An air of high expectation and inevitability has always surrounded Chris Young. Anyone who heard him sing, and anyone who experienced his poised and engaging stage show, inevitably decreed that this tall fellow with the friendly smile had what it takes. When they found out he also wrote the best of his songs, people would just smile, shake their heads and say, "That boy is going to be a star."
Indeed, Young lives up to everyone's predictions with his self-titled debut on RCA Records. Working with Kenny Chesney producer Buddy Cannon, Young has created a potent debut that puts an up-to-date, contemporary edge on traditional country music.
"For as long as I can remember, I told everyone I would be a country singer," says Young with the straightforward, aw-shucks attitude that has already won him a nation of fans. "I've always been sure that this was what I was going to do. I didn't know if I'd be successful, but I knew I would be singing, even if it meant doing it on the street with a cup in front of me. I love it that much."
Like his heroes Keith Whitley and Randy Travis, the 21-year-old seems to own an old soul and a lived-in voice custom-designed to sing country music. Like those idols, he ushers country's classic sound into the modern era, energizing the genre's core themes and values by making them as current as tomorrow's news.
"I don't worry about labels," he says. "I know that whenever I sing the music I love, I see people my age, and people of all ages, really responding to it. I know they hear the same things I hear in the music. It's about life-all the joy and all the heartbreak of living, right there in three minutes and 22 seconds."
As it turns out, that's the length of Young's first single, "Drinkin' Me Lonely," the self-written song that's already made a star of the hometown boy from Murfreesboro, Tenn. He'd already been labeled as the frontrunner among finalists of the 2006 version of the television talent series Nashville Star, when, on a show dedicated to contestants performing their own original songs, Young floored the crowd with this restrained, emotion-rich slice of classic country craftsmanship. They could've given him the crown that night.
"I've always believed in that song," he says of the highly anticipated single, which he wrote with Larry Wayne Clark. "But I've had so many people e-mail me and tell me they love that song, and I've had the same reaction when going around meeting radio people. There's a theory in Nashville that you don't start your career with a ballad, so maybe it goes against the grain. But I feel real confident about it because it's already opened doors for me."
Young's debut shows how deep his talent goes. He reaches into his own song bag for the Southern rocker "Lay It On Me" and the celebratory "Small Town, Big Time," both co-written with Tim James.
Meanwhile, the touching "Center of My World," which Young co-wrote with veteran David Lee Murphy, shows how well he can handle a believable love song. It's a tune destined to be a future prom-night, wedding-party favorite.
"Songwriting became this obsession early on," he says. "I wrote my first song in middle school. I just kept working at it, and at some point it becomes natural, like speaking. I love singing and being in front of an audience, but I love writing songs just as much."
He figures he came by his musical obsession naturally. Some of his earliest memories involved listening to his grandfather, one-time Louisiana Hayride performer Richard Yates, play piano and guitar at family gatherings.
"He gave up his career when he married my grandmother because she didn't want him playing in bars," Young says. "But he never stopped loving music. Hearing him play music changed me somehow. I understood why he loved it so much."
By grade school, Young performed in children's theater, leading family and friends to discover his innate singing talent. The youngster enjoyed the full support of his parents from the start; whenever he asked for help, they came through without hesitation, whether it meant paying for vocal lessons or buying his first guitar.
"A lot of parents discourage kids from music, because they know it's a long shot and it can be disappointing," he says. "But I got to do what most kids didn't because my parents always encouraged me and supported my dream."
In high school, while most tall and handsome young men devoted themselves to sports, Young focused on getting better at music. With help from his family, he and his friends rented out a storage unit and, despite a lack of air conditioning in the intense Southern heat, they practiced daily, giving up summer afternoons to practice music.
"It would be 98 degrees outside and even hotter inside that little metal box," Young says with a laugh. "But we'd set up the drum kit and the amplifiers and play all day long."
His tenacity paid off. Young and his partners quickly started getting gigs at prestigious Nashville music clubs like 3rd & Lindsley. The week the A-student took his finals as a senior in high school, he put out his first album. His earliest fan-club members still treasure it like gold.
He went to college, taking music business classes, first at Belmont University in Nashville, then at Middle Tennessee State University in Murfreesboro. After two years of studying, he was performing more than 150 shows a year. "It's hard to perform three shows a week and stay in an honor's program," said the high-achiever. "So I put my classes aside for the time being to pursue music full-time."
Young soon gained the attention of talent scouts from leading Nashville record labels and top music publishing companies, impressing them with his voice, his songwriting and his hard-work ethic. The Music Row insiders encouraged him, but also suggested the teen singer continue to write and gain seasoning.
Still, he grew impatient. When a Texas nightclub agent invited him to front the house band at the famous Cowboy's honky-tonk in Arlington, Texas, Young excitedly took the job. "I got to perform four nights a week in front of an audience of Texans, who are the most discriminating country music fans around," he says. "In Texas, you better impress them, or they'll push you off the stage-especially if you're not from there. Fortunately, I got a great reception and picked up a whole lot of fans."
One of his more faithful fans insisted he audition for Nashville Star. Young at first balked, until the friend told him that this year's winner would, for the first time, get a recording contract with RCA Records.
"When I heard that, I got interested," he says. "RCA has always been the label I wanted to be on. It's where my heroes recorded, guys like Keith Whitley, John Anderson, Ronnie Milsap and Alan Jackson. I knew they were the best of the best."
The friend paid for Young's ticket to audition in Houston. The rest is history, as Young stood head and shoulders above the competition at every level. The fans and judges at every step recognized him as the star he is.
"I've always felt this was my destiny," says the singer. "But I also realized early on that hard work is as important as talent. I love to work just as much as I love music. So I'm having the time of my life right now.
"Still, I'm waiting for that day when I hear my song being played on the radio next to George Strait and Brooks & Dunn. That's when I'll celebrate. At that point, I'll know my work is just beginning, but I'll also know that dreams do come true."