Chris Young had just released the new single “Raised on Country” in January 2019 when he received a text from Joe Diffie. Young, in his drawling Tennessee baritone, name-checks Diffie in the chorus to the genre-referencing song, crediting the “John Deere Green” singer with giving him his “honky-tonk attitude.”
Diffie was texting to thank Young for the gesture of respect and for shining a light on his legacy. A little over a year later, Diffie died from Covid-19. It was a tragic loss not just to country music but to Chris Young’s very being.
He draws a long pause when asked about Diffie’s impact on his career.
“You have to be unguarded if you want to give a good interview, which is a little bit tricky at times,” Young says, pausing again. “As much respect as he got, I don’t think he ever got the amount of respect he deserved. Maybe that’s because he’s one of my favorite artists of all time. When I was 18, 19 years old, there was always a Joe Diffie CD in in my truck or my car. And it’s just sad that we don’t get to hear any more music from him.”
Like Diffie before him, it’s easy to underestimate Young’s own place in today’s country music. He’s not a flashy performer, there are no trampolines or pyro on his stages, and he doesn’t bother with tough-guy posturing. Still, he’s been as consistent as they come.
Young signed his deal with RCA Nashville when he was just 20 years old, the day after he won the TV singing competition Nashville Star. But he was never a reality-show lark. Albums like 2009’s The Man I Want to Be, 2011’s traditional-leaning, underrated Neon, and his career-changing I’m Comin’ Over — which for the first time put him in the producer’s chair opposite Corey Crowder — all hold up as rock-solid, satisfying listens. While some of his singles took time to reveal their charm (the bro-tastic “Aw Naw” was panned upon its release; now it’s an undeniable pleasure, nothing guilty about it), his catalog of weighty ballads and up-tempo anthems has helped him outlast some of his peers and chart 12 Number Ones — more than double that of his heroes Diffie and Keith Whitley.
“You’re an amalgam of all of your successes and your mistakes. So if I changed anything, I wouldn’t be where I’m at right now,” he says. “And I’m really happy with where I’m at.”
Young’s latest Number One came with “Famous Friends,” his collaboration with Kane Brown and the title track of Young’s just-released album. In contrast with “Raised on Country,” which shouts out Diffie, George Strait and Willie Nelson, “Famous Friends” tributes the everyday folks in Young’s orbit. There’s the small-town football player, naturally, but also a guy who became a sheriff and another friend who is now a teacher.
“It’s a call-out song and the tip of the hat to all the people I grew up with. The people who, if not made me who I am, then definitely kept me grounded,” Young says. “There is something that resonates about that song that just feels different.” It helped that Young recorded it with his real-life friend Brown, whom he met and began writing songs with before Brown signed his own deal with RCA Nashville. As such, there’s a genuine rapport on “Famous Friends.”
That easygoing approach to collaborating has been a boon to Young’s career. One of his biggest hits was “Think of You” with Cassadee Pope, and he’s recorded duets with legends like Willie Nelson and Vince Gill. His next single is yet another collab, the surprisingly introspective “At the End of a Bar” with Mitchell Tenpenny.
“I got the question when we started talking about [releasing] this song of ‘Are you cool with doing two duets back-to-back?’” Young says. “And I said, ‘Are the songs good? Then I don’t care.’”
If duets as radio singles become a Chris Young hallmark, he’s OK with that. The 36-year-old is a history buff when it comes to his genre and he loves to dissect the changes he’s witnessed since he left Murfreesboro, Tennessee, for a stint in Texas in the early ’00s, before eventually returning to Nashville.
“I don’t feel like I’ve seen anything in the time that I’ve been in country music that I haven’t seen in other eras,” he says. “My grandfather turned me on to Marty Robbins. Marty Robbins had pop crossover hits, right? He also did an entire record of gunfighter ballads. You think about Glen Campbell now and the reverence that [fans] have for his music — [but] ‘Countrypolitan’ was kind of like the bro country of that day. The stylistic changes that have happened, if you exist long enough in a certain area, you’re going to go through them. I feel lucky that people still get excited about me dropping a new record, right through all of these different phases.”
Young is eager to take his new material on the road. Sixteen years after he was playing covers as the leader of the house band at a Dallas country bar, he’ll launch his latest headlining tour in October. Tenpenny is on the bill too, and Young anticipates the two of them re-creating “At the End of a Bar” nightly.
“I find it really interesting that I have been around as long as I have but that I’m as young as I am,” Young says. “What’s probably changed the most is just my confidence — growing as a songwriter, growing as a producer, and continuing to find what my perspective is as an artist. This sounds like a really simple thing, but you are always taking a snapshot of yourself in time with every album you put out.”