Sean Green for The Boot
The singer is already a good 13 hours into his day at this point, having already performed for and individually greeted 500 fans at his fan club party, done half a dozen interviews, a photo shoot and a press conference, but if the pressure is getting to him, there's no sign of it. The CMA Music Festival performance he's about to give will be a pinnacle of sorts for the young Tennessean, who grew up attending the event (called Fan Fair back then) and who appears on the brink of major stardom with the success of his latest smash single, 'Tomorrow.'
For Chris, whose third album, 'Neon,' hits stores today, the event is one hell of a birthday party, filled with well-wishers, friends, and longtime devoted fans who all want a moment with or a glimpse of the rising superstar. Beginning his day at 8:00 AM at Nashville's Texas Troubadour Theater for his 10th annual fan club party, he comes ambling through the back doors into the green room of the theater, only to face a dozen handlers, managers, label execs, and various other industry types who are all awkwardly staring at him and hanging on his every move. Clad in a ball cap and jeans, he nervously laughs off the unexpected early morning attention by cracking a joke as he's hustled into a back corridor of the room and prepped about the party's events.
"Why do you have that? I don't think I like that," Chris jokes, as he eyeballs a copy of one of the first CDs he ever recorded as a teen. As they walk down a hallway towards the stage and the eager crowd of devoted attendees who seem much more like family than fans, the radio DJ helping emcee the party explains they will be auctioning the CDs off for St. Jude's Children's Research Hospital. Though tall and imposing walking through a crowd, the absence of his once trademark cowboy hat somehow makes Chris seem more approachable. He's also remarkably funny first thing in the morning for a guy who often makes his living working late into the night. "I'm never serious -- well, maybe about 10 percent of the time," he later admits, just one of the surprising revelations during this day in the life of one of country's hottest bachelors. About 50 percent of the fans in attendance have been on board with Chris since the very beginning, so the huge roar he receives as he walks onstage is no surprise.
"If any of you were wondering why I decided to do my fan club party so early ... I still don't know," says Chris, laughing as he tunes his guitar for the mini-show. "I'm still trying to figure that out. I woke up this morning, and looked at my alarm and was like WHY? So I think we'll play one that you know first.
"Hey, trust me," he adds. "You appreciate the ones that take off a lot more when you get a couple that tank, so thank you guys for supporting me before I had my record deal all the way up to this song," he adds, as he launches into 'Gettin' You Home (The Black Dress Song),' with the crowd happily singing along to every word. Pointing out his grandparents in the crowd, he reminisces on just how far he's come since starting out at 15, all ears and unbridled enthusiasm.
Sean Green for The Boot
"Things have sort of come full circle for us this year ... one of the biggest things obviously being I grew up in Murfreesboro (just south of Nashville) and ended up going to CMA Fest when it was Fan Fair, and am still going to it now -- just in a little bit of a different capacity. It's pretty cool just knowing that we're here, and in a few hours I'm going to be playing that song at LP Field."
With the crowd hanging on every word and note, Chris introduces some songs from 'Neon,' his first new album in three years. The collection is a group of songs that, fittingly, could stand up to the country classics on a dusty old neon-lit jukebox in the corner of any diner in small-town America. The singer-songwriter is rightfully proud of the selection of tearjerkers and beer-drainers, seven of which he co-wrote. With 500,000 copies of the debut single from the album, 'Tomorrow,' already sold, the CD seems poised for platinum-selling status. As he rolls through songs such as 'You' and 'Old Love Feels New,' the crowd gives their wholehearted approval, whistling, clapping and having the time of their lives.
"There's a lot of things that I am very thankful for," Chris admits between songs. "How many people came and saw me play at El Chico restaurant?"
"Woo hoo!" a woman screams at the top of her lungs, from the very back of the room.
"Yeah, that was it," Chris adds, laughing. "You were the only one. I just remember thinking the other day how I would drive an hour one way and an hour back, and play for an hour acoustic, probably terribly, because I was still trying to figure out how to play guitar, and I still am now. I was like, 'Wow they gave me $100 and food,' and I thought that was it! Man, I was like, 'I get free El Chico's and $100,' which by the time you subtract gas from that, it's nowhere near $100! But I feel really lucky and incredibly blessed ... I've got a great family, great fans, and great friends, and there's not a lot of people that can say that, so thank you guys for everything you've done."
Sean Green for The Boot
Calling out to a couple of the songwriters in the audience, slated to play following Chris, he muses on how clever they were to work a country legend's name into the title track of his new record. "I will say I got trumped on this one, and I want to ask, how did you guys manage to work Johnny Lee into that song that way? How long did that take? Oh man, you are great writers! They managed to rhyme 'put Johnny Lee on' into my song 'Neon.' I love that!"
Closing out the performance with his mega-hit 'Voices,' he notes that the song made history, being released twice and finally topping the chart. "This song has probably been one of the single biggest things that made me go wow in the past five years, and it's because now my name is in the record books next to Randy Travis."
Before exiting the stage, Chris hands out special gifts to his mom, his fan club president, and a few other significant people who have been with him throughout the past decade of his career. Ducking into a back room, he then does another quick interview with a TV crew as the masses line up to get a picture and autograph with him. An early appearance of Chris from 'Nashville Star' plays on a nearby video screen, another reminder of just how far he and his fans have come on their journey together. As the fans file in one-by-one for their moment with the Nashville star, he prepares a stack of coins he's handing out to each one of the 500 to commemorate the 10-year anniversary, and explains the significance of the coins and how his own collection started with his trips overseas to visit the troops.
"We wanted to do something special for the 10th anniversary," says the singer. "It just seemed to separate that from the normal party that we should give them a gift. I've been talking about going over to Iraq and have since come back, but one of the things they do over there and it's much more meaningful obviously, but they coin each other and everybody has their own coin. I've been coined a lot over there, and we thought what if we made a coin for the fan club and coined everybody as they come through the meet-and-greet line. It's a different kind of significance obviously, but it's something we could do for everybody and something special that everybody at that party could have ... there's only 500 people that have one of those. So I wanted to do something kind of different."
Sean Green for The Boot
Following four hours of signing, gripping and grinning, Chris heads home for a quick shower and change before making his way to LP Field downtown for another round of interviews and the biggest show of his life. He arrives at the stadium and is wheeled by golf cart to a nearby bus to chat with The Boot before going inside to face the throng of reporters and industry members who await him.
"The biggest difference this year for me at the festival has been trying to leave my booth in the convention hall," he admits. "I don't think I've ever had that much difficulty just trying to get back out the doors, which is a great thing! It's a great feeling when people surround you and you get like a little flash mob thing going on. It's nice. In the past, people were happy to see me, but this year it's almost like there's a little something extra behind it ... people are just really excited, and it's almost like they can kind of feel what's going on. Everything's building, everything's getting bigger and bigger, and it's a cool feeling."
Because the new CD has a range of romantic love songs along with a few requisite rowdy party tunes (including 'Save Water, Drink Beer'), naturally, the subject of his "hottest bachelor" status comes up. But does that make its way into his songwriting?
"I am a little bit of a romantic at heart, especially as a songwriter," he acknowledges. "Whenever I sit down, I don't mind writing a good uptempo love song. I try to write them from the perspective of where they're still a little manly. I don't feel I could write a song where a guy would say, 'Oh man, I don't know if I'd say that.' That's kind of the perspective that I try to go for which I think has kind of spurred the sexy thing that everybody keeps throwing at me. Manly love songs are the way guys want to speak to a woman, and the way a woman wants to be spoken to. It's trying to find a balance between those two."
As the timer goes off on our brief interview, Chris is whisked away by cart again, down into the bowels of the Titans football stadium, where he'll begin the obstacle course of interviews, photo shoots, EPK filming, and the formal CMA press conference. First up, during a photo shoot for USA Today, he flashes his irresistible dimples like a pro as the photographer runs him through the obligatory list of shots, including air guitar. "Really?" he asks, laughing, as he muses on how he looks "playing" before posing for the final shot.
Next up is an interview with overseas network the BBC, and this one could be trouble because his buddy, fellow artist Jace Everett, is at the mic. "Man, I am mic-ed up, so better be careful what you say," warns Chris as he hugs Jace, laughing. The two chat on the record for a moment before Chris heads off to knock out several more interviews, patiently answering essentially the same questions over and over -- about his smash single, his new CD, and his CMA performance on the big stage. After filming an EPK for the CMA, he's led into a room filled with journalists, and the room crackles with excitement. He fields a question about the importance of the event, expressing how much his fans have helped him reach the goal of stepping out onto the stage he's about to perform on for the very first time.
Sean Green for The Boot
"Fan support for me has been one of those things that throughout my career so far has always been important to ... each consecutive step I've made. You look at the fact that on my first album, I didn't have a radio hit on it. One of the reasons I got kept around was I was on a really great label, but the other was I had a lot of fans coming out there who said, 'We love the music, we want to support your music and we'll go buy a copy,' and obviously that's built over the years and helped get me opportunities. A lot of that stuff comes because of that fan support. That's really what CMA Music Fest has been based on since the beginning is that artist-fan connection. So it's always been a big deal for me."
Near the end of the conference, a door opens and tons of huge, colorful balloons stream into the room via one of Chris' people. The crowd of journalists surprises Chris with shouts of "Happy Birthday!" singing to him as he's handed a huge arrangement of bright yellow cupcakes, which spell out "26" to commemorate the big day. He seems genuinely moved as he thanks the crowd for singing, "a song I know everybody hates to sing! But this is definitely the best birthday present I could have had ... cause 26, there's really nothing different from 25, except you're closer to 30 than you are 20!"
With that, Chris is quickly shepherded out a back door and down the hall to prepare for his big moment on the big stage. A few minutes later, thunderous applause erupts as he takes the massive stage at LP Field, where he can often be found in the stands for Tennessee Titans football games. Kicking off CMA Music Festival's Saturday night concert in front of 60,000 rabid fans without a hint of nerves, he launches into the first song of his set, racing around the stage and grinning from ear to ear at the sheer sight of just how far he's come from that little corner stage in El Chico all those years ago. And with unanimous applause and adoration from the audience, he sends 25 off into the distance with an amazing memory, and looks ahead to what just may be the biggest year of his adult life yet.