When Chris Janson made his Grand Ole Opry debut on February 15th, 2013, dressed in a black leather jacket and baseball cap – which he promptly removed out of reverence for the stage – he was struggling to push his should-have-been-a-hit “Better I Don’t” up the charts and nearing the unexpected end of a deal with a now defunct indie label. To Janson, though, the Opry appearance was a major victory, and had his career screeched to a halt the next morning, he’d have been just fine with that. His goals with country music, he said at the time, were to simply have a song played on the radio and perform on the Grand Ole Opry.
Janson reiterated those dreams on the Opry stage last week when, five years since his debut, he was officially inducted as a member of the Nashville institution by fellow member Garth Brooks. For the Opry, it could not have been a more perfect choice. In Janson, they receive a young artist who praises the long-running radio show nearly as much as he does Jesus and his wife, Kelly. He also appeals to both fans of today’s party-focused country, with populist radio hits like “Buy Me a Boat” and “Fix a Drink,” and more searching listeners, who connected with Janson from the very first time he sang his autobiographical “Holdin’ Her,” performed with co-writer James Otto, during his debut, and now offer him standing ovations when he croons his woke-bro piano ballad “Drunk Girl.”
But the Opry’s biggest return on investment in inducting Janson is his knowledge of – and willingness to respect – the genre’s past. Over his nearly 200 Grand Ole Opry appearances, Janson has made time in his sets not just for his own songs, but for those who came before: Merle Haggard with “Footlights,” Rodney Crowell and Waylon Jennings with “I Ain’t Living Long Like This” and even John Michael Montgomery, delivering an electric “Sold (The Grundy County Auction Incident)” with Keith Urban. (It was Urban who surprised Janson with the invitation to join the Opry). During his four-song induction performance on Tuesday night, he closed with Johnny Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues,” albeit speeded up in the style of one of his punk heroes, Social Distortion.
“The Opry doesn’t simply pass out invitations to the biggest stars with the most hits,” reads an explainer on induction on the Grand Ole Opry’s website. “Opry membership requires a passion for country music’s fans, a connection to the music’s history, and it requires commitment – even a willingness to make significant sacrifices to uphold that commitment.”
In Janson, who will make his next Opry appearance just a week after his induction, they’ve checked all those boxes.