Ole Opry stage more than 150 times since his debut just four years ago, constantly squeezed in between tour dates.
“I feel like I was born to do this,” he says. “I’m not that good at anything else. I believe that you should try to be a master craftsman at whatever you are doing, but other than music I am pretty subpar. I’m a great husband and a great father, and I can plant the corn – but I can’t fix the tractor.”
Like how the acoustic, unfettered simplicity of “Holdin’ Her,” from his debut Buy Me a Boat, was a sharp contrast to the joviality of the title track, the songs (all co-written by Janson) on Everybody strive to show diversity within that craft. He’s a hard-rocking hillbilly on “Who’s Your Farmer,” a tender parent on the ballad “Bein’ a Dad,” and a makeshift bartender on “Fix a Drink,” now at Number Eight on Billboard‘s Country Airplay chart. “Everybody,” the first song written for the LP, actually came in reaction to Janson watching Keeping Up With the Kardashians – a family who can, and probably do, buy themselves a lot of boats.
“”I couldn’t believe it, I was speechless,” he says. “I had never truly sat down and watched anything like that. And I’d just heard some younger kids, when I asked what they want to be when they grew up, say, ‘I want to be famous.’ So it’s just an informational piece.” “Everybody wanna get rich, but nobody wants to work,” he sings, in a wink to the opening line of the song that made him a star (“I ain’t rich, but I damn sure wanna be,” begins “Buy Me a Boat”). He may seem serious, but he’s in on the joke, too.
“My greatest hero in my life is [my wife]. My hero is a woman.”
The album’s closing track, the piano ballad “Drunk Girl,” was also written in reaction to what Janson saw in the media: specifically stories like the Vanderbilt University rape case, in which four college students were accused of sexually assaulting a fellow female student in 2013. It’s extremely difficult territory to approach in any format, and “Drunk Girl” is not perfect – as a song, it can be interpreted as giving the man credit for not taking advantage of a woman who was too intoxicated to say no. “Take a drunk girl home / Let her sleep all alone / Leave her keys on the counter, your number by her phone,” he sings.
“We didn’t write it from that perspective at all,” he says, looking surprised. “If anyone ever takes it that way, that’s their opinion. But I love that song and I take it very personally.” Imperfections aside, it is notable to see a mainstream country star taking a look at agency, and openly wondering what choices the men in his own audience might make when the show is over. Janson’s concerned about the flipside of moments like “Fix a Drink,” when the party atmosphere he creates leaves a sea of intoxicated kids just looking for their next thrill.
“It’s teaching the younger generation of men that this is probably the better way to treat a girl,” he says. “Instead of ‘let’s get drunk and hook up.’ It’s written from a man’s perspective, and from a father’s perspective. If my daughters were in that situation, I hope someone would treat them with that respect. Coming from a guy like me, the reason I get so passionate is because my greatest hero in my life is [my wife]. My hero is a woman. So it’s ripping a page out of a newspaper and saying, ‘This could be different.'” Janson takes a bite of the cheesecake that was supposed to be to-go, and stops to say hello to Storme Warren, the Nashville media personality and a DJ on Sirius XM’s The Highway, who just hosted the memorial service for country singer Troy Gentry a few days ago.
Janson’s usually a happy guy, but he’s been thinking about Gentry, who died in a helicopter crash in September, a lot. “Troy Gentry’s passing affected me in a weird way,” he says. “I’ve always looked at death as death, and life as life, but last night I stayed up till three in the morning and watched Montgomery Gentry YouTube videos. I was having a pretty shitty day last week and then that happened, and it was just, this is not about this at all. It’s about, ‘I didn’t die today.’ It was kind of a life-defining moment for me.”
Kelly looks over at her husband. “He’s just an emotional guy,” she says. “He might break down in the middle of a song.” Or he might jump off an amp during “Fix a Drink” and then spend his aftershow soothing himself to sleep with some gemstone therapy, ignoring his calls the next day and running through the grass with his kids. If all goes according to plan, he’ll never have to be any one thing.
“I want to be as normal as I can be,” he says, “but as eccentric and weird as I can be, too.”
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