How Chris Young (not-so) suddenly became one of country's biggest stars

Cowboy hat on chair

Nashville Star earned more eye-rolls than accolades during its six-season stint on the USA network from 2003 to 2008, but despite its mediocre ratings, its wildly uncool Prilosec OTC sponsorship and all its unfavorable comparisons to American Idol, the show actually had a knack for spotting talent.

Nashville Star’s first winner, Buddy Jewell, scored a pair of novelty hits (admit it: you liked Help Pour Out the Rain) and even a gold-certified album in 2003, and although he quickly faded into relative obscurity, a number of the show’s other alumni achieved more enduring success.

Miranda Lambert, who took third place during Jewell’s season, has gone on to become country’s reigning queen, while Kacey Musgraves, who finished in seventh place during season five, is earning massive buzz for the follow-up to her award-festooned debut. But Nashville Star’s biggest success story is undoubtedly Chris Young, who appeared on the show in 2006 at the age of 20. Young is the only winner that developed into, well, an actual Nashville star, thanks to the record deal with RCA the show earned him. Take a look at how charmingly lo-fi his winning moment in the finale was - and try not to sigh when Cowboy Troy and Wynonna awkwardly call themselves “Black Man and Red Robin”.

Chris Young’s success following the win wasn’t immediate. Nashville Star was not the same kind of celebrity-minting machine as American Idol was in its heyday. But Young had a voice that could not be denied – a smooth and rich baritone that could soar so far above the standard radio-friendly range that it left listeners saying “wow” – and although his first three singles failed to crack the top 30, RCA wisely continued to invest in their talented new signee.

Perhaps it took audiences some time to warm up to Young because he didn’t arrive on the scene as a fully conceptualised act with an obvious gimmick. He wasn’t channeling Mötley Crüe in brass knuckles and skull rings like Brantley Gilbert. He wasn’t doing jello shots at a house party like Sam Hunt. And he wasn’t fusing rap and hip-hop into country-fried party-pop like Florida Georgia Line. Those artists had their own distinct brands of swagger, and those styles have worked in their favour. But Young, a more mild-mannered personality, was never going to out-gyrate the bros or wear beaded tassle necklaces over fitted designer T-shirts. Heck, he wouldn’t even take off his Stetson for his first two album cycles.

But with the release of his second album, Young nonetheless began quietly racking up radio smashes. In 2009 he achieved his first No 1 single with slinky come-on Gettin’ You Home, and followed that up with the anthemic ballad The Man I Want to Be, which also topped the chart. Then came Voices, Tomorrow (Young’s finest song, a simultaneous declaration of passionate love and inevitable regret) and You, all of which also hit No 1. Since that hot streak, he’s churned out huge hits like Who I Am With You, a ballad so resolutely earnest that it would sound cheesy if not for Young’s commanding vocal power, and Aw Naw, his only outright stab at bro-country. Young’s Grammy-commissioned cover of Eric Clapton’s Change the World wasn’t ever a single, but it’s so good that it’s worth a listen anyway.

Young has co-written the vast majority of his singles (worth noting: you’d be hard-pressed to find any single on country radio penned by just one person these days), and when he isn’t personally involved, he has a good ear for choosing broadly relatable relationship lyrics set to big, bold hooks. His songs are sturdy affairs, delivered with simple charisma and, on the bigger productions, straightforward gusto and sex appeal. They fly right down the middle lane of country music – they are modern without chasing every sonic trend in the endless quest for relevance, and they are classically instrumental without scaring away generations of listeners unfamiliar with any country great named Hank. In many ways, Young’s neo-traditional sound, which is not dissimilar to Josh Turner’s, represents a way forward for country in the inevitable post-bro phase.

Three weeks ago, Young released his latest single, I’m Comin’ Over, a ballad about late-night passion that squarely evokes Tomorrow. As Billboard’s Tom Roland has noted, it nicely fuses steel guitar with programmed drums, and succeeds primarily thanks to Young’s roaring vocals. The song sold very well out of the gate – finishing in second place in its first week on the downloads chart behind only Little Big Town’s Girl Crush, which has become a downright behemoth. You could almost hear the collective “Well, look at that” from the impressed Nashville media, who realized that Young had (not-so) suddenly developed into a genuine sales force. It seems that Young is now in the process of graduating from mid-pack singer to the official country A-lister.

That said, Young isn’t quite ready to swipe the gleaming smile off of Luke Bryan’s face or steal Blake Shelton’s chair on The Voice, and that’s all right. Those guys are as talented at being charming media personalities as they are musicians, and having a loose, showboat side really does matter in today’s country music stratosphere. Young doesn’t immediately excel at being this kind of professional celebrity, and that has actually worked in his favour. He has developed his craft below the radar, and built a foundation on music alone without the intense scrutiny or accolades of mainstream fame. While that may be a less than enticing approach for many aspiring artists, it has allowed Young to focus on quality first as he learned how to showcase his best asset: that incredible voice. Young can belt and croon better than any other man in mainstream country music at the moment. Fortunately, it seems like the world is finally starting to wake up and take notice.

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Grady Smith, for theguardian.com on Friday 5th June 2015 16.17 Europe/London

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